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Republican barred from House primary ballot in Tennessee sues GOP, state

Robby Starbuck, the right-wing influencer barred by fellow Republicans in Tennessee from competing in a House primary, asked a federal court Monday to overturn the decision.

Starbuck was one of three GOP candidates running to represent Tennessee’s 5th Congressional District whom the state party voted last month to keep off the primary ballot.

The lawsuit, filed in the Middle District of Tennessee, names state GOP Chair Scott Golden, Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett and the state coordinator of elections, Mark Goins, as defendants. Starbuck argues they broke the law by removing him from the ballot.

The decision to remove Starbuck was made by the state Republican party’s executive committee, which ruled the candidates did not meet the qualifications to run under the party banner as laid out in the Tennessee GOP’s bylaws.

The party has removed dozens of candidates in recent years for failing to adhere to the rules, which are put in place to weed out candidates who are not “bonafide” members of the party. In this round of challenges, the Tennessee GOP removed more than 20 candidates from the ballot.

Morgan Ortagus, the former State Department spokeswoman who entered the race with former President Donald Trump’s endorsement, was also removed from the ballot and has said she will not challenge the decision.

In his lawsuit, Starbuck argues that the party’s decision to disqualify him amounts to an unconstitutional “camouflaged residency requirement.” He argues that a new state law imposing a residence requirement on congressional candidates influenced the decision to remove him from the ballot.

“The [Tennessee Republican Party’s] instruction to the state to remove Mr. Starbuck from the primary ballot in the upcoming election … for reasons beyond its narrowly prescribed lawful power to disqualify non-Republicans, was … arbitrary, capricious, unsupported by the evidence, and contrary to law.”

The lawsuit also accuses the state party of violating the Tennessee Open Meetings Act by voting in secret to keep Starbuck off the ballot.

Tennessee Republicans, meanwhile, said in interviews that they viewed a legal challenge as unlikely to result in the reinstatement of any of the candidates because courts, including those in Tennessee, have given broad deference to political parties in such disputes.

Golden said last month that the candidates were removed from the ballot because they did not meet voting requirements set in the party’s bylaws, which say candidates must have cast ballots in three of four previous Republican primaries.

The bylaws are enforced, however, only when a candidate is challenged by at least two residents of the district the candidate seeks to represent who have met the party’s primary voting requirement. Candidates are removed from the ballot as those challenges are considered before votes on reinstatement are held. Golden previously said in an interview that candidates’ chances of reinstatement are increased if Republican officials and party activists vouch for them before the state party.

Starbuck provided documentation to NBC News showing he had the support of multiple local GOP officials who vouched for his candidacy, but the defense ultimately did not persuade the state executive committee.

Starbuck, who moved to the state in 2019 and is backed by pro-Trump influencers and some prominent lawmakers, said in an interview in March that he had not met the primary voting requirement because of a “simple mixup” and argued that there was no way he could be described as anything less than a diehard Republican.

Immediately following the decision last month, Starbuck tweeted a video of the late Breitbart News founder Andrew Breitbart saying one word: “War.” He also pledged in a tweet to “fight this with every ounce of fight we have.”

His campaign sent document preservation notices to Golden, as well as to the 16 state executive committee members who voted on his challenge, for all communications pertaining to the vote.

The vote to remove the three candidates marked the culmination of months of effort by both GOP legislators and activists largely aimed at barring Ortagus, who had only recently moved to the state, from the ballot. After that vote, Ortagus said in a statement that she was “deeply disappointed” and that she is “a bonafide Republican by their standards, and frankly, by any metric.”

The decision was met with backlash from prominent national Republicans, like Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr.

However, some Republicans close to the process suggested that had the party not removed the challenged candidates from the ballot after it found them out of compliance with the bylaws, the state party may have faced lawsuits from other candidates who had been removed previously under the rules.

The GOP race to represent the district still features nine contenders. They include Beth Harwell, the former speaker of the Tennessee House, and Maury County Mayor Andy Ogles, among others. The existing 5th District is held by longtime Rep. Jim Cooper, a Democrat who announced he would not seek re-election after the GOP-held Legislature’s new voting maps were released and the district was redrawn to heavily favor Republicans.

The primary ballot was finalized soon after last month’s vote. The primary itself is scheduled for Aug. 4.

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