Monday, March 7, 2022

House sets up showdown with Senate over Tennessee congressional candidate residency requirements. Bills aid to disqualify Robby Starbuck and Morgan Ortagus.

By Jon Styf | The Center Square Mar 2, 2022 - A Tennessee effort to place residency restrictions on candidates for congress moved quickly through a House subcommittee Wednesday, but the House bill was amended to include several differences from the version passed Monday in the Senate. 

The bill passed by the Senate potentially would prevent former President Donald Trump-backed candidate Morgan Ortagus, the former spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State, and Robby Starbuck from receiving the Republican nomination for the newly drawn 5th Congressional District. The seat is currently held by U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Nashville, who has said he will not run for reelection. 

House Bill 2764 from Rep. Dave Wright, R-Corryton, would enact the requirement after this year’s election, with an effective date of Nov. 9, the day after the election. If the companion bills pass with different language, the House and Senate would create a conference committee to agree on language. The House bill would put a three-year residency requirement before a candidate can qualify for a seat in either the U.S. Senate or House. 

While discussing the amendment Wednesday in the House Elections and Campaign Finance Subcommittee, Wright said that “the major change of the amendment is to make the three-year residency.” However, the bill also changes the effective date and which candidates are affected. Senate Bill 2616, sponsored by Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, was specific about only placing the three-year requirement on candidates in the primaries for either the Democratic or Republican nominations. Niceley’s bill would allow either Ortagus or Starbuck to run for the seat as independents or third-party candidates. 

The House version would prevent a similar candidate from winning a congressional seat in future elections. Niceley said candidates have picked up petitions but have not reached the filing deadline for the race, which is noon April 7. If the Senate version of the bill also passed the Tennessee House and was signed by Gov. Bill Lee before that deadline, it could prevent Ortagus and Starbuck from receiving the Republican nomination. 

The constitutionality of the bill was discussed last month in the Senate State and Local Government Committee, and Legislative Attorney Josh Houston said then laws such as the House version that attempted to have states limit the qualifications for federal elected positions repeatedly had been found unconstitutional. Niceley and others on the Senate committee pointed said because the Senate version pertained to primaries for the Democrat and Republican parties and was not an all-out ban on candidates running, it was different than any restriction that previously had gone before the courts. 

“The Supreme Court today would rule in our favor,” Niceley said during committee. “That’s why we put it in the primary. We aren’t stopping anyone from running. “The word primary is not mentioned in the constitution.”

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