Tennessee has turned into a red hellhole in recent years. Statewide, no Democrat has had a win there since Phil Bredesen, a DINO, won in 2003. Both U.S. senators, Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty, are far right Republicans. The last time Tennessee went for a Democrat was when Al Gore was elected in 1990. Republican Bill Lee is the governor. The 33-member state Senate has 27 Republicans and 6 Democrats and the 99-seat House consists of 73 Republicans and 26 Dems. In 2016, Tennessee gave Trump it's 11 electoral votes by a wide margin: 1,522,925 (60.7%) to 870,695 (34.7%), winning 92 of Tennessee's 95 counties. And last year Trump won the same 92 counties, beating Biden 1,852,475 (60.7%) to 1,143,711 (37.4%).
Yep... a one party state. Except for the state's two big cities, Memphis (Shelby County) and Nashville (Davidson County), which are both blue. And, right now (pre-gerrymander) each anchors a Democratic-held congressional district, although the GOP plans to slice up Davidson County the way Texas Republicans sliced up Austin, to make it impossible for a Democrat to win there. Last November, TN-09 (Memphis) reelected progressive Steve Cohen 77.4% to 20.1%. The Republicans are happy enough in TN-05 (Nashville) to not run anyone against conservative DINO Jim Cooper. In 2018, when Jody Ball took on Cooper, he was reelected 177,923 (67.8%) to 84,317 (32.2%).
The last time TN-05 sent a Republican to Congress was in 1872. In recent years, the district has been getting more Democratic even as the state has grown redder. TN-05's recent presidential votes:
2000- Gore 57%, Bush 42%
2004- Kerry 52%, Bush 48%
]2008- Obama 57.5%, McCain 41.3%
2012- Obama 56.0%, Romney 42.5%
2016- Hillary 56.5%, Trumpanzee 38.2%
2020- Biden 60.3%, Trumpanzee 36.7%
Last year, a strong progressive, Keeda Haynes, challenged Cooper-- well known for working with the Republicans to try to cut Social Security and Medicare-- in a primary and held him to a 50,752 (57.1%) to 35,472 (39.9%) win. As I wrote when Blue America endorse Keeda, TN-05 has a solid PVI of D+7, but Cooper is a Blue Dog, best known for his conservative politics. When he was first elected, in 1982, Nashville wasn't part of his rural district but he gave up that district to run, unsuccessfully, for the U.S. Senate and when the Nashville district opened up, he spent nearly a million dollars of his family's money to buy the seat. He's never had a serious challenger since then. Republicans are happy with his conservative politics and Democrats have been afraid to challenge him in a primary. Until now! Meet Keeda Haynes, a top-notch progressive reformer who vigorously backs Medicare-For-All, the Green New Deal, a $15 living wage, a national cap on rent and home price increases, top to bottom student loan reform, H.R. 40 (Sheila Jackson Lee's bill to set up a reparations commission), marijuana legalization, a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented individuals currently living in the U.S., competitive prescription drug costs and a whole platform built on solid progressive positions.
Keeda spent $142,772 to Cooper's $1,332,131. This morning, I spoke with Keeda on the phone and she's still assessing her option about challenging Cooper again. Many progressives are pushing her to do so, feeling she had set up a win based on all that was accomplished in 2020. She has a book coming out and has to figure how she's going to balance giving her all to her work, her campaign and her book.
Also this morning, another progressive challenger, community organizer Odessa Kelly, announced her primary campaign against Cooper, with the backing of Justice Democrats.
“There’s a new generation of Democrats who are coming up from the bottom of the party who are younger, more diverse, more progressive and have public service or community leadership experience, and we need more in Congress,” says Waleed Shahid, a spokesperson for Justice Democrats. “She is the exact kind of person we need to see more of in the Democratic Party and in Congress.”
Kelly would be the first Black woman to represent Tennessee in Washington. She would also be the first openly gay Black woman to serve in Congress.
Shahid says Justice Democrats will provide small-dollar donor and volunteer infrastructure and, perhaps most importantly, “a progressive seal of approval.” All of that, he says, is necessary to help Kelly take on “a dynasty”-- Cooper is the son of a former governor of Tennessee and the brother of Nashville’s current mayor, John Cooper.
Progressives in Nashville have been organizing on Jim Cooper’s left flank since before his 2020 re-election. Then, allied organizations supporting initiatives like the Green New Deal and Medicare for All coalesced behind the primary challenge of Keeda Haynes, a former public defender who secured nearly 40 percent of the Democratic primary vote in her unsuccessful quest to unseat Cooper.
Ever since Haynes gave him a close call, he has tried to appear more progressive, claiming he's "open" to Medicare for All and signing on as a co-sponsor to the Green New Deal. Rick Herron of Sunrise Movement wasn't fooled by Cooper's attempt to re-position himself. "I’ve never heard a representative badmouth a resolution or bill that they were co-sponsoring while they were in the midst of co-sponsoring it. The urgency that we’re feeling in Nashville after another flood, the urgency that folks on the ground are feeling and the urgency that the Democratic Party is feeling to take serious action on climate, I think that’s all growing and not shrinking. The pressure for him to step up on this issue is only going to grow."
In an interview with the Scene late last year, Cooper acknowledged the influence of progressives but said Democrats in places like Tennessee should focus their ire on Republicans. He also said Democrats should be wary of lurching further left as the GOP-dominated state legislature prepares to divvy up congressional districts following the census.
“We need the energy and the idealism of the progressives,” he said. “We need to remember to focus on the real opposition, which is the Republican Party. It's very easy for us to spend all our time and effort focusing on party purity instead of on winning elections. Tennessee Democrats need much more practice on winning elections.”
For her part, Kelly says her two main priorities if she were in Congress today would be Medicare for All and Green New Deal legislation.