Governor OKs Nashville House Split as GOP Hopes Align | New Policies

By JONATHAN MATTISE and KIMBERLEE KRUESI, Associated Press

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) – Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has approved a proposal to split fast-growing, left-leaning Nashville into multiple congressional districts, a reshuffle that already has Republicans lined up to try to flip a Democratic seat, including one endorsed by former President Donald Trump.

The Republican governor on Sunday endorsed Nashville’s three-way split, which Democrats say will unfairly affect black voters. The action also triggered the entry on Monday of two other Republican candidates for a newly opened seat.

Morgan Ortagus is the former State Department spokeswoman under Trump, who endorsed her candidacy before making it official on Monday. The same day, retired National Guard Brig. Gen. Kurt Winstead filed the Federal Election Commission nomination papers.

Video producer Robby Starbuck, who has the endorsement of US Senator Rand Paul, and businessman Quincy McKnight were already candidates for the 5th congressional district. Last week, Baxter Lee, a small business owner, also entered the contest. Others — including Maury County Mayor Andy Ogles and former State House Speaker Beth Harwell — are considering joining.

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Late last month, longtime Democratic U.S. Representative Jim Cooper of Nashville announced he would not seek re-election, saying there was “no way” he could return to Congress with the map drawn by the Republicans.

Nashville’s three new districts favor Republicans, but the open seat has the least challenging numbers historically for Democrats: Trump beat President Joe Biden by 12 percentage points in 2020. The district was split 50-50 in the 2018 U.S. Senate race between Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn and former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen, who had advantages among Nashville voters as a former mayor there.

The new 6th District, where GOP Representative John Rose lives, saw Trump beat Biden by 30 points in 2020, and Blackburn passed Bredesen there in 2018 by 11 points. The redesigned 7th District, where Republican Rep. Mark Green lives, voted for Trump over Biden by a 15-point margin, while Blackburn beat Bredesen there by 1 percentage point. All three seats run through heavily Republican territory outside of Nashville.

The Democratic side is less clear. Odessa Kelly, an organizer for the black gay community in Nashville, had run for Cooper’s seat and says she is now assessing what her next steps will be.

The governor also signed legislation Sunday redrawing election boundaries for state Senate and House seats. The governor’s office has not issued any public comment on why he signed the cards, but Lee previously told reporters he saw “no reason” why he wouldn’t.

Lee’s spokesperson did not immediately return a request for comment by email Monday.

Currently, Tennessee’s US House delegation consists of seven Republicans and just two Democrats, whose districts are centered on Nashville and Memphis.

The Nashville seat remained largely intact for 200 years. The district spans two additional counties and has approximately 24% black population, which is now spread across three districts.

Calls to keep Nashville whole were largely ignored by the Republican-controlled General Assembly as it moved forward in its decade-long task of creating new legislative and congressional districts.

Republicans running for the open seat in Nashville don’t fear Trump. Starbuck’s supporters argue he deserves Trump’s endorsement more than Ortagus, who was among many Republicans who backed Jeb Bush’s run in 2016 before it was clear Trump would win the nomination and reshape the GOP. This test of political purity and others will take place before the primary elections in August.

“It’s unfortunate that some people don’t trust President Trump, but I do,” Ortagus said in an interview. “I stand behind him. I think I earned his approval over the years in the trenches with him, working on those key foreign policy issues that were really crucial to him.

Statehouse Republicans did not directly address the effect their plan would have on black voters in Nashville. Instead, they’ve widely touted that their plan is within the law and will only bolster Nashville’s influence in Congress because it will have three House members instead of one.

The Tennessee Democratic Party has promised to sue the card, but such legal challenges are expected to face an uphill battle. The United States Supreme Court has taken a hands-off approach to partisan redistricting maps since the issue was addressed a decade ago. Tennessee also lacks the kind of state demands that Ohio defenders, for its part, have used in recent redistricting challenge victories.

Nationally, Republicans need a net gain of five seats to overthrow control of the US House.

While both parties have Gerrymander, these days the Republicans have more opportunities. The GOP controls the line-drawing process in states representing 187 House seats to the Democrats’ 75. Other states use either independent commissions, shared government control, or a single seat in Congress.

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