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Tennessee Republicans to see if splitting up Nashville will pay off for them in the midterms

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Blaise Gainey
Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, points at the train that sits at the intersection of all three congressional districts in Davidson County.

On a hot day in June, state Sen. Jeff Yarbro is giving a tour of Nashville’s three new congressional districts that his Republican colleagues in the Tennessee General Assembly drew up earlier this year.

“I was just going to give you a little bit of an orientation of where we are,” he said, with the heat index reaching triple digits that day.

The Democrat represents this South Nashville neighborhood where all three boundaries meet. He’s been the Senate’s minority leader since 2019.

“Here at the Krispy Kreme on Thompson Lane we’re in the 6th Congressional District,” Yarbro said.

Yarbro then pointed to the Wash N’ Roll car wash right across the street, which is in the 5th District. Then he gestured down the road across the railroad tracks into what’s now the 7th District.

“We go up a block here, you can see into all three districts at the same time,” said Yarbro.

Yarbro voted against these maps, which he says are heavily gerrymandered.

“We could go to taco places in all three districts, Thai food restaurants and all three districts, dive bars in all three districts, coffee shops in all three,” said Yarbro. “Because we’re just basically in the middle of a community that’s been carved up.”

The state capital has never been carved up quite like this in its entire history. In fact, it’s had the same Congressman for two decades: Jim Cooper, a moderate Democrat who had survived previous redistricting battles.

“We’ve been a state capital that spoke for itself for at least 230 years,” said Cooper in an interview earlier this year. “We’ve been Democratic for longer than anybody can count at least 100 years.”

When the Republican-controlled Tennessee legislature gathered to redraw congressional maps earlier this year, they had a goal. They wanted to gain a seat in the U.S. House, and they did that by splicing Davidson County, home to Nashville, into three more rural, Republican-leaning districts.

That could dilute the Democratic stronghold just enough to give the GOP another seat on their quest to take back the House this November.

After redistricting, the 5th District loses its incumbent

So in January, after the maps were approved, Cooper had had enough. He called it quits.

“I know how politics works. I’ve run probably more than any living politician. And when they stack the deck against you, you’re wasting your time,” said Cooper.

And, Democrats argue, Nashville could have been kept whole. Each Congressional district in Tennessee needs to have about 767,000 people. Nashville has roughly 715,000, and its quickly growing. Meaning lawmakers could’ve just added one extra mid-size city instead of splitting it in three.

Kent Syler, a political science professor at Middle Tennessee State University said it’s all part of the GOP’s strategy to consolidate power.

“They very carefully tried to ensure that Davidson County could not necessarily be the predominant power in any of those three,” said Syler.

Republicans have defended their maps, saying they followed the law. Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton says he thinks the split will help, not hurt Nashville.

“I think Davidson will gain more representation. It never hurts to have more people in Washington fighting for you,” said Sexton.

But Nashville native Odessa Kelly worries that whoever is elected won’t be fighting for her. She’s Black and gay, and she says these maps will weaken the power of Black and brown voters.

“There is no Republican that can accurately represent me, my values, my morals and my thoughts. There’s none. There’s zero,” said Kelly. “And what they did is tried to dilute that.”

A progressive candidate takes a chance on the math

Kelly is running as a Democrat in the redesigned District 7. That’s probably her best chance. According to Census data, out of those three Middle Tennessee districts, it has the highest percentage of Black voters, at close to 18%.

“I’m not going to lay down and take this, and neither should you and neither should anyone else who believes in the fundamental ideas of America where everyone has a right to their voice and a right to be heard. Because that’s essentially what they took away,” said Kelly.

But it will be an uphill battle. She’ll be facing Republican incumbent Mark Green who is running for his third term.

Tennessee is often referred to as a “red state” politically, but it’s more complex than that. In the last presidential election, 60% of the state voted Republican, but they’ve controlled nearly 80% of U.S. House seats.

And if the Republican’s master plan goes their way this November, they’ll control nearly all of them. Grabbing eight seats while Democrats would only control one in Memphis, helping the GOP in their push to take back the House.