Tennessee’s Cooper decides to retire after map divides Nashville

Democrat was fiscal hawk, but has faced primary challengers

Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., has decided not to seek a 17th term.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., has decided not to seek a 17th term. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted January 25, 2022 at 5:05pm

Democrat Rep. Jim Cooper, who has served in the House for more than 32 years, announced his retirement Tuesday, hours after Republican lawmakers in Tennessee approved a redistricting plan that carves up his Nashville-area district. 

“Despite my strength at the polls, I could not stop the General Assembly from dismembering Nashville,” he wrote in a statement posted to Twitter. “No one tried harder than me to keep the city whole.” 

Cooper joins a raft of House Democrats who have announced retirements in recent weeks, as states finalize new congressional maps and Democrats face mounting obstacles in their attempt to retain the House majority in the midterms. Cooper is the 29th Democrat to announce plans to retire or seek another office at the end of the year, compared with 13 Republicans. 

The Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC tied to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, said Democrats have not seen so many House retirements in 28 years, “more than the 2010 wave and tied for the record set in the 1994 Republican Revolution.”

On average, 42 House members have left their seats in years following census-driven redistricting going back to 1946, according to the Brookings Institution’s Vital Statistics on Congress.

While the redistricting cycle has not been as bad for Democrats as many expected — offset, in part, by Democratic attempts to shore up the party’s control in the small number of states where they control the process — it has seen the dismantling of numerous congressional districts in urban areas, many of them majority-minority communities. 

Tennessee state House Republicans approved a new map late Monday night — already approved by the state Senate — that divided Davidson County into three districts that pass through downtown Nashville. Cooper’s 5th District, which currently includes all of the county and which President Joe Biden carried by 24 points in 2020, would shift southwest, taking in more rural and Republican-leaning counties, according to Daily Kos Elections. The rest of the county would be folded into the 6th and 7th Districts, each of which voted for then-President Donald Trump by double digits in 2020. 

Cooper said in his statement that he was announcing his decision “promptly” in order to give other candidates time to campaign, and added that he would return the individual contributions he had received “for this campaign.” Candidates in Tennessee have until April 7 to file to run in the Aug. 4 primary.

Cooper, who is white, faced a primary challenge to his left from Odessa Kelly, a community organizer who has the backing of high-profile progressive groups including the Justice Democrats and Indivisible. Kelly, who is Black and gay, called the redistricting plan a “racist power grab” in a Twitter statement, saying that she would continue her campaign. 

“I don't have to imagine what it felt like for my parents to have their voices & votes erased in the Jim Crow South anymore,” she wrote.  “We're living through a racist power grab. But I'm not giving up. My fire’s been lit. We've fought too hard for too long to let them take it all away now.”

Several Republicans have also signaled interest in the race. 

Cooper, a fiscal conservative who voted against then-President Barack Obama’s 2009 stimulus package and used to keep a national debt clock in his congressional office, has long been a target of progressives who see government spending as a way to correct inequality. 

Cooper has softened some of his positions and successfully fended off a primary challenge from his left last year. He signed on to a 2017 “Medicare for All” bill and, though his name has been absent from subsequent iterations, he says he is still open to the idea of universal health care. 

Cooper has the fourth-highest seniority on the Armed Services Committee and chairs its Strategic Forces Subcommittee.

He also has built a record of often voting differently from a majority in his party, according to data complied at CQ Vote Watch.

That was especially true during the final two years of the Obama administration. In 2015, he voted with his party 85 percent of the time, a party unity score that ranked him 179th out of 187 members whose votes were tracked. In 2016, his party unity score of 82 percent ranked him 184th out of 189 Democrats. Last year, however, he voted with his party 98.6 percent of the time, compared with a Democratic average of 98.8 percent, and supported Biden’s position on bills more than the average Democrat.