Cooper takes on stronger-than-usual opposition

Monday, August 9, 2010 at 1:36am

The Republican primary in the 5th Congressional District has historically been ignored, or at least been a pro forma exercise for whatever sacrificial lamb offers himself up for sure destruction by a Democrat.

This year, the race for the right to take on Rep. Jim Cooper was different.

David Hall of Goodlettsville emerged from a field of 11 Republican hopefuls, earning 28 percent of the vote in the district that includes all of Davidson County, half of Wilson County and a sliver of Cheatham County.

Unlike some who have come before him, this is no token candidacy. Hall reported nearly a quarter-million dollars in fundraising during the primary, of which $340 came in individual contributions, a $72,785 personal loan that must be repaid, and a questionable $200,000 "in-kind" contribution.

And he defeated more than token opposition.

Jeff Hartline of Mt. Juliet ran television ads and brought on a cadre of Nashville business elites for his finance team. He also brought on controversial, but no doubt effective, former state party communications director Bill Hobbs to push his message.

CeCe Heil was named one of Sarah Palin’s “Mama Grizzlies,” garnering her national television time and bringing in enough cash for plenty of yard signs and a handful of radio ads.

And there was plenty of controversy to keep the race interesting.

Hartline’s filings show he paid himself $4,359 every other week as a salary out of his campaign fund, a disbursement allowed under federal law in a scheme designed to give nonprofessional politicians and the less-than-independently-wealthy a chance to take time off from work to run for office. Sean Braisted, a local blogger, blasted Hartline for his “$105,000 annual salary.” The campaign said it really just works out to $54,000. Whatever math one uses, it rubbed some observers the wrong way.

Hall put a few polls in the field, but the results were widely derided. The first, published in July, showed an impressive 20-plus point lead, and a second issued the week of the primaries showed a slender lead — a 6 point margin with a 29 percent take for the eventual nominee. These polls were “stratified by AHC Group, a local media consulting firm,” according to Hall.

Hall disbursed roughly $200,000 to AHC “in-kind” during the second quarter. The second quarter report shows Hall receiving the same amount in-kind from AHC. Later, the FEC sent a warning letter to Hall about the contribution.

So just who is AHC? Their website doesn’t provide much information, just boilerplate marketing language about providing “a strategic edge” in market data collection. The domain was registered with VistaPrint, a postcard and business card printing service that also does some web hosting. The domain name wasn’t registered until July 10.

The poll — and the payment — were the source of much derision. One Republican insider dismissed it as “total crap.”

“Well, it wasn’t an unexpected victory for me,” Hall said from his election night party at the Airport Hyatt, echoing his polling.

Clearly, AHC — whoever they are — knew what they were doing. The results mirrored closely the official outcome.

The question remains, though: Why all the fuss over a seat so solidly Democratic?

Challenging history

In 2008, Cooper easily bested his Republican opponent, a largely unknown Mt. Juliet businessman named Gerard Donovan. Donovan is a nice enough guy — folksy even. He personally traveled to Washington, D.C., to file for the race. But it has been solidly Democratic in every election since 1874. Except for the strange times around the Civil War — when the political geography of the South was, to put it mildly, fluid — the 5th has been true blue. Old-timers even call it “the Jackson District.”

It’s a safe seat, one of hundreds around the country so staunchly aligned with one party that the opposition is token if it exists at all.

While Cooper continued that tradition in ’08, winning by nearly 100,000 votes, there was something a little strange in the returns. Donovan, despite spending almost nothing and having negligible name recognition, actually received a majority of votes in Wilson County, beating the incumbent by 2,000 votes of nearly 40,000 cast in Wilson.

That silver lining should have been the first clue that Republicans might just make a go of it this year.

Hall already has an advantage over Donovan and other forgotten Republican flounders from the past. He has money.

Republicans around the country — and in the South, particularly — believe they have a fighting chance in almost every district because of widespread disapproval of President Obama’s policies.

Even a relatively conservative Democrat like Cooper — best known for his views on fiscal restraint and his reputation as a wonk of the first order — can be tied to the liberalism of the national top-of-the-ticket Democrats. As a result, another theme is likely to be “Remember: Jim Cooper’s first vote will be for Nancy Pelosi.”

Interestingly, Cooper was suggested as a Speaker of the House candidate by NBC analyst Chuck Todd, tongue planted apparently in cheek, should the Democrats’ majority shrink. And Cooper himself has said the tea party doesn’t bother him, that he’s been on the deficit-reduction train all along.

“I’m glad my messages are being listened to. No one has been more outspoken on the deficit and debt. I’ve written a book about it,” he said. “So I welcome the tea party and the interest in the deficit and debt.”

Is there reason to believe, though, that Republicans can get a foothold during a year when tea parties are so popular?

“It is a very Democratic district and Cooper has been visible, especially during the recent flood. But if there is a year where a Republican might have a chance in the 5th, this is the year,” Vanderbilt University professor John Geer said.

But there’s a caveat.

“Jim Cooper is not in serious trouble here,” Geer said.

Cooper recognizes the political reality that it’s a mid-term election — always tough for the party in the majority — and that times are tough, but he points out that he’s not a typical Democrat, despite what Hall is likely to say.

“I’ve always aggravated my own party and the other party. I’ve been an independently minded reformer,” he said.

Hall disagrees — although he acknowledged Cooper was “a different animal.”

“I think everyone knows the areas that he’s vulnerable. … That’s what drove the Republican vote in this primary to unprecedented levels. And conservative people are stirred up, and that makes him very vulnerable,” he said.

Despite Hall’s pronouncement he has a shot at the venerable old Blue Dog, this race may be about something else.

