Redistricting in Music City: Tennessee Democrats May No Longer Have Two to Tango

Tennessee Republicans may be poised to eliminate one of just two Democratic-held congressional seats in the state, splintering Nashville in the process.


Max McCall, Contributor

Starting next year, Nashville may do something it has not done in well over a century: elect a Republican to Congress. 

This is not because the politics of the strongly Democratic-leaning city will change; Nashville remains poised to vote Democratic up and down the ballot. The city is nearly coterminous with Davidson County, which gave Biden 64.5% of the vote. Instead, Music City’s political power could be diluted through a process called gerrymandering. 

U.S. House districts must be redrawn every ten years after the release of the decennial census in order to ensure population equality. Although states have various ways of redrawing districts, Tennessee leaves the responsibility to the Republican-dominated state legislature. In order to gain an extra House seat on their quest to recapture the House majority, Tennessee Republicans may “crack” Nashville into several different districts, diluting the city’s Democratic votes and likely ending current Rep. Jim Cooper’s tenure.

Tennessee’s nine-member congressional delegation currently has seven Republicans and two Democrats: the first Democrat, Rep. Steve Cohen, represents a majority-Black Memphis-area seat. This type of district is protected by the Voting Rights Act, which ensures minority representation, and as such cannot be altered dramatically by the redistricting process. Nashville, which is majority-white, has no such protection. 

Cracking Nashville would almost certainly require three or more districts to divide up heavily Democratic Davidson County. The current 5th district would likely take in more Republican territory. The 4th, 6th, and 7th districts, all largely rural and Republican, are all excellent candidates for taking in some of Nashville; they can afford to shed GOP voters. The ultimate result would be eight districts that all voted for Donald Trump by a wide margin in 2020, likely bringing an end to Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper’s career and enshrining an eight-to-one Republican delegation. 

The cracking of Nashville is far from a certainty, however. The politics of redistricting are complicated; incumbent Congressmen have demands to consider and cards to play if they do not get what they want. On top of that, gerrymandering the state could prove risky. Several districts gerrymandered to elect one party after the 2010 census ended up falling to the other one, even when they appeared safe at the start of the decade. Examples include Texas, Illinois, and Michigan, where Democrats either won or came close to winning suburban seats that were drawn to heavily favor Republicans. 

This was caused by the Democrats’ recent surge in support in metropolitan areas, particularly regions with a high college-education rate. The last thing state legislative Republicans would want to do is create new Democratic seats when they intended to eliminate one. Similar to major cities in Texas, the Nashville area is experiencing some of the most meteoric population growth in the country.

The risk of cracking Nashville is highly dependent on how the maps are drawn. There is no doubt that the Democratic Party is gaining ground. In 2012, Barack Obama carried Davidson County by a 58%/40% margin, which ballooned out to a 65%/32% margin for Biden in 2020. A similar story has been playing out in Nashville’s suburban counties. Rutherford County, home to Murfreesboro, has seen Republican margins fall from 62%/37% in 2012 to 57%/41% in 2020. Republican strength in wealthy, highly-educated Williamson County, once one of the most GOP-dense counties in the state, has collapsed from a 73%/26% margin in 2012 to 62%/36% in 2020. Neither Rutherford nor Williamson counties are likely to vote Democratic any time soon, but if they were to replicate their 2012 to 2020 shift, both would only narrowly vote Republican. As such, both Williamson and Rutherford are crucial elements to a GOP gerrymander of Nashville. If Republican strength continues to ebb in Nashville’s conservative suburbs, it could imperil future members of Congress occupying seats in the area.

Unlike states such as Texas, however, Tennessee’s population is substantially less metropolitan. Biden won just two other counties in the state besides Davidson; majority-Black Haywood, a small rural county in western Tennessee, and Shelby County, home to Memphis. Outside of those three counties, the Volunteer State is a sea of red, composed largely of deeply rural Republican areas. Although Nashville’s suburbs are increasingly shifting toward the left, most are still very Republican-leaning, unlike suburbs in states like Texas or Georgia, which are now more closely divided or even Democratic-leaning. Due to this, splitting Nashville may come with considerably less risk than, say, splitting Austin. 

Ultimately, the survival of a Democratic Nashville seat may come down to political pressures. To the north, Kentucky’s Louisville may retain its Democratic seat despite being easily crackable. Major political players like Sen. Mitch McConnell have told their state legislative allies to keep the city together in redistricting. A similar story played out in Indiana, where Indiana Republicans refused to split the city of Gary and retained two Democratic seats in the state, despite being able to. If Nashville remains in one piece, it will likely be for similar reasons.

Photo by National Atlas of the United States on Wikimedia Commons