Editor’s column: Primary colors

April 11, 2022 9:43 am
(Photo illustration: Getty Images)

(Photo illustration: Getty Images)

Gallup, the nonpartisan analytics organization that became famous for public opinion polls, has a fascinating monthly tracker of how Americans identify themselves politically dating to 2004. 

In the early and mid- aughts, the percentage of Americans who identified as independent and not affiliated with either the Democratic or Republican parties hovered in the mid-30s. Starting in 2016, the tracker showed numbers rising into the low- to mid-40s, with fully half of Americans polled calling themselves independents in January 2021. 

As a real life microcosm of why many people may no longer affiliate with either major party, we need look no further than Tennessee. 

Over the weekend, both the Tennessee Democratic Party and the Tennessee Republican Party found themselves embroiled in intraparty scraps over which candidates could legitimately call themselves Democrats or Republicans. 

Tennessee Republican Party bylaws state that to qualify as a “bona fide” Republican, a candidate must have voted in three of the last four statewide Republican primaries or have been “actively involved” in the Tennessee Republican Party or appropriate county Republican Party. 

According to the bylaws of the Tennessee Democratic Party, a candidate may be challenged on their bona fides if he or she has failed to vote in three of the immediate last five Democratic primaries. 

On Thursday, a former member of the Shelby County Democratic Party’s executive committee filed a challenge to Dr. Jason Martin’s inclusion on the August primary ballot for governor. The reason? Martin has only voted in two primary elections, according to a review of his voting file, and one of those was the March 2016 Republican presidential primary. 

Dr. Jason Martin (Photo: Martin for Governor)
Dr. Jason Martin (Photo: Martin for Governor)

To his credit, Martin chose to get out in front of the issue by addressing his 2016 GOP primary vote when he announced his candidacy in August 2021; he’s not made a secret of the fact he wanted to vote against Donald Trump. 

Rural Democrats were quick to rise to Martin’s defense or, at least, to raise questions about the bona fide process. One man called the challenge a “slap in the face” to rural Democrats, many of whom often have no other option but to vote Republican if they want to vote at all. A woman tweeted that she’s a former Republican who now thinks of herself as a Democrat: Will her record be parsed if she decides to run for office, she asked? 

Meanwhile, the Tennessee Republican Party held its regular executive committee meeting Saturday and dealt with their own set of bona fide grievances. 

Scott Golden, chair of the TNGOP, confirmed the bona fides of 15 candidates were challenged, including those of several candidates for the new 5th Congressional District. Morgan Ortagus, who has been endorsed by former President Donald Trump, was among them, as was Robby Starbuck, the Williamson County resident who was the first Republican to enter the race. 

Martin fared well in his challenge. The TNDP county party development committee, the first line for hearing challenges, voted Friday to recommend he remain on the ballot and the challenge was subsequently dropped. He’s joined as a Democratic candidate for governor by Memphis City Councilmember J.B. Smiley Jr. and Carnita Atwater, also of Memphis. 

But Ortagus, Starbuck and the 13 other candidates who were challenged by Tennessee Republicans were removed from the ballot, at least temporarily. I reached out to both the Ortegus and Starbucks campaigns to get their thoughts on the action but received no response.

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

Legislation passed in 2019 requires a state party executive committee to notify candidates within seven days of a filing deadline of exclusion from the ballot. Since the filing deadline was noon Thursday, the TNGOP has until this Thursday to give notice to candidates—but we bet candidates are already aware they’ve been booted and are preparing their strategies.

The next step will be for candidates to appeal their expulsion from the ballot in writing. In 2020, Republican U.S. Senate candidate Byron Bush successfully appealed his expulsion by gaining testimonials from several reliable Davidson County GOP members and was restored to the ballot.

There’s another option for candidates of both parties who may be challenged for not being Democratic or Republican enough, and that’s to run as an independent. 

Based on the current controversies, I wouldn’t be surprised to see either Ortagus or Starbuck take up the independent mantle—and down the road, to see Democratic candidates doing the same. 

In an era in which more American voters are finding their beliefs don’t align clearly with one party or another—and in which voters are becoming irritated with party loyalty tests—independence could be an appealing strategy

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Holly McCall
Holly McCall

Holly McCall has been a fixture in Tennessee media and politics for decades. She covered city hall for papers in Columbus, Ohio and Joplin, Missouri before returning to Tennessee with the Nashville Business Journal. Holly brings a deep wealth of knowledge about Tennessee’s political processes and players and likes nothing better than getting into the weeds of how political deals are made.