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Democrats see Nashville in crosshairs as GOP plans new congressional maps

Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper has publicly pleaded with Republicans who control Tennessee's redistricting process to keep the booming city whole.
Image: Downtown Nashville
Since the last redistricting cycle, Middle Tennessee and Nashville, one of a handful of blue dots in a reliably red state, have grown. Prisma by Dukas / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Tennessee legislators are considering splitting up the growing city of Nashville into multiple congressional districts, a redistricting plan that would almost certainly doom the sitting Democratic representative and send a Republican to Washington in his place.

"There’s been people who have proposed to split Davidson County, and there have been those who have proposed not to split Davidson County," state House Speaker Cameron Sexton, a Republican, told NBC News. "It’s possible."

Sexton said the maps haven't been drawn yet, and a draft won't be made public until early January. But Democrats, particularly the one whose U.S. House seat could be in danger, have already begun sounding the alarm.

“It’s highly likely they will gerrymander Tennessee and destroy Nashville’s identity and political clout,” Rep. Jim Cooper, the Democratic congressman who has represented Tennessee's 5th District since 2003, said in an interview. "It's a little bit like political looting. If you know that the store is open and nobody's watching, you're going to steal as much as you can."

He recently appeared at a state House hearing on redistricting to publicly plead with legislators to keep Nashville whole. He also said he was lobbying the Republicans who control the process directly in hopes of staving off a redistricting maneuver that could cost him his job and, in his view, hurt the city's future.

The U.S. Constitution requires a census every 10 years. The data is used to redraw congressional districts to represent shifts in population, so that each congressional district includes approximately the same number of people. The process has become deeply political, with both parties vying to use their statehouse advantage to draw maps that will help propel them to control the U.S. House.

Since the last redistricting cycle, Middle Tennessee and Nashville, one of a handful of blue dots in a reliably red state, have boomed. The current 5th Congressional District, which includes all of Davidson County, as well as the more rural Dickson County and parts of Cheatham County, is too big and must be changed. Davidson County is now approximately the right size for a congressional district of its own, but redistricting experts said the city could also be split among the surrounding conservative areas in what's called a "pizza slice" gerrymander. The end result would almost certainly eliminate the city's ability to elect Democrats, these experts said, since its blue voters would be split among several very conservative districts.

Debby Gould, president of the League of Women Voters of Tennessee, said Nashville residents are broadly opposed to splitting the city into different districts. The group has been soliciting public input and advocating for legislators to be transparent about their plans and listen to people's opinions about how the maps should be drawn.

"When you think about all the ways that money flows to the state, including from federal government, including health care issues, including education issues, we have a school district of 86,000 kids," she said in an interview, noting that the city and Davidson consolidated into a single government in 1963. "There are a lot of reasons why you want to have someone be your advocate in Congress with a unified voice, and not feel like we're just one subsection. We, Nashville, are not a subsection of another group."

Sexton argued that not all counties can be kept together and suggested it wasn't always a bad thing to have a city like Nashville split in pieces that are represented by multiple members of Congress.

"If more than one person represents a county, then you have more voice in Washington," he said.

State Rep. Kevin Vaughan, a Republican who will oversee Middle Tennessee’s maps for the House redistricting committee, said that whether the county gets split will fundamentally come down to the population data.

“The numbers will speak for themselves,” he said.

Vaughan said legislators want to draw fair districts — ones that wouldn’t get sued and land them in a lengthy taxpayer-funded lawsuit — but said he wasn’t “predisposed” on how to draw the maps in Nashville.

Cooper said that most of his pledged 2022 challengers are Republicans and that he believed they would been tempted to run with maps that split Nashville into multiple districts, making the urban, more Democratic-leaning areas “very digestible.”

One of his challengers is Robby Starbuck, a Republican boasting an endorsement from Rep. Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. Starbuck lives outside the existing district; under Tennessee law, lawmakers are not required to live inside the district they represent.

"I know the one thing people are going to say about me is, 'His house isn't here,'" Starbuck told The Nashville Tennessean. "It's very possible my farm could end up in the district and his house could not end up in the district."

But not all Republicans are keen on the idea of splitting Nashville.

“My belief is that that would be a bad idea," said U.S. Rep. Mark Green, a Republican who represents the state's 7th District immediately to the west of Nashville, at a recent event with a local chamber of commerce, according to The Nashville Post. "If you look at Atlanta and you look at Philadelphia — two cities that tried to do that — within three-to-four cycles, those cities flipped."

Green said that Republicans now held "a very comfortable" majority in Tennessee's U.S. House delegation, with seven seats to Democrats' two. "We can stay a very comfortable seven-and-two for 10 years, or we can take some risk, and we can probably get an eight-and-one for four-six years,” he said, according to the outlet.

Nashville wouldn’t be the first Southern city to be spliced by Republican redistricting plans.

A decade ago, a Republican-drawn map split the liberal city of Asheville, North Carolina, into two districts, sending most of the city into a conservative district next door as district lines snaked through residential communities with no apparent rhyme or reason. The result? Two safe Republican seats.

The new district lines made it impossible for then-U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, a moderate Democrat and former NFL quarterback, to win re-election. He retired to spend more time with family, and was succeeded by some of Congress' most conservative Republicans: Mark Meadows, who retired to serve in then-President Donald Trump's White House, and later Cawthorn, the lawmaker who has endorsed one of Cooper’s challengers.

At the time, North Carolina Republicans openly acknowledged that the district maps they’d drawn for U.S. House districts were a political gerrymander. And those maps — which were litigated and redrawn repeatedly throughout the decade — eventually helped pave the way for more partisan gerrymandering around the country. In 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that partisan gerrymandering that occurred in North Carolina and Maryland was legal under federal law.

Racial gerrymandering remains illegal under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, something that’s likely to prevent Republicans from considering a gerrymander in Tennessee’s other blue pocket, Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen’s 9th District, which is majority Black. Much like Asheville, Nashville is a majority-white city.