Many national and local news outlets have reported inaccurately about the process by which the Tennessee Republican Party (TRP) disqualified three candidates from the August 4, 2022 GOP primary ballot in Tennessee’s 5th Congressional District on April 19, 2022.
In the immediate aftermath of this decision made by the TRP in accordance with its bylaws and the laws of Tennessee, Robby Starbuck (legal name Robert Starbuck Newsom), one of the three disqualified candidates, delivered a series of press interviews and social media statements in which he made false claims about the integrity of the TRP’s process in handling his disqualification.
Among the potentially defamatory statements made about the TRP and members of the State Executive Committee (SEC) by Starbuck since his permanent removal from the August 4 Republican primary ballot in TN-5 are the following:
- In a series of tweets, Starbuck compared the process to Cuba’s Communist election system. “In Cuba they have sham elections where the party decides which candidates are allowed to run. That’s what we have in Tennessee now thanks to the State Executive Committee. My family didn’t come from Cuba just to watch America become Cuba. Not without a fight. Freedom matters.”
- “Being voted off means that they’re saying I’m not actually a Republican, so I can’t run as one. This is disgusting, historic corruption,” Starbuck tweeted.
- “Inside the district you have a lot of horse trading between people and backroom politics and somebody came up with the idea to use this Democrat catch-all that’s supposed to get them out of our elections to catch us instead, the leaders in the race, especially Morgan and I, we’re polling at the top, to clear the path for people who are going to be controllable by the Tennessee GOP,” Starbuck told NewsMax.
Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), a supporter of Morgan Ortagus, one of the three disqualified candidates, also made false claims about the integrity of the TRP’s process and members of the SEC:
- “17 people who are tools of parochial interest disenfranchised Tennessee voters,” Senator Graham tweeted. “This type of good ole boy politics and corruption needs to end in the Republican Party,” the U.S. Senator from South Carolina continued.
- “If you are looking for Exhibit A of political corruption and Good ole Boy politics, you need to look no further than #TN-5. I can’t imagine having the 2024 Republican National Convention in a state that would allow this type of corrupt politics,” Graham tweeted.
In order to set the record straight, The Tennessee Star is presenting this factual account of the process by which the TRP disqualified three candidates from the GOP primary ballot in TN-5:
On February 6, 2022, Governor Bill Lee (R-TN) signed into law a redistricting map that turned Tennessee’s 5th Congressional District from a “Safe Democrat” seat into a “Likely Republican” seat. Two weeks earlier, on January 25, the incumbent, Rep. Jim Cooper (D-TN-5) announced that he would not seek re-election to the seat in the district he has represented since 2003, calling the new boundaries of the district unfair but not likely to be reversed in a potential court challenge.
By the filing deadline of April 7, a flood of candidates – 12 in total – filed papers to get on the August 4 Republican primary ballot in TN-5 as candidates.
On April 19, three of those 12 candidates – Morgan Ortagus, Robby Starbuck, and Baxter Lee – were permanently removed from the August 4 GOP primary ballot in Tennessee’s 5th Congressional District by the Tennessee Republican Party State Executive Committee (SEC). Their Republican bona fide status was challenged and all three had an opportunity to request that the SEC restore their names to the GOP primary ballot and present their case individually to members of the committee.
The 17-member committee of the SEC that, under the bylaws, have the authority to decide on the merits of the appeals to their removal, denied those requests. The appeals of all three now-disqualified candidates failed in persuading the committee that they met either of the two required standards to be determined to have “bona fide” Tennessee Republican status necessary to be eligible for inclusion on the GOP primary ballot for an elected public office.
The first standard required the challenged candidate to have voted in three of the four most recent statewide Tennessee Republican primaries.
Starbuck clearly failed that standard, having not voted in Tennessee’s two most recent statewide GOP primaries, held in 2020, while a registered voter in Tennessee.
