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Are you sure you're a Republican?

J. H. Osborne • Feb 11, 2018 at 6:30 PM

BLOUNTVILLE — As of Friday afternoon, 86 people had picked up petitions to potentially run in Sullivan County’s Republican Party primary in May. And 61 had actually filed completed petitions. (In all, the numbers are higher, but a few would-be candidates picked up and/or filed and later officially withdrew.) Those totals are from among the 21 county government races the GOP chose to make partisan and include in the party’s May 1 primary. The county’s general election is in August. In other words, most races are going to be competitive at the primary level.

What isn’t known is whether any of those who filed, or will file before the February 15 deadline to do so, will be denied a place on the primary ballot if their status as a bona fide Republican is challenged.

The GOP’s state executive committee voted last year to widen the ability to make such challenges. The group approved what Sullivan County Republican Party Chairman Cheryl Russell described to the Times News as a “guideline/qualification” to an existing list of ways to determine someone’s bona fide status. A would-be GOP candidate can be challenged if he or she has not voted in three of four past Republican primaries, which is specifically set forth in the new rule.

As of Friday morning, Tennessee Republican Party Director of Communications Candice G. Dawkins told the Times News there had been no challenges against any candidates in Sullivan County.

But Dawkins said the deadline to file such challenges is five days prior to the deadline for a candidate to withdraw, which is February 22. The deadline to file for the party’s primary is February 15.

“According to Article IX, Section 2 of the Tennessee Republican Party bylaws, ‘a challenge must be made no later than five (5) days before the deadline for removal of a candidate’s name from a ballot under TCA Section 2-5-39 204 or otherwise, or any other applicable deadline,’ ” Dawkins wrote in an email response to questions about the issue. “For the May county primary election, the withdraw deadline is February 22 at noon.”

The Times News followed up by asking if that meant a challenge could potentially keep a hopeful from filing as an independent instead of seeking a GOP nomination.

Dawkins said it would not. But after this story published in print, Sullivan County Administrator of Elections Jason Booher said Dawkins was wrong.

“If a candidate is challenged and then removed for not meeting the requirements to run as a Republican, they still have the option to run as an independent candidate,” Dawkins wrote to the Times News on Friday. “For those looking to run as an independent, the deadline to file to appear on the August county general election ballot is April 5th. Independent candidates will not appear on the May primary ballot.”

Booher said Dawkins was wrong about that last point. The deadline to file to run as an independent on the August county general election ballot is noon February 15 —the same as that of candidates seeking to participate in the party primaries, Booher said.

Everyone who has picked up a petition — Republican, Democratic, or independent — had all deadlines explained correctly at the time the petition was issued, Booher said, but his office will likely reach out Monday to all those who picked up to possibly run as independents to make sure they understand February 15 is the deadline to file.

The Times News talked with Russell, the Sullivan County GOP chairman, a couple of weeks ago asking for clarification on the change about the number of primaries a would-be candidate must have participated in to avoid potential challenge.

“It’s more of a guideline/qualification,” Russell said. “Put those words together. It’s more of a clarification thing, rather than a new rule. And it’s obviously to help qualify what makes a bona fide Republican.”

Russell said she thinks there’s a misconception on the part of many people that this is the only qualifier — when it is only one of several.

“It says to qualify as a bona fide Republican to run for local elected office, you must have voted in at least three out of the last four primaries: August 2012; August 2014; March 2016, August 2016,” Russell said. “They gave us those clarifications there, but it’s also in addition to — because they know there are always some issues — people that have been financially involved in the party, that have contributed. ‘Maybe I can’t go to all these meetings, but I want to contribute to the party and support it that way’ Or, we understand those financial concerns, too, being physically involved — coming to meetings. We have variety of meetings. Some free. Some that require tickets and things like that. And then the other thing is your basic support of the Republican platform.  So I mean it’s more of a combination. Obviously, we want to be a very welcoming party, an inclusive, not an exclusive party and definitely want people to become involved. That is our main goal. We’d like to see many people become involved, many ages. I know I had people even in the presidential election that were in their seventies who had never registered to vote and wanted to become involved. So that’s how we want to move forward as a party.”

Russell said another option if a would-be candidate is challenged is to obtain a waiver by having a Republican in their district vouch for the person and say, ‘Yes, I think candidate A is a bona fide Republican.’ ”

Ultimately, though, such challenges are taken up at the state level of the party, Russell said.

The Times News asked Sullivan County Mayor Richard Venable to weigh in on the issue. Venable was county GOP chairman for several years in the 1980s.

“I think all politics is local,” Venable said. “And I think local folks ought to be deciding who they elect and who they nominate. That was local and it needs to remain local. I was chairman of the party in 1984, 1985, 1986 and 1987. We had a credentials committee. And we never had a problem. Candidates who wanted to run as Republicans met with them ... and it spanned the whole show. Number one, ‘Are you somebody we really want to be associated with?’ and number two, ‘Are you really a Republican.’ We were a minority party then, and our attitude is maybe a little bit different than it is today. We were a welcoming party. But we did actually not approve some people for inclusion as a Republican back (then).”

“It seems like this year ... we have a record number that have picked up and pulled and even filed,” Russell said. “That has me just so excited I just can’t even tell you. Especially on the local level. More that want to get involved. More that are interested. And to me, that only moves us in a positive direction because you have that many that care enough.”

Russell is one of three people who have filed to seek the GOP nomination to run for county clerk. And three more have picked up. One person, Jane Davis, has filed to seek the Democratic Party’s nomination for the office, which is open after incumbent Jeanie Gammon announced she will not seek re-election.

In case you’re wondering, Davis is one of only six would-be candidates who have either picked up or filed to run in the Democratic party Primary — across all 21 races. Another 17 petitions have been issued and/or filed by candidates seeking to be on the August ballot as independents.

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