Typically when state legislators engineer a blatant congressional gerrymander like the one Tennessee Republicans conducted to end the career of Nashville-based House Democrat Jim Cooper, it’s one of their own who is feathering a future nest. And the mapmakers did indeed create a new, Republican-heavy district, the Fifth, that will have no incumbent contestant now that Cooper has retired. But instead of an ambitious legislator angling to fill the seat his friends drew up, the preliminary field of Republicans is being dominated by two carpetbagging newcomers to the area and to elected politics, both claiming close ties to Donald Trump’s MAGA movement. The nascent race is now getting a burst of national publicity thanks to Trump’s own early endorsement of one proto-candidate who has not even announced a Fifth District bid, Morgan Ortagus:
The 39-year-old Ortagus worked briefly for Representative Adam Putnam (the dude Ron DeSantis smoked in the 2018 Florida gubernatorial primary) and was then press secretary for future Trump deputy national security adviser K.T. McFarland’s unsuccessful New York Senate campaign. She filled a variety of quasi-diplomatic positions from 2007 to 2012, taking her to Baghdad and Riyadh as well as Washington. Later, she founded a PAC for young conservatives, volunteered for Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign, and landed a gig as a foreign-policy “contributor” on Fox News, which is probably where Trump first noticed her. During his presidency, she worked in a very visible role, as spokesperson for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Aside from her connections to Putnam, McFarland, and Jeb Bush, Ortagus has some other personal features that make her an unusual fit for the Trump-era Tennessee GOP. While dating Florida business executive Jonathan Weinberger, Ortagus, an Evangelical Christian, got interested in Weinberger’s Jewish faith and eventually converted in an online ceremony while working in Saudi Arabia. In 2013, she got married to Weinberger in a ceremony officiated by legendary liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg — who happened to own a Florida condo in the same building as the couple — in her Supreme Court chambers.
Trump’s enthusiasm for the globe-trotting, fast-rising Ortagus has upset the sizable MAGA community, which was already backing another unlikely political carpetbagger. That would be Robby Starbuck, a filmmaker — mostly of music videos, including one for Snoop Dogg and another for Megadeth.
Starbuck is a Cuban American California native who acquired a farm property in Tennessee in 2019. Starbuck “came out as a Republican,” as he puts it, in 2015, and has enjoyed owning the Hollywood libs ever since, amassing a strong social-media presence in the process. He shrewdly announced a candidacy in June 2021 before the current gerrymander was executed (although knowing it would probably happen), with an Insta endorsement from Rand Paul. Since then, he has been piling up endorsements from very high-profile extremists such as Matt Gaetz, Madison Cawthorn, Candace Owens, and, most recently, the biggest wild woman of them all, Marjorie Taylor Greene.
According to Politico, Starbuck’s team of mega-MAGA ultras is none too pleased with the Boss for backing the suspected RINO Ortagus:
“This in a lot of ways is a watershed moment for, I’ll say, the entire Trump team,” said Daniel Bostic, a conservative activist whose Twitter page has closely documented the backlash. “And it should be, to be honest, because it is being perceived as a back-stab to his own base,” added Bostic, who was an organizer of the pro-Trump “Stop the Steal” movement …
Within a few hours, Bostic, who was a producer of the pro-Trump documentary The Plot Against the President, began pumping out tweets with photographs of Ortagus alongside Biden and Ginsberg while noting that she worked on Bush’s 2016 presidential campaign. The following evening, the Republic PAC Twitter account circulated a TV clip from 2016 of Ortagus saying that she’s “not a Trump fan.”
MTG quickly chipped in with a comment that Ortagus wasn’t “worthy” of Trump’s endorsement. Moreover, Donald Trump Jr. and Dan Scavino are said to have been upset about the “hasty endorsement rollout.” The incident will certainly feed an already roaring media fire over the breadth and wisdom of Trump’s 2022 endorsement strategy, thought to be a barometer of his dominance in the GOP.
The brouhaha over Ortegas and Starbuck must be disturbing to regular old Tennessee Republicans who haven’t produced a music video, gotten married in a Supreme Court chamber, or even appeared on Fox News, but who have been living in the area for more than a hot minute. (There are some far more local figures looking at a Fifth District race, including former Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell and retired National Guard general Kurt Winstead.)
The MAGA primary for 2022 in the district may be well under way, but the real one that comes with a party nomination is still a ways off, with Republican voters getting the final say on August 4.