Ortagus failed this standard on two grounds. First, since she was a resident of D.C. in 2020 and New York in 2016 and 2018, she was not registered to vote in Tennessee and did not vote in any of the four most recent statewide Tennessee primaries conducted in August 2016, August 2018, March 2020, and August 2020. Second, the Ortagus argument also incorrectly asserted that the “portability” provisions of the bylaws as it relates to establishing “bona fide” Republican status for the purpose of being a candidate for the SEC should also apply to the “bona fide” Tennessee Republican status for the purpose of being a candidate in a GOP primary for elected public office. Even if that incorrect “portability” argument were to be applied in Ortagus’ appeal, she would not meet that standard since she did not participate in the primary caucus and convention process in New York in 2016 and 2018, when she was registered to vote in that state.
Baxter Lee failed this standard because he voted in the March 2020 Democrat presidential primary, and voted in only two of the four most recent Tennessee Republican primaries — the August 2020 Republican primary, the August 2018 Republican primary. He did not vote in the August 2016 Republican primary.
The second standard required that the challenged candidate be vouched for as a “bona fide” Tennessee Republican “to the satisfaction” of the 17-member committee. Letters vouching for all three challenged candidates were received and reviewed by the committee.
The criteria used by the 17-member committee in determining whether these vouched for but challenged candidates were “bona fide” Tennessee Republicans “to their satisfaction” may have included some of the following:
- How long they participated in supporting the Tennessee Republican Party
- What type of participation was cited – was it to support the party, or was it to advance their own candidacy?
- Their voting record. For instance, in the case of Robby Starbuck, how credible was the claim by those who vouched for him that he was a “bona fide” Tennessee Republican when he failed to vote in the two Tennessee statewide Republican primaries in 2020? In the case of Baxter Lee, how credible was the claim by those who vouched that he was “a bona fide” Tennessee Republican when he voted in the 2020 Tennessee Democrat Presidential Preference primary?
- How long they lived in and were registered to vote in the state of Tennessee. In the case of Morgan Ortagus, she did not live in Tennessee until 2021, and did not register to vote in Tennessee until November 2021. In the case of Robby Starbuck, he did not register to vote in Tennessee until July 2019. He claimed to have rented a house in Tennessee in December 2018.
After a thorough review of the appeal documents submitted by the three challenged candidates, the 17-member committee voted against restoring all three challenged candidates to the August 4 Tennessee Republican primary ballot.
- The vote against restoring Robby Starbuck to the ballot was 13 to 3.
- The vote against restoring Morgan Ortagus to the ballot was 13 to 3.
- The vote against restoring Baxter Lee to the ballot was 10 to 6.
Subsequent to the April 19 vote that confirmed the disqualification of Starbuck, Ortagus, and Baxter Lee, and in accordance with state law, Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Scott Golden transmitted a letter to Tennessee Coordinator of Elections Mark Goins on April 21 that Ortagus, Starbuck, and Baxter Lee were permanently removed from the August 4, 2022 Tennessee Republican primary ballot in the 5th Congressional District, as The Tennessee Star reported.
The governance of the Tennessee Republican Party rests with a 66-member State Executive Committee (SEC), which consists of two committee members from each of the state’s 33 State Senate districts, who are elected to four-year terms in the statewide Republican primary election held in the same year of the state’s gubernatorial election. The current 65 members (one slot is vacant) were elected in the August 2018 statewide Republican primary election in which Gov. Bill Lee (R-TN) was selected as the party’s nominee. Lee easily won the November 2018 general election, and was inaugurated as governor of Tennessee in January 2019.
A new 66-member SEC will be elected to four-year terms in the August 4, 2022 statewide Republican primary election. The SEC selects the party chairman, who runs the day-to-day operations of the TRP, but reports to the SEC at regularly held meetings.
The current party chairman, Scott Golden, was elected to that post in 2016.
Previous party chairmen of The Tennessee Republican Party include Chris Devaney, who served in that role from 2009 to 2015, and Chip Saltsman, who served in that role from 1999 to 2001.
Tennessee is an open primary state, meaning voters do not register by party, but declare their party affiliation on primary election day by stating which party’s primary they wish to vote in.
