As we covered last week, the Tennessee GOP State Executive Committee voted to remove three congressional candidates – Robby Starbuck, Morgan Ortagus, and Baxter Lee – from the primary ballot after their “bona fide Republican” status was challenged. Now, Starbuck and Ortagus are fighting back, and Starbuck’s campaign has sent a pre-litigation demand letter to the State of Tennessee and an evidence preservation notice to the 17 members of the State Executive Committee (SEC) who participated in the April 19 meeting and vote.
According to information in the letters and from Starbuck, the meeting and vote were held two days before the deadline given to Starbuck’s campaign to present evidence of his bona fides, and at a secret and closed location in violation of Tennessee’s Open Meetings Act, without Starbuck or a representative present. In addition, Starbuck believes that members of the SEC considered false information about his state of residence, party registration history, and voting record in making their decision and that his campaign opponents and their proxies aggressively and improperly lobbied the 17 SEC members participating in advance of the vote.
Starbuck’s campaign has given the State of Tennessee until 5 PM Central Time on Tuesday, April 26 to agree that they will not remove Starbuck’s name from the ballot, or Starbuck will file suit. From the demand letter:
On behalf of Robby Starbuck, I am providing this pre-litigation demand notice to provide you and the State of Tennessee an opportunity to avoid litigation over a deprivation of his rights under the federal Constitution and Tennessee law. Unless you notify me by 5 pm Central Time on Tuesday, April 26, 2022, that the State will not remove Mr. Starbuck’s name from the ballot for the federal primary election for the 5th Congressional District as directed by the Tennessee Republican Party, Mr. Starbuck will have no choice but to file suit against the state and name you as the responsible official.
For background, here are the issues at play.
To prevent Democrats from running as Republicans, Tennessee GOP bylaws allow any two Republicans to challenge a Republican candidate to prove that they’re a Republican. That candidate can then prove they are a Republican by providing proof of voting in three of the four most recent Tennessee Republican state primaries, or by local party officials and County Executive Committee (CEC) members vouch for the candidate in writing.
The section about the “vouching” process is pretty ambiguous, though. It reads:
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.
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.
What information would need to be presented to satisfy the decision makers that a candidate is a bona fide Republican?
Since Starbuck hasn’t lived in Tennessee long enough to have voted in three of the last four Republican primaries, he had to go the vouching route. He provided 14 vouching letters to the committee, which Starbuck said is the highest number of letters ever presented according to TRP Chair Scott Golden.
Starbuck voted in the 2020 General Election and in a local primary vote in 2022 in Tennessee. He provided his California voter history to four county party chairs prior to the April 19 vote, he said, to prove that he regularly voted in California in both primaries and general elections. He has also donated to two county Republican parties and the state party and organized a rally to support GOP candidates in 2020 for the Williamson County Republican Party.
Still, at least one influential party member (and wife of one of the SEC members who voted in the April 19 meeting), Scottie Nell Hughes, tweeted that Starbuck had not voted in 2020 and claimed that he was not a Republican before 2016 and that he’d voted in the Democrat presidential primary in California that year.
However, it appears that Hughes was misinterpreting the form. Starbuck’s voter registration card from California shows that when he registered at a new address in August 2016, he registered as a Republican and that his prior party registration was Republican. He simply moved and, as required by law, updated his address.
Hughes’ tweet also implies that she has some information about how the SEC meeting went down since she said that, “13 of 16 who voted were Trump delegates in ’16 and ’20.” Perhaps the implication of knowledge of what happened in a secret meeting is part of the reason Starbuck’s attorneys have sent evidence preservation letters to the 17 SEC members in attendance on April 21, requiring them to:
“[I]mmediately take all steps necessary to prevent the destruction, loss, concealment, or alteration of any paper, document, or electronically stored information (“ESI”) and other data or information generated by and/or stored on its computers and storage media (e.g., hard disks, thumb drives, cloud storage, etc.), and e-mail related to (1) its role as the state primary board pursuant to Tennessee Code § 2-13-102(a)-(b) in connection with the primary election in Tennessee’s 5th Congressional District; (2) challenges to any candidate in the 5th Congressional District primary election, by any person, including the standard applied, the evidence considered, the rules, policies, and procedures governing the proceedings, notice of and public access to the proceedings, and any records of the proceedings; (3) the TRP’s April 21, 2022 letter to Mark Goins, Tennessee Coordinator of Elections, instructing him to remove Mr. Starbuck’s name from the primary ballot; and (4) Mr. Starbuck.
The 17 members who were served with evidence preservation letters are: Chase Montgomery, Michelle Foreman, Jerry Beavers, Karen Bennett, Jim Looney, Angie McClanahan, Steve Allbrooks, Cyndi Miller, Ron McDow, Beverly Knight Hurley, Chuck Grimes, Maria Stewart, Chris Hughes, Teri Nicholson, Lynne Davis, Jim Sandman, and Scott Golden.
Also confusing the issue is the fact that a new state law in Tennesee requires people to have lived in the state for more than three years before they can run for office. Starbuck has lived in Tennessee for the required amount of time, but the Secretary of State has ruled that since the bill was signed into law after the April 7 qualifying date it doesn’t apply in this election. Still, SEC member McClanahan has reportedly told people that she considered Robby’s residency in voting whether he’s a bona fide Republican or not.
In an exclusive statement, Starbuck told RedState:
“This entire process has been an embarrassment to our party. We’re supposed to be the party of individual liberty and freedom. Four of our county party chairs, two vice chairs, one 2nd vice chair, the Nashville Republicans chair and five CEC members vouched for me, along with national endorsements from Senator Rand Paul, Candace Owens, Charlie Kirk, Rep. Thomas Massie, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, Rep. Madison Cawthorn and others.
“In secret, with unknown direction and procedures, the SEC voted that all of those people are wrong, and I’m not a bona fide Republican. My vouchers put their names on their support letters. The SEC, sadly, wasn’t courageous enough to put their names on their votes. The truth is, it’s very clear they didn’t have the information needed to even make the decision. This is why a public hearing with questions and answers is so critical to get things like this right.
“To be perfectly honest, I oppose the entire process, because Tennessee Republicans are smart enough to decide for themselves which candidates best represent our party, they don’t need a room of elected officials secretly deciding that for them through an opaque and rigged process. My activism and my voters have been put on trial by this illegal vote and I will aggressively defend both.”
The ball is now in the Tennessee Republican Party’s court.
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