Ambition, Race and Politics in TN-09

Can ambition or race potentially unseat Steve Cohen in future contests for the TN-09 Congressional seat in 2020 or 2022?

Mike Nelson of the Daily Memphian thinks it could.

Last weekend, Nelson talked about that very thing in this post on the site.

While there’s no question Cohen’s days are numbered (no one lives forever…in life or politics), Nelson’s general thesis is flawed, and his early obituary for Cohen’s political demise is premature.

Race in the 9th

Rep. Steve Cohen (D), (TN-09)

In its current configuration, the TN-09 is 66% African-American. Since his election in 2006, Cohen has faced a primary every year…some efforts more credible than others.

In 2008, he faced off against Nikki Tinker, a candidate he beat in a crowded field in the previous primary.

Tinker never really got a ground game going in that election, something Cohen has consistently invested in as a campaigner. Tinker also didn’t have the longstanding connection to the community that Cohen has cultivated over his decades of public service.

In 2010 Cohen crushed former Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton. Herenton never fielded a real campaign in the primary contest.

2012 brought candidate Tomeka Hart, who also lost against Cohen.

2014, local attorney Rickey Wilkins garnered just 1/3 of the total vote against Cohen.

Both 2016 and 2018 saw little support for any candidate seeking to unseat the Congressman.

My point, an older white Jewish man has been representing a 66% African-American district for more than 12 years. He’s headed into his 7th term with little or no resistance. If race truly were a factor he could have been unseated by former Mayor Herenton in 2010, or his stiffest opposition since taking office…Rickey Wilkins in 2014.

But deeds seem to matter more to people in TN-09 than race.  Cohen has been a consistent fighter for the district. That’s what people appear to want based on every election since the 2006 primary. As long as Cohen continues to serve the District they way the people in the District want, there’s little to suggest he’s in any danger based on race.

The Year of Ambition

If any year could be called the year of ambition it has been 2018. New candidates up and down the ballot ran for elective office and won.

We’ve heard about the really surprising ones like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez beating House Caucus Chair Crowley in New York. There have been a ton of others as well.

There’s no question that 2020 could be a big year for ambition nationally as well. Will that “big ambition push” stick mostly with the Presidential contest, or will it filter down to Senate and House races as well? Chances are it will go up and down the ballot just like it did this year.

But ambition alone doesn’t win elections. You need a network of supporters. Dissatisfaction with the current representative is a big plus. Mad fundraising and organizing skills are absolutely necessary. A message that explains why “change now” is necessary.

Most of all, against a multi-term representative, you need a one on one primary to even have a chance.

While all of the folks Nelson mentioned would be fine representatives in my mind, I don’t see enough dissatisfaction with Cohen to push any of them over the top.

Maybe there’s some simmering under the surface. Perhaps Cohen suffers a fatal blow from his fairly regular “foot in mouth” disorder. Its possible one of those candidates can mobilize enough voters who like them more than him to make a change.

But its not likely.

I don’t know, but at this moment, ambition alone seems like a trap in the TN-09 race for 2020. It will take a lot of lucky breaks and favorable circumstances for anyone to take on and beat Cohen in that year.

Redistricting May Be The Only Way

While I’m not advocating for the defeat of one of the most liberal Representatives in the South, the redistricting that will take place before the 2022 election is most likely the best chance for anyone to win the area currently encompassed in TN-09.

In all likelihood, Republicans will run the redistricting process in Nashville, just like they did in 2012.

In all likelihood, they will seek to pack Democrats in Shelby County into the smallest area possible to maximize their chances of maintaining power in the TN General Assembly, and the current statewide balance of power in the US House.

That could mean the area currently served by Cohen gets sliced and diced in some way that makes his election more difficult.

But truth be told, Shelby County is only so big. Since population growth has been effectively stagnant for 20+ years, its more likely that Cohen will pick up more white people than anything else…his district growing from 704,000 people to 748,000 people.

There are about 505,000 African-Americans in Shelby Co. Assuming the vast majority of African-Americans are already in the district, with the County population stagnant, there’s little left to add than white or latino folks.

With race having little impact on unseating Cohen, and ambition fraught with all kinds of challenges, its hard to see Cohen being unseated by anything other than his own hand (or mouth).


Cohen will be 70 next May. The US House has a ton of 70+ aged folks who don’t seem ready to slow down anytime soon.

70 is the new 50 (which means I guess I’ll get to be 30 again in a few years since I’m pushing 50).

If Cohen wants to stay in office, there’s little stopping him. The organizing effort to unseat him would have to be massive, and he’d have to help by screwing up big time in some way.

But Cohen, as a steward of the voters of Shelby County, does need to think about what the future may be like one day when he decides he’s had enough of Washington…or when his health eventually fails (as it will for all of us).

While the latter may not be soon, Cohen is more likely to secure his legacy as a liberal leader by cultivating great talent to succeed him. Acting like the end will never come leaves the future uncertain.

Party building isn’t something Cohen has shown much interest in. I’m not sure what he’s done, if anything, in way of mentoring.

But building a legacy that outlasts you means building up talent around you that can carry the baton well past your final days. And while its much too soon to write the obituary for Cohen, or his time in office, its never too soon for him, and the rest of us, to think about who and what a future without him might look like.

2 Replies to “Ambition, Race and Politics in TN-09”

  1. Cohen is doing a fine job for his district and now that we are the majority, we need an experienced person to continue the work. 2020 does not need to see a freshman take over this district.

  2. Politically correct I am not and refuse to be as you well know, Steve. One can only hope that intelligence continues to prevail among voters in your respective area. Steve Cohen is the best representation Tennessee, and the people of 9, have ever had in Washington.
    I do however understand the question. In all too many areas of the nation black voters tend to vote “Black” before voting for seniority or even their own best interests. This is evident in the recent Governor’s race in Georgia. Stacey Abrams is clearly a moron, but she gained the majority of the black vote. Her statements were almost GW Bush-like in their idiocy and no voter with the best interests of that state in mind could tolerate her in that office. Thus Kemp, an asshat extraordinaire wins.

    Also in TN District 91, London Lamar sounds like a Millennial version of Donald Trump and manages to get elected on the black woman/vote Democrat even-if-I-don’t-know-why vote. She’s mindless and racist. Though that didn’t seem to matter.

    I hold out hope that when voting reason will prevail and Mr. Cohen will keep that office as long as he is able and when he no longer is, that voters will choose a mature, good-hearted, intelligent person to represent them without regard to characteristics that have nothing to do with character.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.