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Tennessee legislature passes campaign residency law, but is it constitutional?

Tennessee State Capitol Dome.jpeg
Posted at 4:49 PM, Mar 29, 2022

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — It's not often that the Tennessee General Assembly finds something they can all agree on, but it's happened with a new campaign residency bill.

If it's signed into law by Gov. Bill Lee, it could have a major impact on who can run to replace longtime Congressman Jim Cooper, D-Nashville.

The author of the legislation says it needs to become law.

"We don’t want carpetbaggers coming in here with lots of money," said state Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains. "I mean if you’ve got star quality and money, you can win. Money usually turns into votes, and we don’t want people coming in here and buying these seats. We want representation in Congress that understands, not only which interstates come into Nashville, but understands our culture — our Southern culture."

The interstates reference is a dig against Morgan Ortagus, the former State Department spokesperson endorsed by former President Trump. In a recent interview with the Tennessee Star, Ortagus couldn't name which interstates go through downtown Nashville.

The legislature passed the measure in both chambers overwhelmingly, which puts residency requirements before someone can be their party's nominee for Congress.

"In order to run in a primary, you’d have to live here three years," Sen. Niceley said.

The question now becomes, is it constitutional? Sen. Niceley says yes.

"And when the constitution’s quiet, it’s left up to the states," he said.

But NewsChannel 5 Political Analyst Pat Nolan isn't as sure.

"Well, we may be about to find out," said Nolan. "The courts I’m sure will look at all of those things, and what you can do and not do about making those rules. It may make some difference that the law is not drafted that you can’t be a candidate, but saying you can’t be a party nominee."

Nolan fully expects one of the candidates who may be potentially disqualified to take this to court. The bill could also be stopped by Lee in two ways. Lee could choose to veto.

"Remember it only takes a simple majority to override a Gubernatorial veto so a veto, in this case, would not be very meaningful and not a fight he wants to pick," said Nolan.

Lee could also just delay signing it into law. "If he signs it after April 7, it’ll take effect upon signing but it won’t have any impact on this primary because that’s the qualifying deadline," said Nolan.

There's no word from Ortagus's spokesperson if she plans to challenge this in court, but she did have a lot to say about the bill. Her statement says:

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 5th district, to choose who will best represent them in Congress. Nashville is a warm and welcoming community that I am proud to be a part of, and am proud to raise my family here.

Morgan Ortagus

Doug Vitalli, another Congressional candidate for the 5th District who could be impacted by this new law, also submitted a statement to NewsChannel 5.

I’m certain there are no coincidences that Sen. Nicely who sponsored this in the Senate is also endorsing one of my opponents, Beth Harwell – the sixty-five year old establishment choice still using pictures of herself when she was in her forties in campaign literature. It is a shame candidates are so weak that the only way they can win is to use their political cronies to pass laws that eliminate two of their top competitors. There is nothing these people fear more than allowing the voters to actually make a choice for themselves because of good ole’ boy establishment fears that the Republican faithful may elect someone the elitists cannot control. With this new ridiculous law, Davey Crockett wouldn’t have even been able to run for Congress again in Tennessee if he had survived the Alamo without waiting three years once moving home.

Doug Vitalli

Vitalli appears to have dropped out of the race.