Trump under fire over Tennessee primary nod

Former President Trump is under fire — including from some of his most ardent supporters — for his preliminary endorsement of a former State Department spokesperson over a steadfast ally in a Tennessee congressional primary.

In an unexpected move last week, Trump threw his support behind Morgan Ortagus, who served as a spokesperson for former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and hasn’t yet announced a bid to represent Tennessee’s 5th Congressional District. In doing so, Trump snubbed Robby Starbuck, a conservative filmmaker who has been running for the seat since June.

The former president’s announcement sparked intense backlash across Republican circles, with even the most aggressive Trump boosters questioning — and in some cases outright condemning — his decision.

“Nope. Trump has this completely wrong,” Candace Owens, a conservative commentator and staunch Trump rally, tweeted. “@robbystarbuck is the correct pick for Tennessee’s 5th district and Tennesseans have his back.”

“I endorsed @robbystarbuck months ago and I stand by my endorsement,” Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.) tweeted. “He is the best candidate in the country right now. The MAGA movement needs him in Congress!”

In another blow to Trump’s endorsement, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), one of Trump’s most high-profile supporters in Congress, announced that she would back Starbuck’s House bid, telling the Washington Examiner that he “has been a champion for ‘America First’ for a long time.”

Ortagus hasn’t formally announced a campaign for Tennessee’s 5th District and it’s unclear whether she will ultimately move forward with a bid. Still, one former Trump aide called the early endorsement a misstep that created unnecessary tension between the former president and his most loyal supporters.

“I really see it as an unforced error,” the aide said. “It’s not the endorsement itself that’s a problem, but more that it makes it look like he’s not paying attention to the people that have really stood by him through everything.”

Trump’s endorsement of Ortagus doesn’t appear likely to clear the field either. Several potential candidates are eyeing the seat, including former Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell. Starbuck has also indicated that he will stay in the race.

“It’s been a wild 24 hours,” Starbuck said. “Reporters have asked me what I’m going to do over and over again. Here’s the answer: I’m going to do the thing I do best — fight for THE PEOPLE.”

It’s not the first time that Trump’s endorsement has put him at odds with segments of his party.

Some North Carolina Republicans bristled at his surprise endorsement last year of Rep. Ted Budd (R-N.C.) in the state’s Senate primary. His early support for Sean Parnell in the Pennsylvania GOP Senate primary also irked some Republicans. Parnell exited the race in November after losing a legal battle for primary custody of his three children.

Still, the pushback against Trump’s endorsement of Ortagus has been more overt. After Trump came out in support of a potential run by Ortagus, Greene told the Examiner that the former State Department spokesperson wasn’t “worthy” of the former president’s backing.

Likewise, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), one of the most pro-Trump members of Congress, praised Starbuck’s announcement that he would remain in the race, calling it “inspiring.”

While there’s little doubt among Republicans that Trump remains the most popular and influential figure in the party, there’s no guarantee that his endorsed candidates will emerge victorious in their respective primaries.

In the Republican primary for Georgia governor, for example, Trump-endorsed former Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) has yet to pull ahead of Gov. Brian Kemp, who earned himself a place on Trump’s enemies list after he refused to overturn the results of the presidential election in Georgia. A Quinnipiac University poll released last week showed Kemp leading Perdue by a 7-point margin.

Similarly, Trump has failed to clear the Republican field in the North Carolina Senate race. Budd is still facing an aggressive primary challenge from former Gov. Pat McCrory, while another candidate, former Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.), announced last week that he would remain in the Senate race despite Trump’s efforts to lure him into a congressional bid instead.

There are also signs that Trump may not have the same iron grip on the GOP electorate that he did when he was last on the ballot.

An NBC News poll released in late January found that most Republicans — 56 percent — describe themselves as more supportive of the GOP than Trump, while 36 percent said that they see themselves as more supporters of Trump than the party itself.

That’s down sharply from 2020, when 54 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents said they considered themselves more supportive of Trump than the party as a whole. At the time, 38 percent said they were more supportive of the GOP than Trump.

Daniel Bostic, a conservative activist who has criticized Ortagus in recent days, pinned blame for the endorsement on “a broader issue in Team Trump,” arguing that the decision was out of step with the former president’s base.

“The message to Team Trump from the populist/new-right is clear: Your supporters are not in a liberal-style cult,” Bostic tweeted. “They won’t blindly follow you when you listen to DC consultants that undermine your promises to the base. Clean up the ship & stay on track or get out of the way.”

Tags Brian Kemp Candace Owens David Perdue Donald Trump Marjorie Taylor Greene Mark Walker Matt Gaetz Mike Pompeo Morgan Ortagus Robby Starbuck Ted Budd Tennessee

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