Jim Cooper is about to begin his 16th term in Congress — his 10th representing the Nashville-based 5th Congressional District. Unlike in years past, Cooper is supporting Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi for speaker this time around. We spoke to him about Democrats’ results in the 2020 election, looming redistricting and whether he plans to run for a 17th term.
It looks Democrats will hold on to the House majority, if only barely. How do you judge the performance nationally in congressional races?
Very disappointing. We had had a 17-vote majority and we hoped to augment that, so it was a big disappointment, as well as so far the failure to gain the Senate. We'd hoped to have the sort of sweep we had with Clinton in 1992 and with Obama in 2008.
To what do you attribute that disappointing result?
It's always tempting for armchair analysts to have single answers, but Tip O'Neill said all politics is local, and you'd really have to go into each district and understand the dynamics. Several of the seats we picked up in the last election were considered lucky wins and maybe impossible to hold. In a year in which we had massive Democratic voter turnout to beat the worst president in American history, it was a shame that there was not a blue wave to carry more of our folks along.
What will be harder to accomplish because you didn’t get that sweep?
The election is good and bad. Don't discount the massive importance of electing Biden and Harris. That is paramount. The biggest stumbling block to success will be the difficulty of getting things through a Mitch McConnell Senate. You saw how he waltzed to victory in Kentucky even though he's got to be one of the least popular senators in America. And we had an excellent candidate in Amy McGrath. It just turns out to be very hard to win these rural states. Look at Tennessee.
What does it say that some of these Democratic Senate candidates could raise $100 million and still lose?
You're probably talking about Jaime Harrison, who was an outstanding candidate. But that is South Carolina. I've said for years that they have extra chromosomes, South Carolina voters. (When asked about this comment by The Tennessean, a Cooper spokesperson said the congressman regretted the statement.) Anybody who could re-elect Lindsey Graham after his two-faced performance on federal judges, they have a tolerance that I can't imagine. The bottom line is this: Money doesn't buy votes. And that's a good thing. We'd all be in worse shape if money could buy votes. Advertising can persuade a lot of folks, but it can't necessarily win elections. So many people who contributed, they don't really know South Carolina. They may have never visited South Carolina.
I credit folks like the Lincoln Project having been very effective with their advertising. As former Republicans and now Never Trumpers, they knew their target audience to persuade former Republicans and independents now to be for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.
Do you think those anti-Trump Republicans will continue to be important with Trump soon to be out of office?
I personally hope that Trump disappears from politics, but that seems unlikely since his whole shtick is maintaining his brand. He probably would die without continued publicity.
I hope the Republican Party will return to its roots. Donald Trump conducted a hostile takeover of the Republican Party. It turned out that most Republicans got Stockholm Syndrome and liked being captured by him. It's a shame that the party of Lincoln is no longer the party of Lincoln.
What advice would you give the Biden transition regarding appointments?
The best people they can find. There are a lot of groups to appeal to, a lot of folks to make happy. The important thing is we need to realize that every one of our voters is important. We cannot spare anyone. We need to preserve our coalition and ideally build on it. Particularly in the Georgia runoffs, we're going to need every living soul to vote for us, and we can't afford to alienate anybody.
What do you see that might alienate voters?
Let's not focus on the negative, let's focus on the positive. Democrats have usually been a big-tent party. Different presidents have put together different coalitions.
Who knew that Georgia would go purple before North Carolina? Who knew that Susan Collins could hold on in Maine? In a way this is a good thing, the supremacy of the people. It turns out elections are more exciting and more fun than people ever thought they would be. The people should decide the outcome.
In Tennessee, Democrats had a pretty disappointing Election Day as well, having failed to pick up some targeted state House seats. What was the reason for that?
Again, don't just go with the negative, look at the positive. Heidi Campbell won and finally reclaimed a Nashville state Senate seat. You have to know your local situation. Statewide, it's much more difficult to figure out.
