Community Activist Odessa Kelly Gets Backing From Justice Democrats to Challenge Tennessee Rep. Cooper

By Jim Ellis

Community activist Odessa Kelly (Photo: Odessa Kelly campaign)

April 7, 2021 — In what could be the beginning of a national trend developing against perceived moderate Democratic incumbents, community activist Odessa Kelly on Monday announced a party primary challenge against veteran Tennessee Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Nashville).

What makes this candidacy potentially more serious is her backing from the Justice Democrats national political action committee that posted a successful 2020 election cycle. The group is most closely associated with New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-Bronx) and the other members of “the Squad” — Reps. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), and Ilhan Omar (D-MN).

The Justice Democrats successfully backed Jamaal Bowman’s successful Democratic primary challenge of 16-term New York Rep. Eliot Engel, and they won another New York primary election with attorney Mondaire Jones in an open race to succeed retiring Rep. Nita Lowey (D).

They also supported two other individuals who upset Democratic incumbents, Illinois challenger Marie Newman, opposite then-Rep. Dan Lipinski, and Cori Bush in St. Louis who defeated 20-year congressional incumbent Lacy Clay (D-MO). Overall, they endorsed nine non-incumbent Democratic challengers in primaries and were successful in five races.

Their two biggest losses came in Massachusetts and Texas. The failed to dislodge House Ways and Means Committee chairman Richard Neal (D-MA) and veteran Texas Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Laredo), though both campaigns were highly competitive.

Combined, the nine non-incumbents who the Justice Democrats supported spent an average of $2.25 million, meaning that a potential Odessa Kelly candidacy in Tennessee against Rep. Cooper could well become serious, at least in terms of available resources.

Tennessee’s 5th District contains the capital city of Nashville and all of Davidson County. The CD also includes to the west the neighboring county of Dickson and three-quarters of Cheatham. Demographically, the seat is 60.4 percent non-Hispanic white, 25.0 percent black, and 9.2 percent Hispanic. The gender division breaks 51.7 percent female. A total of 12.3 percent of the population is foreign born, which is a high number when compared to other districts around the country.

The employee percentage is 61.2 percent, and there are 21,375 business entities registered, which is also a high figure. Almost 90 percent of the TN-5 residents have a high school diploma, and yet another high total of 43 percent have at least a bachelors degree in upper education. President Biden took 60.3 percent of the vote here in November as compared to former President Trump’s 36.7 percent. Four years earlier, Hillary Clinton topped then-candidate Donald Trump, 56.5 – 38.2 percent

Jim Cooper was first elected to the House in 1982 in the southeast/central Tennessee 4th District from which he served six terms, choosing to run for the Senate in 1994 where he lost to Republican Fred Thompson. He re-located to Nashville and then won the open 5th District seat eight years later in 2002 when veteran incumbent Bob Clement (D-Nashville) retired. Therefore, Cooper’s combined service in the House is 30 full years.

The congressman faced a Democratic primary challenge in 2020 and prevailed over attorney Keeda Haynes, 57-40 percent, a low margin when considering she spent only $147,000 on her campaign effort. Attaining such a percentage against a veteran incumbent when spending little is clearly what makes the 2022 situation in this safely Democratic seat much more interesting. The Justice Democrats’ involvement, with their track record of helping to produce financial resources for the candidates they support, already makes this developing race more than a typical incumbent primary challenge.

In the previous election cycle, the Justice Democrats changed their strategy. In earlier years, they had endorsed and supported many more candidates than in 2020. In 2018 alone, they backed 80 contenders for the Senate, House, and governor and lieutenant governor seats across the country.

Come 2020, they cut that number to just 18 individuals and fully concentrated on helping to elect them. The formula proved successful. Therefore, the fact that they are already singling out Kelly in a deep south state against an entrenched incumbent suggests that this, too, will be a significant primary race to watch in 2022.

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