Republicans eye Nashville crack-up to gain House seat
Republicans plotting to maximize their advantages in state legislatures across the country during the decennial redistricting process are considering cracking apart Tennessee’s largest city, an ambitious move that could signal how aggressively the party will try to rig maps in its favor in the coming months.
In preliminary conversations, top Republicans in the Volunteer State have contemplated dramatically redrawing the boundaries of a district anchored in Nashville, one of just two U.S. House seats in Tennessee held by a Democratic member of Congress.
The move would put the squeeze on Rep. Jim Cooper (D), the dean of Tennessee’s congressional delegation and a presence in Washington since he first won his district in 1982, save for an eight-year absence after he lost a race for a U.S. Senate seat in 1994.
Cooper has never had trouble winning reelection: He ran unopposed in 2020, and he hasn’t taken less than 62 percent of the vote since the Republican wave of 2010.
Cooper’s strength lies in Nashville’s Davidson County, home to about four in five of his constituents. The county gave President Biden almost two-thirds of the vote in 2020, while the smaller but more Republican suburbs in Dickson and Cheatham counties voted heavily for former President Trump.
Nashville and Davidson County have been wholly contained within one congressional district since at least the 1950s, a logical function of its role as the population epicenter of Middle Tennessee.
But if Tennessee Republicans decide to divide Davidson County between neighboring districts, Cooper may find himself facing the unpalatable decision to run in a district that is much more favorable to Republicans: All three of the neighboring districts — held by Reps. John Rose (R) to the north and east, Mark Green (R) to the west and south and Scott DesJarlais (R) to the southeast — gave Trump at least two-thirds of the vote.
“Tennessee has changed dramatically, in a lot of ways,” said Gregory Gleaves, a Republican strategist in Nashville. “I don’t think it would be that unusual for Nashville to get split. It happens in other states. There’s no law saying Davidson County is the one county that can’t be split.”
Democrats would have little ability to resist the GOP power play. Republicans hold 26 of 33 seats in the state Senate, and 74 of 99 seats in the state House of Representatives. Gov. Bill Lee, also a Republican, has the final say in approving any new district maps.
“It’s always going to be chopped up to the advantage of the ruling party. So that’s expected,” said state Rep. Antonio Parkinson (D), the chairman of the Tennessee state legislature’s Black Caucus. “It makes it harder for Democrats to get elected.”
Cooper’s office did not respond to a request for comment. But he is no fan of partisan gerrymandering: Cooper introduced legislation earlier this year that would require states to create independent and bipartisan redistricting commissions.
“Voters should continue to choose their elected officials — not the other way around,” Cooper said in a statement introducing the bill in January. “The redistricting process shouldn’t be about protecting the powerful and we need to fix it.”
The U.S. Census Bureau has not put out block-level population data that will inform state legislative mapmakers, after the pandemic delayed data collection and analysis, so any potential plans to split Nashville are preliminary at most.
But redistricting experts say they see the move to divide Tennessee’s biggest city among multiple districts, diluting the power of Nashville’s voters and giving Republicans a chance to pick up a seat, as emblematic of a strategy the GOP will use in other states.
“This is a common tactic used by state legislators especially in order to crack voters into different districts,” said Ari Goldbloom-Helzner, a computational research analyst at the Electoral Innovation Lab at Princeton. “It makes it difficult for those groups to constitute a majority in electing a representative of their choice that represents their community.”
Several other cities have been chopped between districts for partisan gain, too: In the last decade, Texas Republicans split Travis County, home of liberal Austin, among five separate congressional districts, four of which are held by Republicans. Pennsylvania Republicans drew district lines so bizarre in the increasingly Democratic Collar Counties around Philadelphia that the state Supreme Court set a new map of boundary lines in place for the 2018 elections. In Michigan, liberal Lansing is divided between districts held by Reps. Tim Walberg (R) and Elissa Slotkin (D), after Slotkin defeated Republican incumbent Mike Bishop in 2018.
As the Census Bureau prepares to deliver new block-level data to states, Republicans and Democrats are beginning to outline strategies they will implement to take full advantage of the control they wield.
Republicans, by dint of their advantage in so many state legislatures, will have a leg up. The GOP holds complete control over the redistricting process in 20 states that will collectively send 188 members to the House of Representatives. Democrats control the entire process in only seven states that account for 72 members of Congress.
Sixteen states will draw new boundary lines through independent or bipartisan commissions or through power-sharing agreements because both Democrats and Republicans hold at least one lever of government. The seven remaining states send only one at-large member to Congress.
The Republican advantage is less than it was a decade ago, just after the 2010 landslide handed the GOP control of a huge number of governorships and state legislative chambers. But recent Supreme Court rulings have removed some of the guardrails that constrained legislatures last time around, potentially giving Republicans and Democrats alike greater freedom to exercise their control over the redistricting process.