Rep. Jim Cooper and Odessa Kelly

Even though the candidate qualifying deadline to run for the United States House of Representatives is April 7 of next year, the contest for Tennessee’s 5th Congressional District is definitely underway, and is attracting intense interest. It’s hard to say if other candidates will enter the race, but currently U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper — the longtime incumbent and lifetime Nashvillian — and East Nashville community activist Odessa Kelly are in full campaign mode ahead of the Democratic primary.

Why is this race an unusual one?

Cooper served in Tennessee’s 4th Congressional District from 1983 to 1995, and was elected to represent the 5th District — which is currently made up of Davidson and Dickson counties and most of Cheatham County — 19 years ago. Cooper’s reputation and name recognition are high, and he has years of experience under his belt — enough to know how and when to pick his battles. This time, however, Cooper may have more of a battle than he first anticipated. 

In 2020, Keeda Haynes, also a Democrat, gave Cooper a pretty good run for his money in the primary race, garnering about 40 percent of the vote to Cooper’s 57 percent. Nashville Democrats were not ready to see him go. From all indications, Kelly is a stronger opponent. No doubt Cooper recognizes this and is following the news and conversation Kelly is generating — she seems to be a trailblazer, a go-getter who cares about Nashville. Kelly has deep community ties, and attended Metro public schools and Tennessee State University. She is the executive director of Stand Up Nashville, and when relating how much she cares about the real needs of Nashvillians, she comes across as genuine. That said, so does Rep. Cooper.

Another reason this race is more unusual than most is because newcomers seldom raise so much money this early on. Between April and June, Kelly, according to the Scene, raised $302,000 to Cooper’s $582,000. Each candidate has their own way of raising money, but Cooper has been funded largely by Tennesseans while a large amount of Kelly’s contributions are coming from out of state. She’s received funds from the Justice Democrats, a political action committee founded by leaders who worked on Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign, and has also raised funds through ActBlue, “the fundraising tool used by left-leaning candidates to raise money from individual contributors through the internet.” 

Kelly has spent more than half of her funds, much of it on digital advertising, but that could work well for her in building name recognition. Though Kelly’s financial foothold is impressive for the timeframe, some voters may frown on her receiving such a great amount of financial support from out-of-state donors or groups — and could conclude that she does not have the ear of the people. They may also worry that she could be more influenced by people who do not live in Tennessee, despite her comments to the contrary. 

One thing that could influence the outcome of this race is the fact that voters in our area are seemingly becoming more progressive. Kelly may find good support among millennials, and has already received donations from Young Democrats. Still, she’ll want to win over some of the more prominent longtime Democrats, because — as recently noted by Tennessee Lookout — despite the fact that Nashville may be liberal by Tennessee standards, it’s not liberal when compared to the platforms of progressive representatives like New York’s Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The rural areas of the 5th District are significantly more conservative.

Another factor that could affect the race is that of redistricting. The GOP-controlled state legislature could decide to redraw the 5th District in an effort to gain another seat in Congress. If that happens, the district could look completely different.

Democrats supporting Kelly want a more progressive Democrat than the avowed Blue Dog Cooper, and they’re working hard to ensure it. Cooper has long served his district and is a known quantity to voters. Generally, the incumbent has the upper hand in congressional races, but like it or not, this time Cooper is going to have to fight hard to hold onto his seat. 

Bill Freeman

Bill Freeman is the owner of FW Publishing, the publishing company that produces the Nashville Scene, Nfocus, the Nashville Post and Home Page Media Group in Williamson County.

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