Tennessee was long known for a brand of moderate Southern politics. Nashville, a blue island in a red state, is finding that the old rules no longer apply.
NASHVILLE — Not since Patsy Cline made it a country standard in 1961, perhaps, has “I Fall to Pieces” resonated so poignantly in Music City.
Nashville has been represented by a single seat in the House of Representatives for as long as Tennessee has been a state. The seat has been held by a Democrat for 147 years.
All that was blown up this month when Gov. Bill Lee signed into law new political maps approved by fellow Republicans in the state legislature. The maps dismembered Nashville’s solidly Democratic House district and scattered its remains among three new districts that stretch deep into Republican rural areas.
Almost certainly, each of the next House members representing parts of Nashville will be a conservative Republican. To Democrats, the Nashville gerrymander is an especially egregious twist of the political knife by a rural-dominated Republican legislature that regards the big city with a mixture of disdain and envy.
“Dividing the capital city up three ways like Berlin is how you treat an enemy you’re trying to defeat, not a political rival,” said Jeff Yarbro, the State Senate’s Democratic leader.
Republicans call that criticism overwrought. But the move hints at an epic tug of war about the city’s future — one that reflects the nation’s divisions and yet is unique to Nashville. Subplots abound, but perhaps the most intriguing may be that the rural conservatives carving up the city are the very people whom Nashville’s music has historically celebrated.
Nashville has grown as a diverse, largely Democratic boomtown that is a mix of hometown bravado, sophisticated education and health care, a history of cultural and political moderation, and the many streams of American music flourishing in the city. President Biden carried 64.5 percent of the vote in Davidson County, whose government merged with Nashville in 1963.
But these days Republicans see something else: an advertisement for red-state values with calling cards that include the cultural juggernaut of country music — even if its artists and messages are hardly a political monolith — low taxes and a parade of conservative figures flocking there to set up media shops or run for office.
The differing visions reflect a city that has emerged as a credible rival to Atlanta as a whiter, more conservative Southern cultural and political center. It also has become a leading contender to host the 2024 Republican National Convention.
“Nashville is not on the Republican National Committee’s short list because of any doubt about Tennessee’s 11 electoral votes,” said Kent Syler, a professor and expert on state politics at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro. “It is there because Nashville’s image speaks to swing voters across Middle America.”
For many, Nashville seems a charmed place these days, even if the honky-tonk Bourbon Street that downtown Broadway has become is giving some residents second thoughts about whether all this prosperity is such a good thing.
Economically, the city is on a tear, constructing high-rises and corporate campuses for companies like Amazon and Oracle and luring throngs of young, often progressive-minded workers to fill them. A 30,000-seat Major League Soccer stadium is getting finishing touches south of downtown, civic leaders are angling for a Major League Baseball franchise, and the airport is expanding to accommodate a projected five million new passengers a year by 2023.
The city and nearby counties already accounted for many of the 565,000 new residents the state added in the last decade. By 2027, the region is expected to welcome another 200,000.
Much credit for that prosperity goes to the economic development efforts of old-school moderate politicians of both parties like the former governors Lamar Alexander, a Republican, and Phil Bredesen, a Democrat. But a state legislature ruled by a new generation of Trump-friendly rural conservatives is now in charge, focused on social issues and eager to rein liberal urban policies and mores.
Last year alone, legislators passed laws focusing on transgender students over their choice of bathrooms and participation in sports, and requiring women to bury or cremate the remains of abortions. An alliance with a conservative Christian college to set up scores of charter schools in the state was a highlight of Governor Lee’s State of the State speech last month.
But the gerrymander has drawn the sharpest rebukes.
“Until this year, full-throated Trumpism seemed to kind of stop at borders like Williamson County,” said Jon Meacham, the presidential biographer and Nashville resident, referring to the Republican suburbs at the city’s southern edge. “The redistricting represents a consequential incursion of what a lot of folks felt was contained. And that was the legislature’s point, of course.”
The current Democratic occupant of the House seat, Representative Jim Cooper, called the gerrymander “a disaster for the future of the city.”
“It’s not about me,” said Mr. Cooper, a moderate in his 16th term who announced his retirement after the new districts were disclosed. “I’ve had a good career. But it deprives 29 percent of Tennesseans of their political voice, and it completely violates Nashville’s history and heritage.”
A legal challenge is possible but viewed as a long shot.
Scott Golden, the chairman of the state Republican Party, said it was time for a change. “A united Republican leadership in Tennessee has only been around for 11 years,” he said. “The previous 175 years belonged to the Democratic Party.
“Nashville is a dynamic city, and it’ll be interesting to see what happens when you have Republican members of Congress representing them.”
The new political map has one other consequence that riles critics: It snuffs out the ambitions of Black voters to send a Black representative to Congress or play any significant role in congressional elections.
One in four Davidson County residents is Black, and about one in 10 is Hispanic; in 2020, Black candidates in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate ran one-two in the city. One Black challenger to Mr. Cooper, who is white, dropped his bid after the redistricting occurred; a second is re-evaluating her candidacy.
