Rep. Jim Cooper retires after Tennessee district dismantled

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Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper, a 32-year veteran of Congress, will retire at the end of this year, after Tennessee Republicans shredded his Nashville-based seat into three pieces in redistricting.

He is the 29th House Democrat to leave the chamber to retire or seek higher office during this Congress.

“No one tried harder to keep our city whole,” Cooper wrote in a statement announcing his decision. “I explored every possible way, including lawsuits, to stop the gerrymandering and to win one of the three congressional districts that now divide Nashville. There’s no way, at least for me, in this election cycle.”

Cooper, a conservative Blue Dog Democrat, is part of a storied Tennessee family. His brother is the mayor of Nashville and his father was a governor of the state. He has sometimes gone after his own party, repeatedly voting against Nancy Pelosi as party leader, though he did back her for speaker in 2021, when she faced extremely narrow margins.

His current district includes all of Nashville, and President Joe Biden carried it by 24 points in 2020. But the GOP legislature in Tennessee is advancing a map that would have transformed it into a district that Donald Trump would have carried comfortably.

Tennessee is one of a handful of states where Republicans have gotten more ruthless in their redistricting, after showing surprising reluctance to carve up other blue cities in red states, such as Louisville, Ky. and Kansas City, Mo.

Rep. Steve Cohen's (D-Tenn.) district in Memphis is protected by the Voting Rights Act. But GOP lawmakers have long had their sights set on claiming Cooper’s seat.

And Cooper knew he had a target on his back, telling POLITICO last summer: "What's to restrain them? They have a supermajority. There's a three-vote difference here, and they're going to obey Emily Post etiquette?"

In fact, the GOP legislature got in front of potential lawsuits, passing a bill last May to shake up the makeup of the court that would hear redistricting cases. Those would be tried by a panel of three judges from across the state, rather than just ones from the liberal Davidson County, home to Nashville.

That gives Republicans a better chance at maintaining their crack of Nashville in 2022. But because the city is growing, thanks in part to out-of-state transplants, and that brings some risk throughout the decade to any district that has a piece of it.

“We can only hope and pray that folks when they become Tennesseans embrace our values, and our ethos, and in that regard, we should do fine,” said Rep. Chuck Fleischmann (R-Tenn.), touting the state’s low regulations and taxes. “If they don’t, there could be some competitive races, two or three cycles down the line.”

Potential GOP candidates for the seat include former state House Speaker Beth Harwell, Maury County Mayor Andy Ogles, entrepreneur Baxter Lee and attorney Kurt Winstead. Conservative commentator Robby Starbuck launched a run last June, before the redistricting process was finished. Cooper was already facing a primary challenge from a Justice Democrats-backed candidate, community organizer Odessa Kelly.

Meanwhile, national Republicans ignored the redistricting implications and hailed Cooper’s departure as a sign that his party is more likely than ever to be in the minority in 2022.

“Democrats’ retirement crisis shows no signs of slowing down,” said Camille Gallo, a spokesperson for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “No one wants to run on Democrats’ radical agenda of violent crime, open borders, and skyrocketing prices.”

Natalie Allison and Sarah Ferris contributed to this report.