Republicans just wiped out a Democratic district. Here’s how

Hello, and happy Thursday,

On Tuesday afternoon, Jim Cooper, a moderate Democrat who has been in Congress for more than three decades, announced he was retiring. The timing was not a coincidence.

Less than 24 hours earlier, the Tennessee legislature had approved a map with new boundaries for the state’s eight congressional districts. Since 2003, Cooper has represented a district that includes all of Nashville, and it has been reliably Democratic (Joe Biden carried it by 24 points in 2020). But the legislature’s new plan erased his district. Republicans sliced up Nashville into three different districts, attaching a sliver of Democratic voters in each to rural and deeply Republican areas. Donald Trump would have easily won all three of the new districts in 2020.

Cooper was blunt in his assessment of what had happened. Republicans, he said in a statement, had made it impossible for him to win re-election to Congress. Despite his best efforts, he said, he could not stop Republicans from “dismembering Nashville”.

The map doesn’t just weaken the voice of Democrats, it also dilutes the influence of Black voters and other voters of color in Nashville. In Cooper’s current district, Black voters make up about a quarter of the voting-age population. They will comprise a much smaller share of the voting age population in the new districts, making it harder for them to make their voices heard.

Andrew Witherspoon, my colleague on our visuals team, and I put together an interactive map that shows exactly how Republicans transformed Cooper’s district. It’s one of the clearest examples of how politicians can essentially rig elections in their favor just by moving district lines. It underscores how gerrymandering is a remarkably powerful and efficient method of voter suppression – the influence of certain people’s votes matter less before a single ballot is even cast.

Tennessee isn’t the only place this is happening. In Kansas, Republican lawmakers are advancing a plan that would similarly crack Kansas City, making it more difficult for the Democrat Sharice Davids, the first Native American woman elected to Congress, to get re-elected. In North Carolina, Republicans cracked the city of Greensboro in order to dismantle the state’s sixth congressional district, currently represented by a Democrat.

Democrats have also shown a willingness to engage in this kind of distortion where they have control of the redistricting process, in places such as Illinois, Maryland and probably New York. Democrats will have complete control over drawing 75 congressional districts, compared with 187 for Republicans.

The day before he announced his retirement, I spoke with Cooper about why he thought this was happening and what he thought the consequences would be for Nashville voters. What’s happening now is just “raw politics”, Cooper said.

“In two previous redistricting cycles, none of the politicians in the state knew that I existed as a candidate. That made it easier – they weren’t trying to get Jim Cooper. And then in cycles where they did know I existed, it was either too difficult to rearrange the counties, or they were gentler,” he told me. Politico reported recently that after Republicans weren’t as aggressive as they could have been in states such as Texas and Georgia, there is some pressure to be even more aggressive in places like Tennessee.

The Nashville constituents who are being sliced up into each of the three districts are likely to have much less importance to their new, Republican representatives, Cooper said. Any input they have, “at most, it will be tokenism”.

“This is not a majority-minority community, but it will limit the ability for them to be heard. Because they’ll become essentially a rounding error in much larger districts that are dominated by the surrounding towns,” he said. “The center of gravity will shift.”

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