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GOP redraws Nashville from 1 Democratic district into 3 Republican-leaning districts

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In Congress, Democrats from Nashville, Tenn., may not have the same representation they used to. That is because Republicans in the state have redrawn voting maps from one Democratic district into three Republican-leaning districts. WPLN's Blaise Gainey says the implications may go beyond Nashville and help Republicans in their quest to take back the U.S. House of Representatives this November.

BLAISE GAINEY, BYLINE: Nashville, Tennessee's state Capitol, has never been carved up quite like this in its entire history.

JEFF YARBRO: I mean, I was just going to give you a little bit of orientation about where we are, so...

GAINEY: To get a sense of how different things look now, I asked Tennessee State Senator Jeff Yarbro to give me a tour of Nashville's three new congressional districts. The Democrat represents this south Nashville neighborhood where all three boundaries meet for the state legislature.

YARBRO: Here at the Krispy Kreme on Thompson Lane, we're in the 6th Congressional District.

GAINEY: Yarbro then points across the street to the 5th District. Then he gestures down the road, across the railroad tracks into what's now the 7th District.

YARBRO: If we go up a block here, you can see into all three districts at the same time.

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

YARBRO: We could go to taco places in all three districts, Thai food restaurants in all three districts, dive bars in all three districts, coffee shops in all three because we're just basically in the middle of a community that's been carved up.

GAINEY: In fact, Nashville has had the same congressman for two decades - Jim Cooper, a moderate Democrat who had survived previous redistricting battles.

JIM COOPER: We've been a state Capitol that spoke for itself for at least 230 years. We've been Democratic for longer than anybody can count - at least 100 years.

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

COOPER: 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.

GAINEY: And Democrats argue Nashville could have been kept whole. Each congressional district in Tennessee needs to have about 767,000 people. Nashville has 715,000, meaning lawmakers could have just added one extra mid-sized city instead of splitting it in three. But 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.

CAMERON SEXTON: Well, I think, you know, Davidson will gain more representation. It never hurts to have more people in Washington fighting for you.

GAINEY: 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.

ODESSA KELLY: There is no Republican that can accurately represent me, my values or my morals or my thoughts. There's none. There's zero, right? And what they did is try to dilute that.

GAINEY: Kelly is running as a Democrat in the redesigned District 7 - the one across the railroad tracks from Krispy Kreme. That's probably her best chance. According to census data, out of those three newly drawn districts, it has the highest percentage of Black voters.

O KELLY: I'm not going to lay down and take this, and neither should anyone else who believes in, like, the fundamental ideals of America where everyone has a right to their voice and has a right to be heard 'cause that's essentially what they took away.

GAINEY: But it will be an uphill battle. She'll be facing Republican incumbent Mark Green, who is running for his third term. And if the Republicans' master plan goes their way this November, they'll control 8 out of the 9 U.S. House seats in Tennessee, helping the GOP in their push to take back the U.S. House. For NPR News, I'm Blaise Gainey in Nashville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.