Little-known super PAC threatens lawsuit to save Ortagus’ Tennessee congressional bid

By: - March 30, 2022 7:00 am
The elephant in the room. (Photo illustration: Getty Images)

The elephant in the room. (Photo illustration: Getty Images)

Fifth Congressional District candidate Morgan Ortagus is playing it cool in light of legislation passed Monday that could stall her campaign. But at least one new group in the pro-MAGA vein is threatening to challenge the measure.

The day after the Tennessee House sided with the Senate in requiring a three-year state residency to run for U.S. House or Senate, effective upon the governor’s signature, a new political action committee said on Twitter it will support a lawsuit on behalf of 5th District voters challenging the law’s constitutionality. 

The Tennessee Conservatives PAC, expected to back Ortagus, has $1 million to use for the challenge, according to a Punchbowl News article. It’s unclear whether all of that money would go toward the Ortagus campaign.

Morgan Ortagus. (Photo: WinRed)
Morgan Ortagus, Republican candidate for Congress, may get bounced from the ballot. (Photo: WinRed)

“These voters believed they should have the right to choose an actual America First Conservative to represent them in Congress. We’re confident that a Federal Court will strike down this attempt to subvert the U.S. Constitution by altering the requirements for Federal elected office. The Nashville Swamp will not prevail,” the Tennessee Conservatives PAC said on Twitter.

No such group is registered with the state of Tennessee, and no filings other than a Feb. 22 organization document could be found Tuesday with the Federal Election Committee. It lists Charles Gantt of Bulldog Compliance in Beverly, Massachusetts as the treasurer. He did not return a phone call by press time Tuesday.

Former President Donald Trump raised Republican hackles in early 2022 when he endorsed Ortagus – a Tennessee resident for less than a year – before she announced her candidacy for the seat.

The 5th District became a battleground for Republicans when the Legislature split what was once a reliable Democratic seat by carving Davidson County into three congressional districts this year. Longtime Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper opted to bow out after his term is done.

Since then, the list of Republican candidates has grown into double digits. Some of the more notable candidates are former House Speaker Beth Harwell, businessman Baxter Lee and former National Guard Brigadier Gen. Kurt Winstead.

Ortagus, a former Fox New personality, spokeswoman for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve, drew heat from some Republicans who felt she was shopping for a congressional seat.

State Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, sponsored the legislation to create the residency requirement, saying he didn’t want people flying over Tennessee looking for a place to land to run for Congress. He also referred to Ortegus as a “carpetbagger” or “Gucci-bagger.”

Initially, the House version of the bill would have postponed its effective date until November. But the measure adopted Monday night passed with ease and would require three years of state residency immediately. 

The governor is reviewing the legislation, and it’s unclear whether he will sign the measure before the April 7 qualifying deadline. 

If I was running for election, the last think I’d want to do is sue the state.

– Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, of a potential legal challenge by the Morgan Ortagus camp.

Ortegus released a statement Tuesday saying she trusts 5th District voters to choose a candidate to represent them.

“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,” she said in a statement.

Niceley said Tuesday he had heard a little bit about the super PAC threatening a lawsuit. Though the group contends the Constitution prohibits states from adding new requirements to serve in the U.S. House, Niceley argues that the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia said the Constitution is “quiet” on the matter, which leaves it up to the states.

“If I was running for election, the last think I’d want to do is sue the state,” Niceley added.

One sticking point, though, is whether the governor will sign the bill into law before the qualifying deadline to run in the Republican primary. Niceley said he is aware that could cause problems for the legislation, but he also called it one of the most popular bills he’s ever sponsored, one that could overcome a veto based on its vote history.

It passed the Senate unanimously the second time around and received a 70-18 vote in the House Monday night. Speaker Cameron Sexton and House Majority Leader William Lamberth and a mixture of Republicans and Democrats voted against it.


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Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial and Best Single Feature from the Tennessee Press Association.