Rep. Jim Cooper has represented Nashville in the House for nearly 20 years, and a nearby district before that for another dozen, serving in Congress longer than anyone else in Tennessee. In the deep red state, he and his brother John – Music City’s mayor – are the keepers of one of its last Democratic bastions.
But Republicans are now considering breaking up Cooper’s district, which could help them gain another crucial seat in the House, where Democrats hold only a four-seat margin. With complete control of the state legislature, Tennessee Republicans could change the state’s House delegation from seven Republicans and two Democrats to eight Republicans and one Democrat based in Memphis.
In an interview, Cooper acknowledged that Republicans could effectively decide his political fate and warned that they may weaken Nashville’s influence in Washington.
“They couldn’t beat me fairly,” Cooper told CNN. “So, now they’re trying to beat me by gerrymandering.”
“It’s not about me,” he added. “It’s about the political future of Nashvillians. And they deserve their own voice, regardless of who is their congressman.”
Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton, a Republican, told CNN that middle Tennessee’s booming growth could force the state’s congressional districts in the east and the west to stretch there. From 2010 to 2019, Nashville’s Davidson County increased by roughly 70,000 people, according to the US Census Bureau, far more than any other in the state.
“There is the potential of Davidson County being split to two, to three, I doubt to four (districts),” Sexton said. “We’re just going to make sure that we create districts that can hold up in a court challenge and at the same time, not to try to gerrymander certain seats.”
Sexton also acknowledged the political considerations.
“From our standpoint, we’d always love to have more Republicans (in Congress), just as I’m sure the Democrats in other states would love to have more Democrats,” he said. “I don’t think people necessarily want things to stay the same if they can have more of their people win office.”
Republicans’ control of the redistricting process in Texas, North Carolina and Florida is expected to overwhelm the Democrats’ advantages in other states like New York. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report estimates that Republicans will gain between three and four House seats in 2022 through redistricting. National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Michael McAdams said that the once in a decade phenomenon is just one part of the party’s strategy to take back the House.
“Redistricting alone will not deliver House Republicans a majority, which is why we are focused on running competitive campaigns all across the country and making sure voters understand how dangerous Democrats’ socialist agenda is to American families,” McAdams said.
Cooper, a self-described “nerd” who has “traditionally” been “very moderate,” said that the city’s interests would suffer if multiple GOP Congressmen represented it.
“It’s vitally important for the future of the state to be able to talk to both sides of the aisle,” Cooper said.
Some Democrats in the business community worry that if the district is divided, no one House member will be a proponent for the city’s health care, education and music industries, and be able to mount an effective response to crises like the 2020 Nashville bombing.
Bert Mathews, a commercial real estate developer, said that Nashville has its own challenges “that are really dramatically different” from other towns in the state.
“I feel like having one congressman is a real help in a particular situation,” Mathews said.
Cooper said that splitting up the district because of Middle Tennessee’s growth is a “very misleading” argument because the state’s districts will all have about 768,000 people – roughly the size of Nashville. But he recognized that he’s a sitting duck with “no effective legal recourse” if the state’s House and Senate decides to divide his up.
A 60-slide presentation written by Cooper’s former chief of staff Lisa Quigley obtained by CNN cautioned that if Davidson county isn’t kept intact in one House district, the Black vote would be divided and silenced.
While Republicans are determined to take back the House, lawmakers in neighboring districts may help Cooper save his seat. Tennessee GOP Rep. Mark Green is worried that the General Assembly could go too far in rewriting their House districts, making his seat more competitive over the next decade.
“What we don’t want to do is get greedy,” Green told CNN. “And then four years from now as Nashville continues to turn blue, wind up worse off than we are.”
“I’d love to contribute to retaking the House in that way, but I think we’re better off seven and two,” he added.
Sexton said Green has been spreading “misinformation” about how he could be drawn out of his seat by taking in voters from Davidson county. But Sexton acknowledged that Republicans would have to “weigh the risk” of changing the districts.
“You have to be very careful about trying to play very partisan politics, because it could hurt you long term if you’re trying to move enough people to create seats for your party,” he said.
The Tennessee speaker noted that the Census has not provided the General Assembly the data it needs to craft the districts, saying that “there hasn’t been any discussions on, or any drawings, or anything, on what anything looks like.”
Adam Kleinheider, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally’s spokesman, said the pandemic postponed when they’d receive the final census numbers until around September. Kleinheider said the state’s redistricting committee members would likely be appointed later this summer, and that the new districts needed to be created in January. He said that McNally “is committed to an open and transparent redistricting process,” and would field input from the general public and their representatives.
“Until final census numbers are obtained, no real work regarding the drawing of districts can begin,” said Kleinheider. Any contemplation or speculation on the possible configuration of districts at this time would be entirely premature.”
At this stage, however, it’s clear there’s an appetite among some Republicans for rewriting Cooper out of his district, even if the outcome is uncertain.
“Whatever scenario you would ask about – is that a possibility? Yes,” said Chip Saltsman, a former state GOP chairman. “Is it going to happen? I don’t know.”
Already, Cooper is facing a Democratic challenge from the left with Odessa Kelly, who is backed by Justice Democrats, the progressive group that launched New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s 2018 campaign. Two other Republicans, Robby Starbuck and Quincy McKnight, have also entered the race against Cooper.
Both other high-profile Republicans, including Dr. Manny Sethi, an orthopedic trauma surgeon at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, and former state Speaker Beth Harwell told CNN they’d consider running for the House if the district became redder. Davidson county went for Biden over Donald Trump 64.5% to 32.5% in 2020 but all of the counties surrounding it went for Trump.
“If it didn’t change, then you know, obviously no,” Sethi said. “I just have to see what it looked like.”
“I just think we really need good Republican conservative leadership to take on the President and (House Speaker Nancy) Pelosi,” he added.
Cooper, 67, said he’d run again in 2022 on his long service in Congress, even if Republicans try to draw him out of his district.
“In general, you want an experienced doctor. You want an experienced lawyer. You should want an experienced elected official,” Cooper said. “Otherwise, you’re getting a rookie who’s going to have to spend all their time learning the job.”
“Show me another city in America that’s more successful than Nashville,” he added. “We’re on a roll.”
CNN’s Manu Raju contributed to this report.