Tennessee Senate OKs bill that would block 2 congressional hopefuls from running in primary

Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, is proposing new qualifications for candidates for a primary election for Congress. (AP File Photo/Erik Schelzig)

NASHVILLE - Two high-profile Tennessee Republican newcomers running in the state's redrawn 5th Congressional District would be barred from doing so under a bill approved Monday night by the GOP-controlled state Senate by a 31-1 vote margin.

Senate Bill 2616 seeks to impose a new three-year residency requirement for candidates running in U.S. Senate and congressional Republican and Democratic party primary elections.

While opponents questioned the measure's constitutionality - since the U.S. Constitution sets qualifications for members of Congress and the U.S. Senate - sponsor Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, contended it can pass legal muster, arguing it deals with political primaries and doesn't affect a candidate's ability to run in general elections.

"They can as an independent, Bull Moose party, Green Party, whatever they want to," Niceley told colleagues in the Republican-dominated chamber. "Now this thing is not a permanent thing. They [newcomer candidates] will live here a while and learn what interstates run through [Nashville], and then they can run."

Niceley brought the bill as two relatively recent Republican transplants to the Metro Nashville area have announced GOP primary bids in the 5th Congressional District, which until recent GOP redistricting was a long-time Democratic bastion. Heavily Democratic Nashville was divided so that its voters are now outnumbered in each of three congressional districts by GOP voters in surrounding areas.

One of the transplants to the newly drawn 5th District is Morgan Ortagus, a former State Department spokeswoman who moved to Nashville about a year ago and has picked up the endorsement of her one-time boss, former President Donald Trump, but has not voted here. She would not qualify to run in the state under the proposed law.

It also would affect another announced candidate, Robby Starbuck, a blogger and director of music videos and commercials who moved from California to Williamson County two years ago but has yet to vote here. He would not meet the three-year requirement.

Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, voiced reservations about Niceley's bill last week in the Senate State and Local Government Committee. He asked Niceley what effect it would have on people who have already qualified to run for a party's nomination.

"Will this keep someone off the ballot who has already qualified?" Gardenhire asked.

Niceley replied that the candidate qualifying date has not yet passed.

"If we pass this bill, they will not be able to run," Niceley said.

"I think in the middle of the process, we should not try to stop anybody" from running, Gardenhire responded. He cast the lone no vote in committee and on the Senate floor.

Besides Ortagus and Starbuck, other officially declared Republican candidates include former Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell of Nashville, who lost a 2018 bid for governor in the Republican primary, coming in fourth place in a fight in which political newcomer Bill Lee won the primary and went on to win the general election.

Niceley and Harwell are friends. But Niceley told the Times Free Press he's friends with Maury County Mayor Andy Ogles, a Republican, who has also shown interest in running in the 5th District.

"You know this morning, Ortagus couldn't name the three interstates that run through Nashville on the radio," Niceley said. "We need somebody who knows how to pronounce Maury County and Sequatchie County. It's just ridiculous."

Ortagus issued a statement on the legislation.

"I'll leave state matters to the state legislature," she said. "I'm focused on earning the support of 5th District Tennesseans who want a conservative fighter to defend President Trump's agenda."

Efforts to reach Starbuck were unsuccessful Monday night.

As the bill came through the Senate committees on Feb. 15, Niceley argued both the U.S. and Tennessee constitutions are "silent" over residency issues to run for Congress or U.S. Senate.

Legislative attorney Josh Houston said in response to committee questions that while attempts to change candidate qualifications for Congress and U.S. Senate have been made in the past, they have all been declared unconstitutional.

"You have to be a resident on the day of the election," Houston said, according to the Constitution.

Niceley's bill originally would have required candidates for Congress or U.S. Senate to have voted in the three previous elections. He said he decided to back off that and go for the three-year residency requirement, noting that is in the Tennessee Constitution for state House and state Senate candidates.

"I've said for a while, if you're going to represent Nashville, you at least ought to be able to find a honky-tonk or know something Middle Tennessee," Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro, a Nashville Democrat and attorney who voted for Niceley's bill, told the Times Free Press after the vote.

He said he doesn't think the bill stops Ortagus from running for Congress.

"It stops somebody from running in a primary, and that's a really different thing from a legal standpoint," Yarbro said.

Asked if he thought the legislation could withstand a constitutional challenge, Yarbro said there's no question it can.

Starbuck has picked up endorsements from two out-of-staters: U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Georgia, and U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky.

Besides Harwell, Ortagus and Starbuck, retired Tennessee National Guard Brig. Gen. Kurt Winstead has also announced a run.

Other potential Republican candidates include Ogles and Nashville businessman Baxter Lee.

Also mulling a bid is Tres Wittum, who formerly lived in Chattanooga and is a legislative research analyst to Senate Finance Committee chair Bo Watson, R-Hixson.

The Tennessee Journal reported Monday that Wittum was among potential 5th District candidates introducing himself to Wilson County Republicans at a county party event over the weekend. Wittum once weighed a 2012 challenge to U.S. Chuck Fleischmann, an Ooltewah Republican, but he never filed to run.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.