1993 to 2011
The current bylaws of the Tennessee Republican Party were proposed in 1993 and adopted and finalized in 1994. Since 1994, the bylaws have been amended by the SEC at least 15 times.
Since 1994, the bylaws have explicitly stated (see Article III, Section 1 B) that the term “Bona fide Tennessee Republican,” which specifies the requirement for candidates eligible to run for public office in Republican primaries, is defined in Article IX, Section 1 of the bylaws.
From 1994 to 2017, Article IX Section 1 defined the requirements for a candidate to be determined to be a “bona fide” Tennessee Republican eligible to run for public office in a Republican primary as a person who met any one of the following three criteria:
- Any individual who is actively involved in the Tennessee Republican Party,
- Any individual who has voted in at least two (2) of the four (4) most recent Statewide Republican primary elections
- Any individual who is vouched for in writing to the satisfaction of the State Chairman as a bona fide Republican, such as by an officer of the TRP, a member of the SEC, CEC of the County where the individual resides, or a Republican elected official. The State Chairman may require additional verification that the individual in question is indeed a bona fide Republican and shall have final authority to make the determination.
Notably, this section of the bylaws dealt specifically with the “bona fide” Tennessee Republican requirements for candidates for public office, those offices being U.S. Senator from Tennessee, member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Tennessee, Governor of Tennessee, Tennessee State Senator, Tennessee State Representative, County Mayor, and other local governmental offices.
A separate and distinct section of the bylaws (Article III) dealt with the the requirements to be a “bona fide” Republican, a term distinctly different from the term “bona fide” Tennessee Republican, for the purpose of running to be a member of the State Executive Committee, a position which is NOT a public office:
- Prior to his filing (as a candidate for the State Executive Committee), he shall have voted in the last three Statewide Republican primaries in his county of residence during those primary elections.
Since 1994, the bylaws have provided for a process by which the “bona fide” Republican status of candidates can be challenged. That process begins with the removal of the challenged candidate from the primary ballot, provides for an opportunity for challenged candidates to appeal and an adjudication procedure by which those appeals will be heard and evaluated, culminating in either the disqualification of that candidate from the primary ballot or their restoration to the ballot.
Article IX Section 2 of the bylaws outlines the challenge process:
Section 2. If a person’s bona fide status is challenged, the challenge shall be made to the State Chairman from at least two (2) individual registered voters (within the district in which the challenged candidate has filed to run) who have voted in at least three (3) of the last four (4) most recent Statewide Republican primary elections. Such a challenge must be made no later than five (5) days before the deadline for removal of a candidate’s name from a ballot under TCA Section 2-5-204 or otherwise, or any other applicable deadline. The challenge shall be resolved pursuant to the standards and procedures set forth in Section 1 above. The SEC hereby delegates to the State Chairman the authority to communicate to the appropriate election law officials the decision as to whether or not the challenged individual shall be considered a bona fide Republican for the purposes in question.
December 3, 2011 – In 2011, the SEC passed an amendment which allowed for the “portability” of voting history for “bona fide” Republicans eligible to run for membership in the SEC. This amendment explicitly did not apply to the “bona fide” Tennessee Republican standard for those seeking to run in the Republican primary as candidates for public office:
- Pursuant to the minutes from the December 3, 2011 SEC Meeting, the phrase referencing “the last three Republican primaries in his county of residence,” was approved with the understanding that this would not require one to have voted in three primaries in the same residence. This allows for an individual [who seeks to run as a candidate for the SEC] to have moved from county to county and state to state.
August 2016 Tennessee statewide GOP primary – (4th most recent statewide Tennessee Republican primary) – Robby Starbuck, one of the three TN-5 candidates who were disqualified from the GOP primary ballot by the SEC on April 19, 2022 and, by Tennessee statute, removed from the ballot on April 21, 2022 – did not vote in this primary, as he was a resident and registered voter in California at the time. Morgan Ortagus, another of the TN-5 disqualified candidates, did not vote in this primary, as she was a resident and registered voter in New York at the time.
