Governor OKs Nashville House split as GOP hopefuls line up

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee delivers his State of the State address in the House Chamber of the Capitol building, Monday, Jan. 31, 2022, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee delivers his State of the State address in the House Chamber of the Capitol building, Monday, Jan. 31, 2022, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)

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

The Republican governor signed off Sunday on the three-way split of Nashville, which Democrats have warned will unfairly affect Black voters. The action also sparked the entry Monday of two more Republican contenders for a newly open seat.

Morgan Ortagus is the former the State Department spokesperson under Trump, who endorsed her candidacy before she made it official Monday. The same day, retired National Guard Brig. Gen. Kurt Winstead filed Federal Election Commission candidacy paperwork.

Video producer Robby Starbuck, who has U.S. Sen. Rand Paul’s endorsement, and businessman Quincy McKnight were already running for the 5th Congressional District. Last week, small business owner Baxter Lee also jumped into the contest. Others — including Maury County Mayor Andy Ogles and former state House Speaker Beth Harwell — are considering whether to join them.

Late last month, longtime Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper of Nashville announced he would not seek reelection, saying there was “no way” for him to win his way back to Congress with the map the Republicans drew.

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

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

The Democratic side is less clear. Odessa Kelly, a Black gay community organizer from Nashville, had been running for Cooper’s seat, and says she is now assessing what her next steps will be.

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

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

Currently, Tennessee’s U.S. House delegation consists of seven Republicans and just two Democrats, whose districts center on Nashville and Memphis.

Nashville’s seat has largely remained intact for 200 years. The district extends into two additional counties and has about a 24% Black population, which now gets spread out among three districts.

Pleas to keep Nashville whole went largely ignored in the Republican-controlled General Assembly as it moved through its once-a-decade task of carving new legislative and congressional districts.

Republicans running for the open Nashville seat are not shying from Trump. Starbuck’s supporters contend he is more deserving of Trump’s endorsement than Ortagus, who was among the many Republicans who backed Jeb Bush’s 2016 run before it was clear Trump would win the nomination and reshape the GOP. That political purity test and others will unfold ahead of the August primary election.

“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 that I earned his endorsement through years of being in the trenches with him, working on these key foreign policy issues that were really crucial to him.”

Republicans in the statehouse have not directly addressed the effect their plan would have on Black voters in Nashville. Instead, they have largely touted that their plan complies with the law and will only boost Nashville’s influence inside Congress because it will have three House members instead of one.

Tennessee’s Democratic Party has promised to sue over the map, but such legal challenges are expected to face an uphill battle. The U.S. Supreme Court has taken a hands-off approach on partisan redistricting maps since the issue was taken up a decade ago. Tennessee also lacks the kind of state requirements that advocates in Ohio, for one, have used in recent redistricting challenge wins.

Nationally, Republicans need a net gain of five seats to flip U.S. House control.

While both parties have gerrymandered, these days Republicans have more opportunities. The GOP controls the line-drawing process in states representing 187 House seats compared with 75 for Democrats. The rest of the states use either independent commissions, have split government control or only one congressional seat.