Most people in Nashville have never been to the counties they are thinking of. I do have an advantage in that because I've represented almost 30 counties in Tennessee.
Many of these counties are jealous of Nashville. They're envious of Nashville. They blame Nashville for having stolen their children, because when kids grow up and graduate from high school in these rural counties, they want to move to Nashville. And you can't blame them, and that's good for Nashville, but it's also hard for those rural counties. Those counties need their kids’ talent, and so many kids just want to live in Nashville or other exciting cities.
Did you learn anything from the primary challenge you faced about what Democrats could be doing differently?
Yes. We need the energy and the idealism of the progressives. We need to remember to focus on the real opposition, which is the Republican Party. It's very easy for us to spend all our time and effort focusing on party purity instead of on winning elections. Tennessee Democrats need much more practice on winning elections. [Republicans’] dominance in the legislature could cripple us in Nashville with redistricting coming up.
It's an existential threat to all Democrats in Davidson County. Instead of Republicans having to win an election, they could just change the map and pie-slice Davidson County and turn us over to Mark Green and John Rose and Scott DesJarlais and David Kustoff. It would be political skullduggery, but you know the way this stuff works. It's completely unfair.
The truth is both political parties are in cahoots on this. When a party is in the majority, they think it's fine and dandy to gerrymander, and when they're in the minority, they hate it. But for good governance we need to be more like Iowa or states like that, that have a commission.
For the good people of Nashville to be disenfranchised by the state legislature, which generally hates Nashville, would be the ultimate tragedy. And most Nashville Democrats and most Nashville businesspeople and regular citizens haven't focused on that like they should.
What could redistricting look like at the state level?
For state legislative seats, there is a whole-county preference that's written into the law, and that does not exist at the congressional level.
They're willing to consider truly bizarre-looking districts if it achieves their ends.
With redistricting coming next year, it’s likely too late for reform. What is your message to people on that issue?
There is a lot people can do, because politics boils down to getting the talk right. That's always been Lamar Alexander's definition of politics. So we need to talk in all communities, in Davidson County and in the ring counties, of fairness and decency. It is not fair to emasculate the state capital. It is not fair to take Nashville, which is one of the most dynamic cities in the world, and neuter it. It is not fair to disenfranchise Black voters. It is not fair to disenfranchise the other diverse groups who have chosen Nashville as a place to live, because Nashville actually represents something Republicans claim is something they're interested in, which is liberty and freedom. These folks can better pursue the American Dream in Nashville than they can in some other counties in Tennessee.
If you turn over Nashville to the ring counties, and we just become ballast for the suburbs, then Nashville will lose its identity as Music City, as the Athens of the South, as a health care capital. Andrew Jackson, for all of his flaws, was one of the founders of the Democratic Party. It would be ironic if the Hermitage were captured by Republicans. That's what can happen when we lose so many of these rural races for so many years. Republicans get arrogant and ready to overreach.
The business community could stand up and say hey we need a voice. Think practically, think selfishly. If there's a Democrat in the White House for at least four years, don't you want somebody who can talk to that White House?
With Tennessee Democratic Party Chair Mary Mancini stepping down, what direction should the state party take?
I think we need fundamental change. We need to rethink everything. Whatever we've been doing in the past hasn't worked. It's a mistake to fault individuals. Just putting a new person on top isn't enough. We need structural change.
What could be changed?
Tennessee has 95 counties. We need an organization in each one of the 95 counties that can run people for local office and know about local issues. This isn't top-down; this is bottom-up. People hate to be told what to do by outsiders. They hate to be told what to do by Nashvillians. Nashvillians need to be especially sensitive if we ever want to win rural votes, so it's going to take a bottom-up effort in all 95 counties. You need people who can win elections in rural counties. You need people who can raise money in rural counties. You need people who know the pulse of life in rural counties.
Have you decided whether you'll run again?
I'm certainly planning on it. I'm looking forward to this two-year term now. Our main job now other than preserving the district is to make sure we don't have a snapback election in 2022.