August 2017 – In August of 2017 the TRP amended its bylaws with respect to the requirements for a candidate for public office to be determined to be a “bona fide” Tennessee Republican.
Instead of meeting any one of three standards, candidates now had to meet the first of those previous three standards – being active in the Tennessee Republican Party, and one of two standards:
- One of those two standards – being vouched for in writing as a “bona fide” Republican to the satisfaction of the party chairman – was exactly the same as one of the three previous standard
- And the second of those two standards – having voted in three of the four most recent statewide Republican primaries – being more stringent than the earlier third standard, which only required an individual to have voted in two of the four most recent statewide Republican primaries.
According to sources familiar with the process, the SEC adopted this amendment because its members were frustrated by the lack of party registration in the state and wanted to exclude Democrats from Republican primaries. Party registration could only occur in Tennessee by changing state law. When those efforts failed in the Tennessee General Assembly, the SEC changed the bylaws.
April 7, 2018 – Following its bylaws, the SEC disqualified seven candidates for the U.S. Senate who had been challenged from the party’s August 2, 2018 primary ballot. Among those disqualified candidates was Dr. Rolando Toyos, who had not voted in a statewide Tennessee Republican primary in a decade.
August 2018 statewide Tennessee Republican primary (3rd most recent statewide Tennessee Republican primary) – Bill Lee was elected as the GOP nominee for Governor, Marsha Blackburn was elected as the GOP nominee for U.S. Senate, and all 66 current members of the SEC were elected to four-year terms.
Robby Starbuck did not vote in this primary, as he was a resident and registered voter in California at the time. Morgan Ortagus did not vote in this primary, as she was a resident and registered voter in New York at the time.
July 2019 – Robby Starbuck registered to vote for the first time in Tennessee.
March 2020 statewide Tennessee Republican Presidential Preference Primary (2nd most recent statewide Tennessee Republican primary) – Though registered to vote in Tennessee at this time, Robby Starbuck did not vote in this primary. Morgan Ortagus did not vote in this primary, as she was a resident and registered voter in the District of Columbia at this time. Baxter Lee, the third TN-5 candidate disqualified from the GOP primary ballot by the SEC on April 19, 2022, did not vote in this primary. Instead, he voted in the statewide Tennessee Democrat Presidential Primary.
March 19, 2020 – Eddie Mannis pulled petition papers to run in the Republican primary for the 18th District seat in the Tennessee House of Representatives , located in Knox County. Prior to the filing deadline, he submitted the required 25 signatures. Among the signators on his petition were former Gov. Bill Haslam (R-TN). Mannis’s status as a bona fide Republican was challenged on the grounds that he failed to meet the standard of having voted in three out of the four most recent statewide Tennessee Republican primaries. In the challenge, evidence was presented, and confirmed, that only a few weeks earlier he had voted in the March 2020 statewide Tennessee Democrat Presidential Primary.
April 7, 2020 – In the challenge review process, Mannis was vouched for as a “bona fide” Tennessee Republican by three Republican elected officials – Congressman Tim Burchett (R-TN-2), Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs, and State Senator Richard Briggs. The SEC, which at the time was not the decision maker in challenges to “bona fide” status, voted to inform Party chair Scott Golden that, in their opinion, Mannis was not a bona fide Republican
Chairman Scott Golden, in his then-role as sole arbiter of judging the bona fide status of candidates, restored Mannis to the primary ballot, determining that the weight of the vouching by three elected Republican officials who resided in or near the district he sought to represent, and his lifelong residence in the state and longtime participation in state political issues, showed “to his satisfaction” that Mannis was a bona fide Republican.
That decision by Golden, however, proved controversial, and starting in April 2020, the SEC began the process of preparing an amendment for approval that would remove the party chairman as the sole decision maker in cases of bona fide challenges. Mannis narrowly won the subsequent GOP primary, as well as the November 2020 general election. His Democrat-friendly voting record in the Tennessee House of Representatives, however, added further strength to the argument made by SEC members that an amendment to the bylaws regarding the decision making process in cases of bona fide challenges was needed.
