The Republican National Committee is intensely interested in holding its 2024 presidential convention in Nashville — but its push is already bogged down in local issues and politics that pit the blue city against the state's GOP governor.
Nashville Mayor John Cooper, a Democrat, has raised "significant security concerns" directly with RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel, according to two sources familiar with the conversations between the mayor's office and the RNC.
Talks among the mayor’s office, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, the RNC and the host committee have been ongoing for weeks as the search for the Republican convention site has narrowed to Milwaukee and Nashville. Lee is supporting the effort to bring the convention to the state’s capital, as is former Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, also a Republican.
In those ongoing discussions, Cooper has expressed concern about the potential volatility such an event could bring in a “post-Jan. 6 environment,” the two sources said.
Richard Walters, a senior adviser to the RNC who served as its chief of staff, said he was in the room with McDaniel and Cooper during their one face-to-face meeting and that the security discussion was limited to funding questions.
"The security concerns that were raised had to do with the security grant" that Congress typically doles out to reimburse the cities that host the political conventions, he said.
Nashville is a bright blue dot in a deeply red state, a factor that is contributing to tensions over the possibility of the RNC hosting its marquee party celebration in the city. City Council members, a majority of whom identify as progressives, must approve the contract to the RNC. However, in some of the ongoing conversations involving the mayor's office, Tennessee state officials and the RNC, the governor has alluded to the fact that the state controls Nashville's budget, a source familiar with those talks said.
"That’s a stick that the governor has made very clear he’ll use if Nashville doesn’t play ball," the source said.
Some council members, such as Nashville Metro Councilwoman Sandra Sepulveda, said hosting the convention would not “align with the values of Nashville."
In an interview, Sepulveda also raised security concerns around protests and whether the Republican supermajority that dominates state government would come down especially hard on protesters.
“We saw protests in our state over Juneteenth. What’s it going to look like when you have people from both sides protesting?” Sepulveda, who identifies as a political progressive, said. “We have a state government that told us that protesting on state grounds isn’t allowed and [protesters] could be arrested.”
Cooper, in raising concerns about the potential for violence, has cited a new level of vitriol between parties that exploded after Jan. 6, 2021, according to the two sources familiar with the ongoing conversations about hosting the RNC.
"This is a new world, this is a new version of the party," one source said. "It’s going to be a dynamic unlike any other dynamic we have seen."
Those supportive of bringing the convention to Nashville, however, downplayed the idea that security concerns could be a dealbreaker. The city routinely hosts big events, and the RNC's potential to bring in 50,000 people wouldn't be a unique challenge.
The RNC moved to file its proposed ordinance with Nashville’s Metro Council on Friday, which begins the process of approving a convention contract with the city. It will be discussed in early July and needs 21 votes from the 40-member body to advance.
Republicans blame pure politics for any resistance.
"The council members, they’ll come up with all these excuses, but the bottom line is they’re still Democrats," said James Garrett, GOP chair of Davidson County. "They’ll do anything they can to keep a Republican convention from coming here."
Councilman Robert Swope said Nashville is more than capable of safely holding big events. As for political concerns, Swope, who worked as Donald Trump’s state director in Tennessee in the 2016 campaign said, "We’re purposely nonpartisan, so let’s prove it."
"This isn’t a matter of political preference. This is a matter of a good business decision," he said. "It comes down to nonpartisan unity."
Joe Woolley, the former CEO of the Nashville LGBTQ Chamber of Commerce, agreed that hosting the convention would put the city in uncharted territory, given the political climate. At the same time, Woolley said it wouldn't be too much for the city.
“I think it is a whole new level of danger or issues that could come with this,” Woolley said. “All of that is a concern, but I think it’s something that Nashville can definitely handle.”