NASHVILLE — A Soddy-Daisy political newcomer who spent more than $20,000 in a planned challenge to U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Ooltewah, in the Republican primary in August said he was forced to abandon the effort after running into a Tennessee Republican Party buzz saw.
Kenny Morgan, 55, was disqualified because of his voting record in GOP primaries. He has not voted in one since 2012, and the party's rules require a candidate to have voted in three of the past four Republican primaries to run for the party's nomination.
That threshold was two of the last four elections until 2017, when the requirement increased.
Morgan, a consistent Republican primary voter from 1990 to 2012, said his long history in the party should count for something. Morgan, who has worked in the health care arena for years, said the rules insulate career politicians from authentic competition.
In recent years, the GOP's State Executive Committee has moved to tighten the definition of a bona fide Republican. Last year, the party implemented a fee schedule for candidates to run as a Republican in contests ranging from constable to the U.S. House and Senate. The price tag to run in a GOP congressional primary is $2,500.
"Are we as a party determining who is going to be primary candidates based on what kind of Republicans they are, whether they are more moderate or centrist Republican versus extreme conservative, ultra-right candidate?" Morgan said in a telephone interview.
Morgan said that from 2013 to around September 2016 he was living in Cincinnati, Ohio, where his wife, a pediatrician, was in a fellowship program. In fall of 2016, the couple returned to the Chattanooga area, he said.
His Tennessee voting record shows he voted consistently in nearly all Republican primaries and general elections, from November 1990 through November 2012. Then came his move to Cincinnati. He didn't vote in state primary or general elections here in 2014, records reflect.
Nor did he vote in the 2016 GOP presidential primary or state primaries. Morgan said his move back to Tennessee came in September of that year and that he voted in November 2016 for Republican nominee Donald Trump in the general election. He did not vote in the 2020 presidential primary nor the August state GOP and Congressional primaries.
Morgan said he didn't vote in the 2020 presidential primary because Trump was unopposed but that he voted for the then-president in November. Records reflect he voted in the November general election.
Last year, Morgan didn't vote in the state House District 29 primary election where Republican Greg Vital of Georgetown ran and won. But records show Morgan voted in the general election, and Morgan said he cast his ballot for Vital.
Tennessee GOP chair Scott Golden said Republicans want activity within their organization, and they want people to vote.
"Those are the two necessary requirements to be a part of the Republican Party," Golden said. "We want that for everybody, but particularly if you want to be a candidate for the Republican Party. If you don't want to be a Republican, go pick up a petition and run as an independent."
Morgan said he considered running as an independent but decided he couldn't win in the November election.
Hamilton County Republican Party officials, Morgan said, also told him to speak with Ken Meyer, a State Executive Committee member who as a former state representative represented East Ridge.
"That conversation was more of an interview about how Republican I am, and then it continued throughout the conversation, does Chuck Fleischmann deserve to be fired?" Morgan said. "My response to that was I don't know if he deserves to be fired, but he does deserve competition. And that's been my thought throughout this is that I don't know if people want to re-elect him or not, but he does deserve somebody from the same party running against him during the primary."
Meyer said in a telephone interview that the rules are there for a purpose, and there is a process for people like Morgan.
"If he can get enough support, he can potentially overcome that," Meyer said. "But he has to get the support from all the county leaders and then go the SEC [State Executive Committee]. It's an uphill battle for him. While people can claim all they want, the ground is have you been involved, what are you doing [for Republicans]?"
Meyer also said that when he and Morgan spoke in what he characterized as a "friendly conversation," Morgan raised questions about then-presidential candidate Trump having run as a Republican nationally despite having voted in Democratic primaries in the past.
"My point was [Trump] didn't ask to break the rules, or ask for special treatment, he played by the rules and won," Meyer said.
Morgan said he got a sense that GOP officials were guarding against having RINO candidates — a term frequently used by Trump to deride "Republicans in name only."
"And I had a concern about that as well, because who is defining, who is defining who is a 'Republican in name only' and how do you get classified or don't get classified as a 'Republican in name only'?" Morgan said.
Asked to describe himself politically, Morgan said he's a faith-based conservative and a humanitarian. He said he was especially concerned about health care issues.
Fleischmann, who is seeking his seventh two-year term in Congress, said he has not met or talked with Morgan and stressed that the party bylaws for candidacy are set by the state Republican Party leadership, not elected officials.
"I've never met or heard directly from Mr. Morgan, and I don't think he even ever filed any qualifying papers to be a candidate," Fleischmann said when approached at a recent press event in Cleveland, Tennessee. "I've filed my papers and as far as I know I am the only Republican on the ballot. I was not privy to his discussions.
"We are an open party, and we continue to grow by leaps and bounds in Tennessee."
Fleischmann, who easily won his last congressional election in 2020 with more than two-thirds of the votes cast, said he expects the GOP to gain a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives in the November election and he expects to become chair of one of the key House Appropriation Committee panels. Such chairs are referred to as "cardinals" in the Congress and often wield great influence in shaping the federal budget in the areas the subcommittees oversee.
The deadline for candidates to qualify for the ballot for the Aug. 4 primary is noon on April 7.