Last week, the Tennessee Republican Party successfully removed from the ballot three candidates who wanted to run in the Republican primary for the congressional seat in TN’s newly created 5th district. One of those removed was Morgan Ortagus, who had been the State Department spokesperson during the Trump administration, and whom Trump had endorsed for the seat.
This context raises lots of interesting questions about the ability of political parties, in some states, to continue to exercise some degree of control over the candidates that can run under the party’s label, even in the era of primary elections. In some states, state law gives the state party — usually meaning the Executive Committee of the state party — the power to keep potential candidates off the primary ballot if they fail to meet the party’s requirements for representing the party.
On the one hand, this power enables parties to prevent themselves from being captured by figures who have no meaningful ties to the party. On the other hand, this can be a means for parties to block candidates who want to challenge the currently dominant political views of the party leadership. In this case, the executive committee had the authority to disqualify candidates from the primary ballot for failing to adhere to the party’s bylaws, which require a candidate to have voted in three of the last four GOP primaries, as well as to actively participate in the state or local Republican parties. These are relatively objective criteria — although the bylaws do give the executive committee the power to waive these requirements.
The most well-known example of a party vetoing candidates from running in its primary came in the case of David Duke. Duke sought to run in the Republican presidential primaries in the 1992 election cycle, but in Georgia, state law permitted a party committee to deny candidate’s the ability to run under the party’s label. In this context, the state GOP blocked Duke based on ideological grounds: the party’s position was that his views were abhorrent to the party. Duke challenged this on First Amendment grounds, but the federal court of appeals upheld the right of the state to give the party the power to exclude candidates from the primary ballot on such grounds.
If a state party believes a potential candidate has demonstrated anti-democratic or authoritarian beliefs, should the party be able to deny that candidate the ability to compete in that party’s primary elections? In the first instance, state law would have to authorize state parties to control access to the primary ballot; I am not sure how many state laws currently permit this, as in TN. But if state law does not authorize the parties to do so, could a state party organization sue to keep such a candidate off the primary ballot, on the grounds that the party’s associational rights are violated by permitting a candidate to run under the party’s label whom the party leaders believe has not shown sufficient commitment to the party — as in the TN example — or stands for views party leaders believe are deeply at odds with the party’s core commitments — as in the Duke example?