Is she in or is she out? Odessa Kelly as been quiet of late about whether she will continue as a Democratic candidate for Congress in House District 5 or switch to a friendlier district. (Photo: John Partipilo)
A redistricting that sliced Congressional District 5, the historic Nashville district, into three parts like so many pieces of the pie caused a freakout among Democrats. U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, who has held the seat since 2002, announced the day after the redistricting was made public that he would not seek reelection.
Never mind that the progressive wing of the party has long grumbled about Cooper’s moderate stances. Plenty of Democrats castigated Cooper for “chickening out” of running and still others fretted that progressive candidate Odessa Kelly, a Black woman, would be unable to win in the newly drawn district—if, that is, she runs.
True, the new district, which still includes a good chunk of Nashville and Davidson County, added more rural and conservative counties like Maury, Lewis and Marshall, none of which are likely to be kind to Democrats. But it also includes a portion of Williamson County, the conservative but second most populous county in the district.
The district was undoubtedly drawn to give the advantage to a Republican candidate, but there’s an argument to be made that a strong Democrat could have a fighting chance. In the 2018 election, former Gov. Phil Bredesen beat now-Sen. Marsha Blackburn in Davidson County 72%-28%. In Williamson, Blackburn beat Bredesen 60%-40%. Number-crunchers say a look at the new 5th shows Bredesen pulled close to 50-50 with Blackburn.
The race is uphill for a Democrat but with Kelly mum on whether she will continue to run in District 5 or, as rumored, run against GOP Congressman Mark Green in District 7, the new House 5 could lack any strong candidate but Republicans.
It’s not enough for Democrats to wring hands and complain about the GOP supermajority or even to file a lawsuit challenge legislative redistricting, as three individuals did last week with the backing of the Tennessee Democratic Party.
Four Republicans have officially announced their bids for the GOP nomination: former Speaker of the House Beth Harwell, retired National Guard Gen. Kurt Winstead, Morgan Ortagus, a recent transplant to Tennessee and former press secretary to former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and music video producer Robby Starbuck. A fifth candidate, businessman Baxter Lee, has filed papers to begin raising money but hasn’t declared his candidacy.
Then, there are the rumored candidates. Maury County Mayor Andy Ogles is said to be preparing a run and GOP operatives talking smack about Ortagus and Starbuck’s ties to the community, or lack thereof, appear to be working to clear the field for an Ogles entry.
Former Williamson County Republican Party Chair Omar Hamada has made noise about entering the race as has legislative assistant Tres Wittum, who was bounced as chair of the Davidson County Republican Party for not meeting the party’s bona fides.
So while the GOP primary looks to be crowded and messy, with millions of dollars spent and elbows being thrown, the slate of candidates for Democratic or Independent voters in the new district is thin. Kelly’s campaign didn’t respond to an email asking about her current campaign status.
There’s been talk of a “Draft Mike Stewart” movement, but the Democratic representative and former House Democratic Caucus chair would likely have a rough go in the general election over his outspoken stance on Tennessee’s loose gun laws. The East Nashville Democrat has staged several public stunts to call attention to the laws, including setting up a downtown Nashville lemonade stand with beverages, cookies and an assault rifle for sale.
But Stewart, who announced recently he won’t run for reelection to the legislature, isn’t the only potential candidate. Sen. Heidi Campbell of Nashville is still in her first term but beat former GOP Sen. Steve Dickerson in 2020 and is known for having plenty of friends across the aisle. She made a lot of friends in Williamson County before launching her political career, while raising her children and in this incarnation of her life, she’s been able to work with her Republican colleagues to pass legislation.
Another name on the lips of hopeful Democrats is that of Frank Garrison, a Nashville native, former Vanderbilt University football player and businessman. Garrison would be a formidable opponent: He’s got not only brains and political savvy but could jumpstart his campaign with seed money. Prominent Democratic leaders have long cast a wishful eye Garrison’s way.
The bottom line is that many Democratic voters are unrepresented and it appears that there is little movement to do anything about it. Such a concession would also add to the perception that the Tennessee Democratic Party is on the verge of extinction, to use Cooper’s words.
Tennesseans deserve balance, not a scale tipped with eight Republican congressmen and only one Democrat, but first, a candidate needs to make a run official. With the filing deadline April 7, the clock is ticking.
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