Tennessee GOP confronts tough choice on targeting Cooper

at 12:01 PM ET, 07/25/2011

This is the latest in a regular Fix series that focuses on the decennial redistricting process in key states. We call it “Mapping the Future.” The series aims to look forward to how the maps in these states could be drawn and what the best and worst outcomes for each party might be. Today we take on Tennessee. (And make sure to check out the previous installments: Texas, Indiana, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, Ohio, California, Nevada, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Florida, Utah, North Carolina , Wisconsin, Maryland, Michigan, Louisiana, New Jersey, Colorado, Minnesota, South Carolina and Oregon.)

Tennessee saw a wholesale change in its congressional delegation in 2010 as Republicans picked up two open seats and knocked off Democratic Rep. Lincoln Davis as well.

Heading into 2012 then, there are only two Democrats in the Volunteer state’s delegation. One, Rep. Steve Cohen, faces no danger from Republicans in his strongly Democratic Memphis 9th district. The other is Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper.

With the GOP controlling all levers of the redistricting process in Tennessee, Cooper’s marginally Democratic Nashville district would appear an ideal target, and it’s plausible that Republicans could increase their 7-to-2 edge in the state’s delegation to 8-to-1.

After all, there’s no shortage of conservative-minded voters in Tennessee, and all three Republican districts around Cooper went easily for GOP candidates last year, suggesting there are plenty of voters to add to Cooper’s district.

But it’s not quite so simple.

Despite the big margins that Republicans ran up in 2010 — and have in recent presidential elections as well — Tennessee’s odd political geography is giving them pause when deciding how ambitious to get with their new map.

Freshman Reps. Stephen Fincher (R) and Scott DesJarlais (R) both beat credible Democratic opponents by at least 18 points last year, and DesJarlais’ rural middle Tennessee district, in particular, is heavily conservative.

(Don’t forget to follow along on the congressional map here.)

But in Tennessee, there’s still a difference between conservative and Republican. Despite DesJarlais’ 4th district having a Cook Partisan Voting Index rating of R+13 — i.e. heavily leaning toward the GOP — he represents a lot of conservative rural Democrats. And Fincher, especially in the eastern part of his western Tennessee 8th district (just west of Nashville) has lots of conservative Democrats too.

Republican line-drawers’ first priority is keeping those two seats. Until last year, Republicans were still a minority in the state’s congressional delegation and that not-so-distant memory is likely to weigh heavily on the party.

Shoring up Fincher is job number one. The best thing for him would be to give away his eastern Democratic territory to somebody (Cooper’s 5th district, for example) and pick up more of the heavily Republican Memphis suburbs from Rep. Marsha Blackburn’s (R) very safe 7th district.

As for DesJarlais, sources say the GOP would like to make the unwieldy, 200-mile-long district a bit more logical. Currently, it incorporates disparate groups of people with little in common, stretching from near the Virginia border to near the Mississippi border.

The idea in his district is to cut out as many of the rural Democratic pockets as possible, and move DesJarlais into more Republican areas, with the most obvious solution being to take Murfreesboro from freshman Rep. Diane Black’s (R) safe 6th district. (Of course, this could also earn DesJarlais a primary challenge, given his many new constituents.)

The problem for the GOP, in this scenario, is that giving Murfreesboro to DesJarlais and taking the conservative Democrats out of Fincher’s seat makes targeting Cooper much more difficult, because the leftover Democrats will have to find a home. Blackburn and Black can both take on some of them, but only so many.

Blackburn, in particular, would already be giving up the heavily conservative Memphis suburbs for her district. The easiest solution, Republicans acknowledge, is just to pack as many Democrats as possible into Cooper’s district and assure that the DesJarlais and Fincher districts are safe for years to come.

But what if the GOP did want to go after Cooper’s district?

Some politicos believe that Republicans may not have to shore up DesJarlais and Fincher all that much — citing the results of the 2010 election more as the culmination of long-term political trends than a one-time bump in Republican strength.

If that’s the case, here’s what the GOP could do: Rather than put Democrats in Fincher’s district in with Cooper, add them to Blackburn’s district. Meanwhile, add Murfreesboro to Cooper’s district, and split up the more Democratic parts of Nashville between Blackburn and Black.

Of course, this would require Black and Blackburn to both take on a significant amount of Democrats. And even though they both have very safe districts right now, they may not be happy about the changes. (Also, Black’s district was held by a Democratic Rep. Bart Gordon for twenty-plus years before last year.)

“That’s easy in a cartographical sense … whether that is something that the legislature wants to undertake politically, I wouldn’t speculate on that,” said one Republican insider close to the redistricting process. “It’s easier to do on paper.”

Whatever Tennessee Republicans opt to do with their map, it’s unlikely to happen for several months. The state has historically waited until just before the filing deadline for the next election – which is April of 2012 – to pass their maps.

Tennessee is one of a number of states where the GOP could get aggressive and go after another seat. Like a lot of other states, though, the best option may be to just shore up what they’ve got.

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