Kelly Cooper

Odessa Kelly and Jim Cooper

More than a year out from the 2022 congressional primary, candidates in the Nashville-based 5th Congressional District are off to a hot start. Both incumbent Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper and primary challenger Odessa Kelly have reported hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations between April and June.

Cooper, who was first elected to Congress in the 1980s, reported raising $580,226.87 in the quarter and spending just under $60,000. He still has nearly $800,000 on hand. It’s a significant increase from the same period in 2019, when he raised $159,000 as he faced the prospect of multiple Democratic primary challengers.

Kelly, executive director of nonprofit Stand Up Nashville, reported raising $301,900.56 in her first quarter as a candidate. That’s about double what Cooper’s main 2020 challenger Keeda Haynes raised during her entire campaign, when she ultimately tallied nearly 40 percent of the vote in a losing effort. Kelly spent more than half of her haul — $161,476.67 — during the quarter, leaving her with more than $140,423.89 on hand.

Cooper has been keeping a close eye on Kelly, highlighting to the National Journal his opponent’s burn rate. People close to the Kelly campaign argue that the spending, much of it on digital advertising, brought in donors who will continue to give in the months to come. They also note that a significant number of Cooper donors have already maxed out to the campaign, including by donating to his general election effort — money that could only be used after the face-off with Kelly.

“I know that certain stories are the flavor of the month, but you really need to do your homework because all politics is local,” Cooper told the D.C.-based National Journal. “Do not make the false assumption that all Nashville Democrats are like folks who live in The Bronx or San Francisco.”

Cooper’s donors include:

  • Nashville Predators Chairman Herb Fritch and Nashville SC owner John Ingram, whose ongoing stadium project Kelly influenced through her work with Stand Up Nashville
  • Current Metro officials including Cooper’s brother Mayor John Cooper, Vice Mayor Jim Shulman, Metro Councilmember Russ Pulley and Metro legal director Wally Dietz
  • Congressional colleagues including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, with whom Cooper has previously clashed, and Rep. Ted Lieu
  • Alex Jahangir, the Vanderbilt surgeon who rose to prominence as leader of the city’s response to COVID-19
  • Politically connected attorneys including Bob Tuke, Byron Trauger, James Weaver and Charles Robert Bone
  • Political committees, which gave more than $100,000, including the American Bankers Association, American Postal Workers Union, American Hospital Association, Lockheed Martin and the National Association of Realtors

Kelly’s campaign dismissed the support as coming from “Nashville’s wealthy elite.” Her campaign reported just $5,500 from PACs, almost all of that from Justice Democrats, the national progressive organization that endorsed her at the start of her campaign. As Cooper said, Kelly’s donors do include a lot of people from outside the district (among them, notably, is Jane Fonda), many likely attracted by the Justice Democrats stamp of approval. A Cooper confidant notes that the incumbent appears to be in better shape financially than other Democratic incumbents facing Justice Democrats-backed challengers.

Kelly’s donors also include:

  • Local elected officials including Judge Rachel Bell and MNPS board chair Christiane Buggs (Kelly’s campaign also announced endorsements from four Metro Councilmembers this week)
  • Former elected officials including ex-public defender Dawn Deaner and ex-Metro Councilmember Anthony Davis
  • Democratic aides at the state House, Elaine Eisinger and Katharine Heriges
  • Nonprofit leaders including Ashley Bachelder of Workers’ Dignity and Tequila Johnson of The Equity Alliance
  • Tennessee Tribune publisher Rosetta Miller-Perry
  • Metro Nashville Education Association President Amanda Kail

“I am so grateful to the working class people who are willing to give $10 and $20 for the change they need, especially the 1,076 people who gave from in and around Nashville and middle Tennessee,” Kelly says in a release. “I’m not a wealthy person, but this campaign is about all of us. I love this city, and every dollar they give helps me take on the status quo.”

Meanwhile on the Republican side of the race, Robby Starbuck — a music video producer who announced his campaign onstage at the Conservative Political Action Conference and who does not live in the 5th Congressional District — reported raising $43,338.28 and loaning his campaign $5,000. Another Republican, Quincy McKnight, has not yet reported fundraising totals, though his treasurer, go-to GOP accountant Troy Brewer, resigned from his campaign and is now working with Starbuck.

All this movement could be complicated by impending redistricting, controlled by Republicans in the state legislature. Though those responsible for drawing new maps before the 2022 election have largely remained mum, local and national media outlets and Cooper himself have been considering the possibility that they could split the reliably Democratic 5th Congressional District into several adjacent reliably Republican districts, giving a possible undeclared GOP contender a leg up in the process.

"Don't be an innocent about this," Cooper told Politico. "What's to restrain them? They have a supermajority. There's a three-vote difference here, and they're going to obey Emily Post etiquette?"

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