The First Progressive Primary Challenge of 2022

The first major progressive primary challenge of the 2022 electoral cycle will take place in Nashville, Tennessee, where public servant and community organizer Odessa Kelly will be taking on ten-term incumbent representative Jim Cooper. A co-founder of the SEIU-backed activist organization Stand Up Nashville and former community center manager at the Nashville-area Napier Recreation Center, Kelly enters the race with endorsements from Nashville city councilmembers Delishia Porterfield and Sean Parker. Kelly is a Justice Democrats recruit, the organization’s first of this election cycle.

Jim Cooper hails from a longtime Tennessee political family. His brother, John Cooper, is the current mayor of Nashville; his father, Prentice Cooper, served as the state’s governor from 1939 to 1945; his paternal grandfather, William Prentice Cooper, was once the Speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives.

This representative of the Cooper political dynasty has served over 30 years in the House of Representatives. He initially won in the state’s Fourth District, a wide, horizontal swath that includes the Tri-Cities, Knoxville, Chattanooga, and the Nashville suburbs, in 1983, and held that seat through 1995, only losing it once he set out on a failed 1994 campaign to fill Vice President Al Gore’s vacated Senate seat. The Republican revolution year of 1994 was dreadful for Democrats in Tennessee, with the GOP winning a majority of the state’s House delegation for just the second time since Reconstruction.

Cooper returned to the House in 2002, after winning 47 percent of the vote in a Democratic primary in Tennessee’s Fifth District, made up of Nashville and its western suburbs. He’s effectively coasted to re-election ever since, never meeting a real Republican challenge in heavily Democratic Nashville.

Yet, despite repping a district with precious few Republican voters, Cooper has a long track record of siding with Republican policy aims. He’s a key member of both the Blue Dog Coalition and the New Democrat Coalition, groups known for spurning progressive and even liberal policies in favor of centrist policy aspirations.

Since the 1990s, Cooper has been a thorn in the side of the Democratic agenda. He was one of only three House Democrats to vote against the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, and was a co-author on a bipartisan health care reform bill in 1992 that effectively undercut the Clinton health care reform package. Cooper’s proposal, unlike Clinton’s, did not even provide for universal coverage; he counseled Hillary Clinton, who led the effort, that she was too far to the left.

In 2009, Cooper was one of the few dissenting votes against the initial $819 billion stimulus package that passed in the House, part of an effort that helped drive the final package down to $787 billion, an amount now universally condemned (including by Obama administration veterans) as far too small. The inadequate stimulus led to a lost decade of tepid economic growth. Cooper, at the time, was one of the country’s most outspoken deficit hawks while President Obama sought to drum up support for more ambitious spending programs.

It’s not just the party’s left flank he’s been at odds with, but the mainstream, liberal leadership as well. In January 2013, Cooper was the only Democrat in the House to vote against an emergency bill to provide disaster and recovery funds in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, putting him in league with Republicans like Ted Cruz. In 2012, Cooper supported an amendment to raise the Social Security age and cut Medicare and Medicaid. As recently as 2019, he co-sponsored a balanced-budget amendment that would have necessitated cuts to those same programs. And in 2019, Cooper was one of the few Democrats to go against Nancy Pelosi’s speakership, voting “present” when she was up against Kevin McCarthy for the top job in the House.

Cooper is not doing this out of necessity, but seemingly out of conviction. Tennessee’s Fifth has been solidly Democratic since Cooper was sworn in, and has tacked bluer ever since. The Cook Partisan Voting Index marks TN-05 as D+7, which undersells just how well Democrats have done there in recent years. Joe Biden walloped Donald Trump in the district by almost 25 points; Hillary Clinton triumphed there by 18; and Obama won by roughly 15 each time. Even John Kerry and Al Gore won there. Cooper himself has won routinely by 30-odd points in his re-election campaigns; in 2020, he ran in the general election uncontested.

Odessa Kelly’s election, were she to defeat Cooper, would be historic on a number of levels.

Cooper did, however, face a surprisingly spirited primary challenge from Keeda Haynes last cycle, who won 40 percent of the vote in a three-way contest (Cooper won 57 percent). Haynes, a public defender, ran on criminal justice reform and a $15 minimum wage, indicating that the progressive platform may have more purchase in the district than one might expect.

Odessa Kelly’s election, were she to defeat Cooper, would be historic on a number of levels. She would become the first Black congresswoman to represent Tennessee—the state has only elected two Black people to Congress in its history—and the first openly gay Black woman to be elected to Congress.

Kelly also has a proven history of enacting meaningful change for working-class people in Nashville. When Major League Soccer picked Nashville in 2018 as its newest city to host a professional franchise, a decision that came with a $275 million contribution from the city to build the team a new stadium, Kelly’s organization Stand Up Nashville, a coalition of labor and community leaders, got the ownership group to sign a binding community benefits agreement, which set a new standard for equitable development in Nashville. As part of that commitment, Nashville Soccer Holdings agreed to directly hire stadium workers and pay them all at least $15.50 an hour with a targeted hiring program, dedicated 4,000 square feet of the development site to a child care facility, and pledged to set aside 20 percent of the housing units built on the development site as affordable and workforce housing, priced at 30 percent or less of the indexed household income. The arrangement was a “historic,” “first-of-its-kind” agreement for a government-led project, according to local news.

Stand Up Nashville was also active in fighting a proposed satellite headquarters for Amazon in Nashville, part of the company’s HQ2 sweepstakes. Amazon received $102 million in state and local economic-development subsidies to locate offices in Nashville for 5,000 workers, at the same time that the fast-growing city was crying so poor that it reneged on $38 million in promised cost-of-living increases for 9,300 city workers. A “Do Better” ordinance that Stand Up Nashville helped pass forces companies like Amazon to disclose information about worker wages and local hires, which the coalition is using to hold companies accountable to their promises.

Cooper will be a challenge to dislodge, based on family name recognition and his long-standing tenure in Tennessee politics. Still, he fits the mold of the type of incumbent who lost to young, nonwhite, progressive challengers in diverse districts in 2020. “I’m the only candidate for Congress who is committed to bold, ambitious change,” Kelly said in a statement. “Jim Cooper is one of the wealthiest members of Congress who takes money from corporate PACs representing weapons manufacturers and real estate developers, with no real record of progressive change in nearly 40 years.”

It’s unclear exactly what the district will look like, as redistricting won’t occur until later this year. But Nashville’s tremendous growth of late is likely to translate into a larger share of the district’s voters from inside the city limits, and fewer white suburbanites from the outlying areas.

Cooper won’t be the only one facing a challenge in 2022, which is expected to be difficult for Democrats across the board. That may present an opportunity for progressives, though, who continued to grow their numbers in the Democratic caucus despite a nightmare showing from the party’s moderates in 2020. Given that most expect the party to suffer further losses in 2022, and many of those moderate reps are getting up in age, the announcement of primary challenges alone may be enough to send some members into retirement.

But that likely won’t be the case with Cooper, who is only 66, a relative youth by comparison to some of the party’s members. He’ll likely stay to fight it out in a Southern city, the type of place where progressive organizers have made serious inroads in recent years.