POWER POLL PREDICTION: Redistricting Will Tank Cooper

September 27, 2021 6:00am
Photo of Bruce Dobie
Nashville, TN Correspondent

Also: Titans' future is bright

Nashville Power Poll members overwhelmingly predict that when the congressional district maps are redrawn, Republicans in the Legislature will have cast Democratic congressman Jim Cooper into oblivion. Members say Republicans in the Legislature will carve up the largely Democratic congressional district that comprises Nashville and pass out the pieces to neighboring Republican districts. That will leave Cooper a man without a home. It will also leave the city with multiple congressmen representing it. It will be strange.

If such a thing were to happen, which is what over 60% of Nashville Power Poll members think is going to happen, Tennessee's congressional map would be red everywhere in the state except the heavily Democratic Memphis. Only one congressional district in nine would be Democratic. In case you thought it couldn't get worse for Tennessee Democrats, it can.

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If we are about to lose our congressman, who has represented us for going on two decades and is widely respected, do not lose faith: We still have the Titans. More than seven in 10 Power Pollers say the Titans are destined for a winning season. Who let the dogs out?

Below are the specific questions and answers to the latest Nashville Power Poll:

Published reports say that Republicans in the state Legislature are drawing plans that would divide up the 5th congressional district in various pieces, with the effect being that Democrat Jim Cooper would have a hard—if not impossible—time being reelected. And Tennessee would go from having two Democrats and seven Republicans in Congress to one and eight respectively. Drawing districts like this has been a practice of both parties for many years. Our question asks for your prediction: Will Republicans do this? Or will they leave the 5th District in largely Democratic hands?

Yes, Republicans will carve up the district: 61.2%

No, Republicans will leave the district largely like it is: 19.3%

Don't know: 19.5%

 

The Burning Question Around the Water Cooler: The Titans lost their first game and won their second. Will they have a winning season?

Yes: 72.6%

No: 8.6%

Don't know: 18.8%

 

This Power Poll email survey was sent to 1,177 members in Nashville. 430 responded for a participation rate of 36.53%. The Power Poll is not a scientific poll. Rather, it only surveys people who hold power and influence in approximately 25 cities across the U.S. Power Poll members offer up their opinions and beliefs about the most important issues in their cities, and in so doing they let the broader public in on what those who run our cities and states are truly thinking. Power Poll aspires to take similar surveys in the top 300 cities in the country. It is decidedly non-partisan.

CONTEXT

It is the law of the land, and a building block of our democracy, that every 10 years after completion of the U.S. Census, states must redraw their legislative districts. These districts include state legislative districts and national congressional districts. The purpose of this redrawing is to take into account population shifts and changes. Elected representatives are supposed to report to equal numbers of voters.

In about half the states in the country, state Legislatures are tasked with redrawing the districts. That is often problematic. Politics comes into play. Republicans try to draw districts to help Republicans; Democrats do the same. In Tennessee, by virtue of their huge majorities in both chambers, Republicans are now the cartographers. They are given fairly wide latitude to draw the districts as they wish.

A number of states have attempted to reduce the role that politics plays in redistricting and have created bipartisan or independent commissions for that purpose. Many states make sure that considerable attention is paid to public input and transparency in the redrawing process. Tennessee has no independent agency drawing the map. As for whether Tennessee's legislators will pay attention to the public's input and conduct the process transparently, we will know the answer to that soon.

It was not too long ago when I remember a handful of Democrats, no more than five of them, producing new districts completely on their own after the 1990 Census. They drew wildly generous Democratic district lines that surprised not only the public, but virtually all of their Republican and Democratic colleagues who had been left out of the process. Which is by way of saying, Tennessee has not been in the vanguard of redistricting reform.

If you want to follow me into the weeds for a bit, I should point out that I've always liked the warfare-sounding lingo used in partisan map-making, gerrymandering, or whatever you want to call the redistricting process. The main tools are called "cracking" and "packing." "Cracking" essentially cracks open an existing district and takes like-minded voters and places them in a bunch of different districts. This dilutes their voting strength. "Packing" takes like-minded voters and stuffs them all in one district so that they don't influence neighboring districts. In other words, packing takes the voters viewed as a threat and stuffs them in one place so they can't harm anyone else.

Shelby County and its considerable African American population will probably see some packing this time around. The most ripe for cracking is the 5th congressional district here in Nashville.

From a high level, nothing would make Republican congressional leaders in Washington happier than to see Tennessee lose a Democratic congressman and add a Republican one. Those phone calls from Republican D.C. leadership to Tennessee's on-the-ground legislators are being made. Pressure is high. Reports say maps are being drawn to make Cooper's political life a living hell. According to multiple players familiar with the landscape, it is conceivable that the 4th, 6th, and 7th congressional districts—which all tilt heavily Republican—could swoop in and take a chunk of Nashville's Democratic base. In one extraordinarily wild scenario, it is possible that Cooper might find his house suddenly in the 4th district, which is occupied by the very right-leaning Scott DesJarlais, who lives in South Pittsburg. More likely, I'm told Cooper may end up in the 7th District, represented by Republican Mark Green in Clarksville. Some think the 5th District will be redrawn with a lot of Belle Meade and other Republican voters further to the south, which would favor former House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-T.N., should she choose to run for Congress.

None of this is for certain. The situation is fluid. Rumors are cheap.

One thing for certain is that all of this has created unhappiness in the Republican family. Mark Green, who represents the 7th District and lives in Clarksville, is going off publicly about attempts to take away his Republican voters and replace them with Nashville Democrats. Why would he, after all, want to go from representing a safe GOP district that requires little campaigning to one that suddenly includes a bunch of wooly-headed libs? One would assume that DesJarlais and Rep. John Rose, R-T.N., who represents the 6th District from Cookeville, would be like-minded on this as well.

The drama is not just confined to the congressional map. Take the redistricting that will go on in the state Legislature. Consider state Sen. Heidi Campbell, the Nashville Democrat who defeated Republican Steve Dickerson in the last election cycle. Word is redistricting will make Dickerson a happy man and make life ugly for Campbell.

CONCLUSION

If Nashville does get carved up, we can look to Austin for precedent. There, the Texas Legislature redrew Austin's heavily Democratic congressional district, sliced up the district like an apple pie, handed out the pieces to neighboring Republicans, and somehow the Democratic incumbent wound up still in Congress. His district now includes a piece of Austin, a piece of San Antonio. and a thread connecting the two.

So, who knows? Cooper might find a way.

Democrats looking in from the sidelines are just mystified.

"A while back I would have thought that Republicans wouldn't do this. I didn't think they had the guts for it," says one former Nashville officeholder. "But now I think they really don't care who they piss off, even if it's other Republicans."

Absent an independent or bipartisan redistricting agency that would handle all this, we are doomed to see an ugly result. Political districts are what legislators live by. The good congressmen and legislators, the ones who are re-elected every year, pay attention to their districts, tend to their districts, walk up and down their districts. A sudden change in a district causes a legislator to freak. Which is why our Tennessee lawmakers and nine U.S. congressmen are all going a little berserk right now.

To expect members of the General Assembly to be rational actors and dispassionately redraw districts is impossible. They cannot be both on the team and act as referee. But that's what we ask them to do every 10 years. Reform is needed, for both parties' sakes.

 

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