Republicans already hold seven of nine Tennessee congressional districts, but with redistricting approaching in 2022, Democrats fear the GOP-controlled Legislature will try to redraw U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper’s Nashville-based district and effectively push him out of Congress.
Such a move could help Republicans gain another seat in Congress to chip away at Democrat control on the national level.
Most speculation on that strategy centers on creating eight Republican districts by splitting Davidson County three to four ways, potentially creating a new district for former House Speaker Beth Harwell or any other prominent Republican. Harwell has made overtures about running for public office again after a failed gubernatorial bid two years ago but nothing firm. She could not be reached for comment for this story.
Tennessee’s 5th Congressional District is the focal point, nevertheless, held by Nashville Democrat Cooper since 2003. Son of former Gov. Prentice Cooper, the Rhodes Scholar and attorney also represented Tennessee’s 4th Congressional District from 1983 to 1995.
“Republicans are considering killing me (and any other Democrat) with redistricting, including cutting up Nashville,” Cooper said in a statement.
Such a move would put more Nashville Democrats into Republican-controlled districts in Tennessee, for instance, making it more difficult for U.S. Rep. Mark Green to win re-election in House District 7, which stretches from Clarksville to Tennessee’s southern border with Alabama.
Pundits say drawing lines in such a fashion could bring immediate satisfaction by eliminating a long-held Democratic seat and creating more Republican domination but with inherent risk. In case of another blue wave in three to four election cycles, Republicans could lose those seats they created to win just one.
Either way, Tennessee Democratic Party Chairman Hendrell Remus is preparing to stave off a Republican attempt to gerrymander Cooper’s seat out of existence and will fight it in court if necessary.
“Obviously, we’re anticipating the worst of the worst when it comes to putting our faith as a party in their hands when it comes to redistricting,” Remus told Tennessee Lookout recently. “We’re prepared to seek injunctions and litigation to the fullest extent. We anticipate that it’s going to be a nightmare scenario dealing with this particular Legislature.”
U.S. Census numbers aren’t expected to be prepared for another four months because of delays at the federal level, making it difficult to get a handle on how districts will be drawn at the congressional and legislative levels based on Tennessee’s population trends.
Based on estimates, though, Tennessee legislative districts are expected to undergo major revamping because of dwindling population in rural West Tennessee and stagnant numbers in Memphis in contrast to strong growth in Davidson doughnut counties such as Sumner, Rutherford and Williamson, which could merit new districts. Montgomery County is seeing heavy growth as well, which could affect its Senate and House seats.
With plenty of changes in the offing, Democrats will be focusing on compactness and unnecessary sprawl when looking at the Republican-controlled mapping, and they’re keeping an eye on the congressional districts. They’re also hoping for more opportunities for input than were provided a decade ago.
House and Senate Republican leaders say it’s too early to talk about redistricting details, and they discount any discussion about rumors of slicing up Davidson County for congressional purposes.
Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, however, is “committed to an open and transparent redistricting process,” said spokesman Adam Kleinheider.
We're anticipating the worst of the worst when it comes to putting our faith as a party in (the GOP-led legislature's) hands when it comes to redistricting. We're prepared to seek injunctions and litigation to the fullest extent. – Hendrell Remus, Chair, Tennessee Democratic Party
“Due in large part to the pandemic, full and final census numbers will not be available until September. Because a plan needs to be passed as one of the first acts of the Legislature in January, a majority of the work will be done on a compressed timeline starting in the fall. Input from the general public and their elective representatives will be solicited and considered. Until final census numbers are obtained, no real work regarding the drawing of districts can begin. Any contemplation or speculation on the possible configuration or districts at this time would be entirely premature,” Kleinheider said in a statement.
A spokesman for House Speaker Cameron Sexton issued a similar statement.
“Despite speculation and misinformation by a couple of individuals, there has been no discussions related to the drawing of Tennessee’s congressional districts because final data is still unavailable. Unfortunately, based on the delayed release of this census data, the process will have to move along at a quicker pace than normal. Ultimately, the plans will have to pass the General Assembly,” spokesman Doug Kufner said in a statement.
Both speakers are likely to appoint committees and have redistricting plans drawn up by staff with geographical information systems using the new census figures to configure congressional and Tennessee House and Senate districts. Public input would be taken at some point in the process before the Legislature convenes in January 2022, though details on that are not available yet.
Despite speculation and misinformation by a couple of individuals, there's has been no discussions related to the drawing of Tennessee's congressional districts because final data is still unavailable. – Doug Kufner, spokesman for Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton
Slicing up the 5th District was discussed briefly in 2011 when some changes were made to Cooper’s district by including all of Davidson, along with Cheatham and Dickson counties. U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, who was a member of the Congress at the time, saw her district change as well, as she lost much of affluent southwestern Davidson County.
Cooper, who is facing a challenge from Black activist Odessa Kelly in the Democratic primary, maintained his power base in Davidson County a decade ago and added to it. But he believes Republicans are more likely to come for District 5 this time.
“This would cripple economic development in Tennessee by ruining the oasis of blue in our red state, our economic crown jewel. For 200 years, Nashville has had a strong voice in Congress; we cannot let our state Legislature silence that voice. That would kill the goose that’s laying golden eggs,” Cooper said.
Cooper contends some people are “skeptical” that the Legislature will have the “nerve or bad judgment” to slice up Nashville. But he points out Republican-controlled legislatures have “ruined” other state capitals such as Austin, Texas and Salt Lake City, Utah, by carving them into separate congressional districts.
The veteran congressman points out Republican legislators are rejecting economic aid to Tennessee in the form of unemployment payments while rigging a new appeals court to prevent an “effective” legal challenge to redistricting while passing legislation that “embarrasses” the state, such as bathroom bills designed to single out transgender people.
“They don’t mind forcing Republican congressmen in counties outside Nashville to take pie-slices of Davidson County, reducing their R+30 districts to R+15, especially when control of the U.S. House is at stake,” Cooper stated, referring to the GOP’s voter advantage. “Those are still safe Republican districts by any standard, easy for Republicans to win.”
Stung by court rulings from Davidson County chancellors, Republican lawmakers passed legislation this session creating a so-called super chancery court to hear constitutional challenges to state law and redistricting questions. A chancellor in the district where the challenge is filed would be joined by two chancellors from other grand divisions of the state – appointed by the Tennessee Supreme Court – to hear those cases.