NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper of Tennessee said Tuesday that he will retire after more than 30 years in elected office, declaring there was “no way” for him to retain his seat under a new congressional map drawn up by state Republicans.
Cooper is the 29th Democrat to announce he won't seek reelection to the chamber in the fall. Now in his 16th term, he is also one of the longest-serving House Democrats to retire ahead of a challenging midterm election year for the party.
His announcement comes just a day after Tennessee’s GOP-controlled General Assembly approved a new congressional map that would split booming Democratic-tilted Nashville three ways. Under the new plan, which still must be approved by the state's GOP governor, Cooper would have become a significant underdog in holding his seat against a Republican.
“I cannot thank the people of Nashville enough,” Cooper said in a statement. “You backed me more than almost anyone in Tennessee history, making me the state’s 3rd longest-serving member of Congress.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi praised Cooper's “ironclad commitment to respect, civility and service,” saying he “has gained many admirers on both sides of the aisle, as well as among his former staffers and interns.”
Cooper, 67, has represented Nashville's 5th Congressional District since 2003. Before that, the moderate Democrat represented the state's 4th Congressional District from 1983 to 1995. His brother, John Cooper, is the mayor of Nashville.
In the 2020 election, Republicans did not put up a general election opponent against Jim Cooper. But under the new map, Cooper’s district would be jagging through slivers of southern and eastern Nashville as it branches in multiple directions into five other counties.
“There’s no way, at least for me in this election cycle, but there may be a path for other worthy candidates,” he said, criticizing state Republican lawmakers for ignoring local leaders' pleas to keep Nashville whole.
Democrats have decried the move to divvy up Nashville, and the state party has promised to sue over the map, saying it would dilute the votes of Black residents.
The map has also drawn scrutiny from former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who served under President Barack Obama and is now chair of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. Holder said in a statement Monday that the map “completely disregard(s) the law” and “would make it near impossible for the voters to fairly elect representatives of their choosing.”
Republicans have said they're confident the maps will stand up in court. They argue it'll be better for Nashville to have three representatives in Washington, without noting that they will likely be Republicans representing a Democratic-oriented city.
Several Republicans are likely to run for Cooper's seat. Tuesday night, former President Donald Trump hailed a potential candidacy by Morgan Ortagus, who served as State Department spokesperson in his administration. Trump promised “my Complete and Total Endorsement if she decides to run."
Already, 42 members of Congress have said they won't be seeking reelection ahead of the November midterms. That includes just 13 Republicans as the party looks toward taking back the House.
Seven of the departing Republicans are running for Senate or statewide office. Less than a third of the Democrats — eight — are seeking other office, suggesting that fewer of them see this as a promising electoral year for their party.
Before redistricting, Cooper was expecting to face a primary challenge from the left. Odessa Kelly, a gay Black community organizer, had announced she would challenge him. Under the new map, Kelly would live in one of the other two new districts and has said she is still weighing her options.
Cooper was a moderate who had bucked his party before. In 2019, he was among just 15 Democrats to not vote for Nancy Pelosi as House speaker, and just one of three to vote “present.” At the time, he said his vote was consistent with long-standing preference “for new Democratic leadership.”
Associated Press writer Alan Fram in Washington contributed to this report.