Editor’s column: The hottest ticket in town

Politicos are salivating watching the Jim Cooper-Odessa Kelly matchup

July 23, 2021 5:00 am
Odessa Kelly works on the porch of her East Nashville. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Odessa Kelly works on the porch of her East Nashville. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Political tongues have been flapping all over Nashville since community organizer and activist Odessa Kelly announced her candidacy for the Democratic nomination in the 5th Congressional District in early April. 

Kelly is taking on incumbent Jim Cooper, who has served in the 5th District seat since his election in 2002 (and in the 4th Congressional District from 1983-1995) and at 67, has given no indication he plans on stepping back. 

Last week, fundraising disclosures required by the Federal Election Commission were released and much has been made over the amounts raised by the two, who their donors were and who is burning through cash the fastest. 

And like it or not, money is crucial to political campaigns: No candidate, no matter how smart or qualified, can successfully raise their name identification and get their message to voters without sufficient funds. 

Rep. Jim Cooper
U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper (D-TN) (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

But there’s more to a race than one disclosure, and there’s more to this race than money. 

  • Making it rain: Cooper raised just over $580,000; Kelly raised just over $300,000. Both are credible numbers, but the numbers need some context. One tenet of politics is that a candidate needs to make an impressive showing with their first disclosure, lest he or she be written off as non-competitive. Kelly did that. To raise $300,000 as a first-time candidate is impressive, particularly so given she’s running against a long-time incumbent. She spent more than half of her haul, a fact Cooper noted in an interview with Kirk Bado of the National Journal, but it makes sense: Kelly’s campaign spent over $70,000 on digital advertising but that’s a solid strategy for raising her name ID early in a race. Cooper, by contrast, has much more cash on hand but he’s also banked 40 years of name recognition. 
  • Inside baseball: Several news stories have listed prominent donors to both candidates. Kelly got money from actress Jane Fonda, Metro Nashville Education Association President Amanda Kail, public housing advocates Eddie Latimer and Kay Bowers, and Judge Rachel Bell. But just listing a handful of donors for either candidate doesn’t speak to trends. Virtually every member of Middle Tennessee’s Democratic establishment gave more than $100 to Cooper. Kelly received a few contributions of over $100 from Young Democrats, including a labor organizer and two legislative staff members, but no donations from prominent Democrats. Kelly has spun this to say Cooper’s only support comes from lawyers, lobbyists and power brokers, but the truth is that she’s going to need to win some of this crew over: as a Democrat, albeit one of the “new breed,” she needs the support of more Democrats than the liberal Justice Democrats brand can bring in Tennessee in order to pull off a win. She has scored the endorsements of a half dozen of  Nashville’s 40 council members, including Sean Parker, who also serves in a role on her campaign staff. Nashville may be liberal by Tennessee standards, but it’s not close to being liberal by, say, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez standards.  And lest we forget, the 5th District includes Cheatham and Dickson Counties, rural areas more conservative even by Democratic standards than Nashville. 
  • The candidates: Kelly’s campaign has tried to paint a picture of Cooper as being out of touch with his district — and her campaign isn’t the only one. Several prominent Democrats not listed on either financial disclosure have indicated Cooper isn’t reading the room. Democratic political dynamics are changing and there’s a hunger to see more women and more minorities in elected office. But Cooper is no absentee congressman and it’s not a fair characterization to imply he is. He spends most of his time when Congress isn’t in session – including most weekends – in the district. Public function? He’s there. When members of Nashville’s Kurdish community protest, he’s often the only elected official on the protest line, for instance. He attends Pride events, Tennessee State University homecoming and was part of the John Lewis memorial ceremonies last week. He has assembled a crack office staff known for constituent services and chock full of women and minority staff leaders. He’s been a virtual ATM to Democratic candidates and elected officials for years and has even paid the rent for the Davidson County Democratic Party’s office. And while not warm and fuzzy, Cooper has a self-deprecating humor and isn’t reticent about giving out his personal cell phone number – or answering it. So while Kelly’s strategy may reap her out of state donors, it remains to be seen if it resonates with voters who know Cooper.
  • For her part, Kelly is a stronger candidate than Keeda Haynes, Cooper’s last primary challenger. Haynes had a compelling backstory but lacked the deep and broad community ties of Kelly, who has a warm charisma that makes you feel you’ve known her forever upon your first meeting. A graduate of Metro Nashville Public Schools and Tennessee State University, where she played basketball, Kelly has worked for Metro Parks and now directs Stand Up Nashville, a pro-labor organization. All of that is to say that if Haynes could swing almost 40% of the 2020 primary vote to Cooper’s 57%, it’s feasible that Kelly could pick up an additional 8% to close the gap.
An attractive candidate who’s started strong, Kelly needs to convince moderate Democratic voters to toss a known quantity aside in a red state where the few Democratic officials are hanging on for dear life.

There are a couple of X-factors, however, one being redistricting: after the GOP-led legislature completes the process, the 5th District could look quite a bit different and not be kind to a Democrat, which renders all this moot. The other X-factor is the Cooper name, which could cut both ways. Jim Cooper’s brother, John, is mayor of Nashville and the architect of a 34% property tax increase that passed in 2020. Many average voters may not be tuned in to which Cooper is mayor and which is the congressman and if John Cooper’s popularity hits a low point in 2022, Congressman Cooper’s  votes could reflect that discontent. And you can bank on Kelly’s savvy and seasoned campaign team to assist voters in connecting the two Coopers. 

Conventional wisdom holds that electoral advantage goes to the incumbent and there’s a reason it’s conventional wisdom: typically, it holds true. But given the variables in play and unpredictability of politics in recent years, the outcome of the 2022 primary is anyone’s guess. Stay tuned.


Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Holly McCall
Holly McCall

Holly McCall has been a fixture in Tennessee media and politics for decades. She covered city hall for papers in Columbus, Ohio and Joplin, Missouri before returning to Tennessee with the Nashville Business Journal. Holly brings a deep wealth of knowledge about Tennessee’s political processes and players and likes nothing better than getting into the weeds of how political deals are made.