August 2020 statewide Tennessee Republican primary (1st most recent statewide Tennessee Republican primary) – Bill Hagerty won the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate. Robby Starbuck did not vote in this primary, though he was registered to vote in Tennessee. Morgan Ortagus did not vote in this primary, as she was a resident and registered voter in the District of Columbia at the time.
November 5, 2020 – Robby Starbuck announced on Twitter “I’m running for Congress.”
June 2021 – Robby Starbuck formally announced his candidacy for the GOP nomination in TN-5.
August 4, 2021 – The SEC passed an amendment to the bylaws which revised the decision maker authorized to determine the “bona fide” Tennessee Republican status of candidates eligible to run for public office in a TN GOP primary. Whereas previously, that decision making authority rested solely with the party chairman alone, the amendment placed that decision making authority in the hands of a committee that includes the party chairman.
- “The final decision concerning said individual’s bona fide Republican status shall be determined by a majority vote of the following: the State Chairman and each SEC member who represents any portion of the district covered by said individual’s proposed candidacy.”
The amendment also prohibited Republican elected officials and SEC members from vouching for the bona fide status of candidates who had been challenged:
- Any individual who is vouched for in writing (to the satisfaction of the decision makers defined herein) as a bona fide Republican by an officer of the TRP or a member of the CEC, excluding SEC members, of the County and/or District where said individual resides. The decision makers defined herein may require additional verification that said individual is indeed a bona fide Republican.
Notably, the mere fact that a challenged candidate has been vouched for is not sufficient to restore that candidate to the GOP primary ballot as a “bona fide” Tennessee Republican eligible to be placed on the GOP primary ballot for a public office. That candidate must be vouched for “to the satisfaction of the decision makers defined herein,” which in the case of candidates challenged in the 5th Congressional District consists of 16 members of the SEC and Chairman Golden.
November 2021 – Morgan Ortagus registered to vote for the first time in Tennessee.
January 21, 2022 – Robby Starbuck asserted in a live broadcast of the Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy that he voted in the March 2020 and August 2020 statewide Tennessee Republican party primaries.
January 25, 2022 – The Tennessee House of Representatives passed a bill establishing new district boundaries for the 5th Congressional District which turned the previously “Safe Democrat” district to “Likely Republican.” The State Senate passed the same bill the following day.
January 25, 2022 – Incumbent Democratic Congressman Jim Cooper (D-TN-5) announced that he would not seek re-election to the 5th Congressional District seat he has represented since 2003, since the new redistricting, moving the seat from a safe Dem seat (D+20) to a likely Republican seat (R+11), is unfair but not likely to be reversed in a potential court challenge.
January 26, 2022 – Former President Donald Trump announced his endorsement of Morgan Ortagus for the now open TN-5 seat, just two months after she registered to vote in Tennessee for the first time.
January 29, 2022 – The Tennessee Star reported:
The Tennessee Star reached out to Starbuck on January 28, 2022 on the issue of his voter history when the records were obtained from Williamson County election officials [showing that Starbuck did not vote in the March 2020 and August 2020 statewide Tennessee Republican primary elections]. He said in the back-dated release [dated January 26, 2022]: “ Since becoming a full-time Tennessee resident, I voted in every election I’ve been here for.” Records show Starbuck first registered to vote in Tennessee in 2019.”
February 3, 2022 – In an interview with Dan Mandis on WTN Radio‘s Nashville’s Morning News, Starbuck retracted his previous assertions and admitted that he did not vote in the March 2020 and August 2020 statewide Tennessee GOP primary elections:
[B]ecause I was registered to vote in Tennessee, I should have voted in these primaries. But the problem is, I wasn’t a full-time resident. I had gotten my license when we had gotten a rental house here and we were sort of transitioning our kids here and transitioning – I was still closing down my business in California.
February 6, 2022 – Governor Bill Lee signed into law the redistricting map that turns TN-5 from Safe Democrat to Likely Republican.
February 7, 2022 – Morgan Ortagus announced her candidacy for the GOP nomination in TN-5.
