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Robby Starbuck

A Fifth Congressional District candidate in Tennessee, Robby Starbuck, has sued the stat Republican Party in federal court for booting him from the primary ballot, requesting that the decision be overturned.

Starbuck and two other GOP candidates — Baxter Lee and Morgan Ortagus, the Trump-backed candidate — were culled from the ballot in a crowded primary because they didn’t meet the state party’s eligibility requirements.

The lawsuit, filed in the Middle District of Tennessee, named three defendants: Scott Golden, the Tennessee Republican Chairman; Tre Hargett, the Tennessee Secretary of State; and Mark Goins, the state coordinator of elections.

The Tennessee GOP has in recent years removed many candidates from the ballot for failing to adhere to the party’s bylaws, which require candidates to actively participate in state and local Republican activities and to have voted in three of the last four party primaries.

The state party removed over 20 candidates in this round of challenges, according to NBC News. Ortagus, who received Trump’s “complete and total endorsement,” was also kicked off the ballot. She expressed her disappointment at the state party’s decision but said she won’t challenge it.

Starbuck, however, challenged the decision and accused the Tennessee GOP of not adhering to the state’s Open Meetings Act by voting in private to boot him off the ballot, in a manner "inconsistent with federal and state law.".

The music video director alleged, in his lawsuit, that the practice of power-wielding party bosses meeting secretly in smoke-filled rooms to rig elections ... remains alive and well in Tennessee."

Starbuck argued that his disqualification was tantamount to an unconstitutional “camouflaged residency requirement.” He also argued that the state party’s decision was influenced by a new state law that imposed a residency requirement on congressional candidates, per NBC News.

“The [Tennessee Republican Party’s] instruction to the state to remove Mr. Starbuck from the primary ballot in the upcoming election ... for reasons beyond its narrowly prescribed lawful power to disqualify non-Republicans, was ... arbitrary, capricious, unsupported by the evidence, and contrary to law.”

Starbuck blamed a lack of Republican “bona fides” and an insufficient state GOP primary voting record for his removal from the ballot in a 13-3 vote, but he also said in his lawsuit that the state party’s bylaws allowed for letters attesting to a candidate’s bona fides to take the place of the voting record.

"On a call on April 19, 2022, after the vote, Defendant Golden told Mr. Starbuck that no candidate had ever provided so many vouching letters and still been removed from the ballot," the suit stated. "Indeed, he would discover that some Republicans had been permitted to compete in primary elections with neither a qualifying voting record, nor vouching letters."

Starbuck is seeking a court injunction to overturn the official decision to remove his name from the primary ballot.

However, the state GOP has voiced its belief that legal challenges had no chance of resulting in a candidate’s reinstatement because courts have afforded political parties broad deference in such disputes.

The hotly contested primary is slated for August 4, 2022.

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Jeff Danziger lives in New York City. He is represented by CWS Syndicate and the Washington Post Writers Group. He is the recipient of the Herblock Prize and the Thomas Nast (Landau) Prize. He served in the US Army in Vietnam and was awarded the Bronze Star and the Air Medal. He has published eleven books of cartoons, a novel and a memoir. Visit him at DanzigerCartoons.

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