Lt. Gov. Randy McNally is calling on Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, to be more cautious with his verbiage after sidelined congressional candidate Morgan Ortagus lashed out at Nicely, saying he made an antisemitic comment.
"While I do not believe that Frank Niceley is antisemitic in his heart, his recent comments were clearly insensitive. I am hopeful he will be more careful about his words going forward," McNally said Wednesday in a statement to the Tennessee Lookout.
The same day she was ousted from the ballot for the 5th District congressional seat, Ortagus, a former spokeswoman for the State Department and Navy Reserve office, blasted Niceley for saying he didn't think former President Donald Trump cared whether she was removed from the ballot, that only Jewish members of the Trump family supported Ortagus.
According to NBC News reports, Niceley — who often refers to himself as the Senate historian — said, "I think Jared Kushner – he's Jewish, she's Jewish – I think Jared will be upset. Ivanka will be upset. I don't think Trump cares."
"Antisemitism is the oldest and one of the most vile forms of hatred on this earth, and Sen. Niceley should be ashamed of his repeated antisemitic rhetoric," Ortagus said in a statement. "I am incredibly proud to call myself a part of the Jewish people, and I have always called out antisemitism when I see it in all of its forms. I will condemn anyone who traffics in this hate-mongering. Sen. Niceley's repulsive words could not be more clear in disparaging the Jewish people. This racism cannot stand."
Niceley spoke after members of the State Executive Committee and Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Scott Golden opted to kick Ortagus, Robby Starbuck and Baxter Lee off the ballot for the newly-drawn 5th Congressional District. The Legislature created an opening for a Republican candidate when it split Davidson County into three districts, causing longtime Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper to retire. State Sen. Heidi Campbell is the only Democrat to qualify for the race.
Niceley defended himself Wednesday morning in a statement: "In an extended interview with NBC News, a fake news reporter decided to take a small portion of my comments out of context in order to manufacture a controversy to distract people from the fact that Morgan Ortagus was declared ineligible for the ballot by both the Tennessee Republican Party and the General Assembly. Let me be clear: I have nothing but respect for the Jewish people and the state of Israel. Attempting to construe my off-hand comments about the Trump family as antisemitism is unfair and inaccurate."
Numerous Republicans, including Niceley, were upset early this year that Ortagus moved to Tennessee within the past year and drew an endorsement from Trump before she even announced her candidacy for the seat.
Niceley, a supporter of former House Speaker Beth Harwell in the 5th District race, passed legislation in late March requiring a three-year residency for congressional candidates in Tennessee.
Gov. Bill Lee let the legislation become law without his signature after the April 7 candidate qualifying deadline passed, ensuring it would not affect the Ortagus candidacy.
Niceley has made it clear he wasn't overly concerned whether his bill would keep Ortagus off the ballot, only that she gained a reputation as a "carpetbagger" or "Gucci-bagger" who moved to Tennessee simply to run for Congress.
A spokesman for Harwell did not return a call Wednesday to see if she would distance herself from Niceley.
State Sen. Todd Gardenhire, a Chattanooga Republican who voted against Niceley's residency requirement bill, didn't address the religious aspect of Niceley's comments but reiterated his opposition Wednesday to the legislation. He said he had not heard Niceley's initial comments.
"I care, not because of who or what somebody is, but we can't, the Republican Party can't, start picking and choosing winners and losers. ... If anybody wants to run, let 'em run," said Gardenhire, the lone opposition in a 32-1 vote.
Ortagus has not said whether she will take legal action to overturn her expulsion from the primary ballot but noted Tuesday her team is evaluating options.
She contends she meets all qualifications to run as a Republican.
"I'm further disappointed that the party insiders at the Tennessee Republican Party do not seem to share my commitment to President Trump's America First policies," she said.
Niceley's comments were exacerbated by his statement on the Senate floor last week supporting legislation designed to punish the homeless for camping on public property.
During debate, Niceley said Adolph Hitler was homeless for two years before becoming the leader of Germany and in that time worked on his views and ability to connect with people, enabling him to enter the history books. Niceley pointed out that today's homeless people can turn their lives around and become productive members of society, or, in Hitler's case, "unproductive."
Read more at TennesseeLookout.com.