February 27 , 2022 – Multiple challenges were filed with the TRP to the candidacies of Robby Starbuck, Morgan Ortagus, Baxter Lee, and Stewart Parks on the grounds they do not meet the requirements to be a “bona fide” Tennessee Republican eligible under the bylaws of the TRP to be a candidate for public office in the August 4, 2022 Tennessee Republican party primary. Under the bylaws, once challenged, they are removed from the August 4 Tennessee Republican primary ballot, but they have an opportunity to appeal that removal prior to the April 21 finalization date of the ballot.
April 9, 2022 – In a meeting of the SEC held in Goodlettsville, Tennessee, Chairman Golden announced the details of the bona fide challenge process for TN-5 candidates:
Golden explained to the TNGOP SEC members that Thursday, the party would send letters to the Tennessee Secretary of State’s office telling them that candidates with verified challenges are off the ballot and those campaigns would be suspended.
In the race for the 5th Congressional District, that means Thursday Ortagus, Starbuck, Lee, and Parks will be off the ballot, at least temporarily.
The TNGOP would then have until 12 p.m. on April 21 to adjudicate the challenges. They have two options, to restore the candidates to the ballot or to allow the deadline to pass without restoration. For the TN-5 challenge votes, the  person committee has not decided how it will meet to adjudicate the challenges. According to Golden, the adjudication process will begin and end sometime after April 14 and prior to the April 21 deadline. . .
Golden said that the TNGOP will send out packets on Monday, April 11 via FedEx to the candidates whose Republican bona fide status was challenged as a courtesy so they could be afforded due process to prepare for a SEC committee vote on ballot restoration.
April 19, 2022 – The SEC permanently removed three candidates – Robby Starbuck, Morgan Ortagus, and Baxter Lee – from the August 4 GOP primary ballot in TN-5.
April 21, 2022 – TRP Chairman Scott Golden transmitted a letter to Tennessee Coordinator of Elections Mark Goins that Starbuck, Ortagus, and Baxter Lee were permanently removed from the August 4 GOP primary ballot in TN-5.
Statutory authority for removal of candidates from primary ballot by the TRP
The Tennessee Republican Party, along with its Democrat counterpart, is empowered by Tennessee state code to decide the criteria it uses to determine who can run in Republican primaries. That power has been challenged in court before, but those challenges have always failed.
TN Code § 2-5-204 (2020) says:
Each qualified candidate’s name shall be placed on the ballot as it appears on the candidate’s nominating petitions unless the candidate dies before the ballots are printed, or unless the candidate requests in writing that the candidate’s name not appear on the ballot and files the request with each of the officers with whom the candidate filed nominating petitions or to whom the candidate’s nomination was certified as a political party nominee, or unless the executive committee with which a primary candidate filed the original petition determines that the candidate is not qualified under § 2-13-104.
While Starbuck has threatened legal action and Ortagus is “evaluating options,” several attorneys who are experts in Tennessee election law tell The Star the chances any legal challenge would succeed are slim and none.
– – –
[Editors note: This story has been updated to show that Baxter Lee voted in two of the four most recent statewide Tennessee Republican primaries.]
[Editors note: This story has been updated to show that Rep. Jim Cooper (D-TN-5) has represented the Fifth Congressional District since 2003.]
[Editors note: This story has been updated to show that 12 candidates filed petitions to run for the GOP nomination for Congress in TN-5 on April 7.]
Michael Patrick Leahy is the CEO and Editor-in-Chief of Star News Digital Media, which owns and operates The Tennessee Star and The Star News Network. He is also the host of The Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy, which airs weekday mornings from 5 a.m. to 8 a.m. on TalkRadio 98.3 and 1510 WLAC in Nashville.
Photo “Scott Golden” by WJLE. Photo “Morgan Ortagus” by U.S. Department of State. Photo “Robby Starbuck” by Robby Starbuck. Photo “Baxter Lee” by Baxter Lee. Background Photo “Nashville, TN” by Nicolas Henderson. CC BY 2.0.