Republicans are likely to maintain control of both houses of the Tennessee General Assembly, meaning the GOP holds the redistricting pen when the lines are redrawn next year. While the 5th has been associated with the Party of Jackson since the days of Old Hickory himself, a redder legislature could wipe it all away and paint Cooper into a fight in 2012.

“[T]he winner on the GOP side will … be in a stronger position to run again in 2012,” Geer said. “Oftentimes it takes a couple of runs to get the kind of name recognition necessary to compete with a visible political figure like Jim Cooper.”

The fourth paragraph of this story has been amended to reflect a clarification in the interpretation of David Hall's fundraising report to the Federal Election Commission. 

11 Comments on this post:

By: govskeptic on 8/9/10 at 4:07

Mr. Hall is a serious enough candidate and one who didn't throw
trash at his primary opponents. Mr. Cooper's biggest problem.
and not mentioned in the story, is the general direction his party
is taking the country on a whole meried of subjects and not just
overall big deficit spending.

By: pepaw on 8/9/10 at 6:15

Mr Cooper has been nothing more than a political "YES MAN" for Nancy Pelosi. He doesn't ask his constituency about what is important to them, he simply waits on Nancy to tell him what, when where, and who.
The people of the 5th district deserve someone who will represent us, not the Washington Political Machine.. Like so many other elected officials who continue to be re-elected by their silence on what they actually support and vote for, which is basically, the best interest of Special Interest Groups, and political agendas.
Mr Cooper "Cherry Picks" his Photo-ops for his own personal gain. Not what's best for his constituency, and this country.
Mr Cooper is a class example of why this Country has been sliding backward in the World vision and World reputation.
The major factor in "The Government's" lowest trust levels by "We the People", are these greedy politicans like Jim Cooper. His agenda, on the National front is a carbon copy given him by the Democratic Party Leadership.
These comments are solely my on opinions, supported by my own investigations, and research.
I am a veteran of the Viet Nam Era, I am a registered Democrat, I "Will Not" support or vote for anyone who is a part of Washington's Political Machines, such as Jim Cooper. The major reason this country is struggling today. The direct results of decisions made by people like Mr Cooper does.

By: breathofdeath on 8/9/10 at 6:22

I hate to break this fact to the wonderful researchers employed by the City Paper, but all of Davidson County is NOT in the 5th district. I live in Crieve Hall (Metro Council district # 26) and am located in the 7th district, not the 5th. Oak Hill, Forest Hills, and those in Davidson County with a Brentwood ZIP code are also in the 7th district. With researching like this it's small wonder the City Paper is becoming more and more irrelevant.

By: budlight on 8/9/10 at 6:28

Pewpa said: "I am a veteran of the Viet Nam Era, I am a registered Democrat, I "Will Not" support or vote for anyone who is a part of Washington's Political Machines, such as Jim Cooper. The major reason this country is struggling today. The direct results of decisions made by people like Mr Cooper does."

Hey, I could not agree with you more. BUT do you think that obama is going to forgive all the Fannie & Freddie default mortgages so he can say "democrats did it for you" and thereby garner votes for the same democrats who got us into this mess?

By: pswindle on 8/9/10 at 10:27

Rep Cooper is the smartest man in Congress. We need to keep him. Do you remember George Bush?

By: News4free on 8/9/10 at 11:54

Thanks to "breathofdeath " for adding some of the other portions of Davidson County that are NOT in the 5th dist. You can also add the area of zip 37211 south of Old Hickory Blvd between Edmonson Pike and Nolensville Rd that also are NOT in the 5th dist.I am not sure when the redistricting was effective (2002? after the 2000 census - but this is reported incorrectly too often.)

By: shef2 on 8/9/10 at 12:11

Cooper makes up his own mind - I spoke to him personally, at one of our Community Meetings, before those votes were cast, on the Health Care matter. At that time, he was not sure just how he would vote on the measure. He is certainly not "part of the Machine", or a "Pelosi Yes Man", as was said earlier.
He is also the only person to thoroughly investigate (or at least TRY) what went wrong in the Army Corps of Engineers' dealing with the water (dam) releases during the May floods, and it appears many things DID go wrong-!
Keep Cooper-!

By: slzy on 8/9/10 at 1:28

was cooper one of those representatives that jumped to his feet on command and cheer and applaud loudly for the mexican president?

By: sharko20 on 8/9/10 at 9:25

I might be wrong, but pretty sure Cooper voted for all of the big spending Obama agenda. Obamacare, stimulus, etc. That makes him a big, fat liberal of the first order. I would call him a socialist. Time for him to pack his bags.

By: conservarage on 8/10/10 at 6:39

keep it clean, stick to the issues and facts, and send him home.

By: shinestx on 8/10/10 at 7:37

I have eaten with many politicians of both political parties... both individually and in groups. Cooper stands out as one of the (if not THE) least enjoyable meet-greets of all. It was in 1995, and he had just lost his Senate bid. He was angry, and he was arrogant... a horribly sore loser. Showing no grace at the table, he even said the people of TN were stupid not to vote for him. Hillary Clinton's health care initiative had just gone down in flames, and he had had a "compromise" (actually rival) proposal that never even came to vote. He was bitter, and he wanted to make sure everyone was going to pay. So he has created an untrue image of being a fiscal "hawk"... obviously shown to be folly when he voted in favor of Obamacare. Meanwhile, there is one thing that his district does need badly (a new courthouse b/c the Federal building on Broadway is horribly antiquated and overcrowded)... and Cooper has voted against funding for that every time. Jim Cooper is the reason we do not have a new Federal Courthouse, but dozens of other cities Nashville's size have already built theirs. Cooper needs to go! Not just because he is a tool of the elites, Pelosi, reid and Obama... but because Congress is altogether unaccountable and is simply a rubber stamp for the administration.