Charlane Oliver, a co-founder of the Equity Alliance, a voting rights advocacy group, said the new House seat boundaries were drawn “with surgical precision right through all the predominantly Black neighborhoods in Nashville.”
What is redistricting? It’s the redrawing of the boundaries of congressional and state legislative districts. It happens every 10 years, after the census, to reflect changes in population.
Why is it important this year? With an extremely slim Democratic margin in the House of Representatives, simply redrawing maps in a few key states could determine control of Congress in 2022.
How does it work? The census dictates how many seats in Congress each state will get. Mapmakers then work to ensure that a state’s districts all have roughly the same number of residents, to ensure equal representation in the House.
Who draws the new maps? Each state has its own process. Eleven states leave the mapmaking to an outside panel. But most — 39 states — have state lawmakers draw the new maps for Congress.
If state legislators can draw their own districts, won’t they be biased? Yes. Partisan mapmakers often move district lines — subtly or egregiously — to cluster voters in a way that advances a political goal. This is called gerrymandering.
What is gerrymandering? It refers to the intentional distortion of district maps to give one party an advantage. While all districts must have roughly the same population, mapmakers can make subjective decisions to create a partisan tilt.
Is gerrymandering legal? Yes and no. In 2019, the Supreme Court ruled that the federal courts have no role to play in blocking partisan gerrymanders. However, the court left intact parts of the Voting Rights Act that prohibit racial or ethnic gerrymandering.
Want to know more about redistricting and gerrymandering? Times reporters answer your most pressing questions here.
“They’re doing what they can to rig the system so they can rule from a minority place,” she said.
Nashville’s boom is luring two distinctly different populations. Young progressives are coming in droves for high-paying tech and finance jobs. But older workers, retirees and plenty of conservatives are streaming in from both coasts, attracted by low taxes — there is no state income tax, though sales taxes are stiff — and the country-music evocation of homespun values, personal freedom and unfettered patriotism.
The newcomers include luminaries from the conservative power structure, including a contingent of Fox News and Daily Wire commentators like Tomi Lahren, Matt Walsh and Candace Owens. The Daily Wire, a widely read conservative news and opinion outlet, moved to Nashville from Los Angeles in 2020.
Parler, the Twitter clone known for hosting advocates of the Jan. 6 riot, followed last year.
Most recently, Morgan Ortagus, the frequent Fox News guest and State Department spokeswoman during the Trump administration, moved to town — and was quickly endorsed by Mr. Trump for the new Fifth Congressional District, angering some prominent Republicans who preferred Robby Starbuck, a conservative filmmaker and another relative newcomer.
“My husband and I moved to Nashville because we wanted to raise our daughter in a state that embraces conservative values,” Ms. Ortagus said in an email.
Not all Republicans are welcoming the MAGA-certified would-be candidates. On Tuesday, a State Senate committee approved legislation that would bar anyone who had not lived in Tennessee for three years from running for either the U.S. House or Senate. That would apparently leave out both Ms. Ortagus and Mr. Starbuck.
For once, Democrats and Republicans sort of agreed. The bill’s sponsor, State Senator Frank S. Niceley, said the bill would discourage wealthy “people flying over Tennessee and saying, ‘Look, there’s an open district.’” Mr. Yarbro, the Senate’s Democratic leader, said the conservative newcomers “couldn’t find a honky-tonk with a flashlight and a map of Broadway.”
Nor is it clear the city covets the Republican convention.
Mayor John Cooper — the congressman’s brother — was studiously noncommittal, saying in a statement that the area welcomed interest from either party in a convention if it “makes business sense for the city and aligns with Nashville’s values.”
Exactly how this plays out over the long haul remains unclear.
Republicans are wagering that their gerrymander will contain Nashville’s Democratic energies for at least the next decade. While the city added nearly 90,000 residents in the last census, its suburban collar counties added more than 220,000. Republicans’ hope is that those new residents will favor them over Democrats.
But that is not a sure bet.
“It might backfire on them,” Professor Syler said. “Those counties are safely Republican now, but they’re starting to trend Democratic,” a trend that picked up steam in the 2020 presidential election.
Others worry that domination by a hard-right legislature could turn off potential newcomers.
“I hope that the carving up of Nashville doesn’t cause people and firms to have second thoughts about coming here,” said Frank M. Garrison, a former investment-firm executive and Nashville civic leader.
Cameron Sexton, the State House speaker from the eastern Tennessee town of Crossville, said concerns that the legislature could kill the golden goose were groundless.
“Maybe if you’re more progressive, you might not want to come to Tennessee, but we’re still attracting a whole lot of new people here,” he told the Nashville public radio station WPLN last month.
Mr. Meacham said he was not sure the goose was so safe.
“This feels to me as though we’re beginning to play with culture-war fire,” he said.
Sheelagh McNeill contributed research.
Nashville Gerrymandering Threatens City’s Core – The New York Times