Tennessee Legislature Takes Aim At Former Trump Official’s House Run. Are Their Actions Legal?

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Michael Ginsberg Congressional Correspondent
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A bill passed by the Tennessee state legislature could end the congressional campaign of former State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus, and has already sparked a legal fight over its constitutionality.

SB 2616, passed on March 29, requires congressional candidates to have lived in Tennessee and the district they seek to represent for three years before they seek elected office. Ortagus moved to Nashville in 2021, according to The Tennessean, making her ineligible to run if Republican Gov. Bill Lee signs the legislation. She is running to replace retiring Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper, whose Fifth District became significantly more Republican following redistricting.

Qualifications for congressional candidates are set by the Constitution, which only mandates that House candidates be 25 years old, a U.S. citizen for seven years, and a resident of the state that they seek to represent. The Supreme Court ruled in the case U.S. Term Limits v. Thornton that states can not “add to the qualification set forth in the text of the Constitution.”

Derek Muller, an elections law professor at the University of Iowa, told the Daily Caller that he was skeptical the Supreme Court would overturn the 1994 ruling.

“There’s no question that both left-of-center and right-of-center types have been interested in this issue,” he said. “You never know what the majority of the Supreme Court might do.”

However, he added, “it’s a heavy lift. Term limits was essentially a neutral rule, and it didn’t directly target a particular candidate. This is pretty targeted.”

State Rep. Dave Wright, a sponsor of the legislation, denies targeting Ortagus. He cited a similar residency requirement in the Tennessee General Assembly as the impetus for the bill in an interview with the Daily Caller.

“That’s basically where the legislation came from,” Wright said of the General Assembly’s residency requirement. “Looking at the requirements for me to be a member of the Tennessee state House, the requirement is there that I live in the state for three years, and it seems like a legitimate requirement.”

“I live in east Tennessee, in the Second Congressional District. Whenever I look at my congressman, or someone who stands up as a candidate, I would like to know them, and be able to measure them a little bit with my Tennessee yardstick.”

State Sen. Frank Niceley was more pointed in his rationale. Nicely has endorsed former state House Speaker Beth Harwell for the seat.

Former state House Speaker Beth Harwell has received several endorsements in the Republican primary, including from state Sen. Frank Niceley. (Screenshot via YouTube/NewsChannel 5)

“If he was endorsing a Tennessee candidate that lived here, met the qualifications the party puts out, that’s one thing,” Nicely told NBC News of former President Donald Trump’s endorsement of Ortagus. “But shipping somebody in and endorsing is a different thing.”

A spokesperson for Niceley did not respond to multiple requests for comment from the Daily Caller.

An aide confirmed that the Ortagus campaign is following a legal challenge to the bill. Three district voters, supported by the Tennessee Conservatives PAC, filed a lawsuit on March 31 requesting that a federal court declare the law unconstitutional and block the General Assembly from enforcing it. (RELATED: Former Trump Official Morgan Ortagus Confronts Adam Schiff On ‘The View’ Over His Promotion Of Steele Dossier)

Wright added that he was unsure of how constitutional concerns would play out, but that he is in favor of the broader policy.

“That’s been raised by people. We’ve had discussions about whether this needs to move forward. I sort of put that on the back-burner. It’ll be up to the courts,” he said. “To me, though, it’s a good idea. The same rule applies to me, why shouldn’t it apply to an even more important position?”

Ortagus is pushing back on criticisms that she moved to Tennessee too recently to effectively represent the Fifth District.

“No one questioned my residency when I served our country in the intelligence community, the Trump Administration, nor in the U.S. Navy Reserves, and President Trump certainly didn’t question my residency when he endorsed me for this seat. I continue to trust my fellow Tennesseans, the voters in the Fifth District, to choose who will best represent them in Congress. Middle Tennessee is a warm and welcoming community that I am proud to be a part of, and am proud to raise my family here,” she said in a statement.