The younger Cooper worked as an attorney before he sought elected office in 1982 campaigning for the sprawling 4th District, which included rural communities to the south and east of Nashville. He decisively won the primary before beating Republican Cissy Baker, the daughter of Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker, 66-34 in a closely watched race.
Cooper quickly established himself as anything but a loyal vote for the Democratic leadership by opposing the Equal Rights Amendment and supporting the Reagan administration’s MX missile project, but he also took some stances that could have harmed him in his rural seat. The congressman backed abortion rights, voted in favor of gun safety measures, and loudly criticized the tobacco industry in a region where it held immense sway. Despite all of this, though, Cooper never had any trouble holding the 4th District.
Cooper sought a promotion in 1994 when he campaigned in the special Senate election to succeed now-Vice President Al Gore (appointed Democratic Sen. Harlan Mathews did not run), but he faced a tough race in a historically Democratic state that was moving to the right. Cooper himself spent that cycle as one of the most prominent opponents of President Bill Clinton’s health care reform plan, and he sponsored an alternative bill he nicknamed “Clinton Lite” that was very friendly to the insurance and health care industries. (First lady Hillary Clinton, who was spearheading the reform push, attributed Cooper’s sabotage to his Senate hopes.) Neither plan ended up passing, but while Cooper’s antics made him radioactive in the Clinton White House, it didn’t do him much good back in Tennessee.
The congressman faced a tough fight against Republican Fred Thompson, and while an early poll gave Cooper a 37-16 lead, his prospects plunged as the GOP gained strength nationally. Thompson himself initially ran a chaotic campaign and even talked about dropping out in May, but the actor proved to be a strong contender who, despite his lobbyist background, persuasively argued he had the anti-establishment credentials Cooper lacked. The Democrat responded to Thompson’s high-profile red pickup truck ride across the state by labeling him a “Gucci-wearing, Lincoln-driving, Perrier-drinking, Grey Poupon–spreading millionaire Washington special-interest lobbyist,” but he just couldn’t puncture Thompson’s folksy image.
It also didn’t help Cooper that national Democrats were more committed to aiding Sen. Jim Sasser, who was in a tough general election battle of his own against physician Bill Frist, than in helping him in the special. Cooper would later say that he knew two months before Election Day that both he and Sasser would go down, and he was right: Thompson beat him in a 61-39 landslide as Frist was also unseating Sasser by double digits, which made this the last time that a state’s entire Senate delegation changed hands on the same night until last year’s Democratic sweep in Georgia.
Cooper moved to Nashville afterwards and spent the next several years as an investment banker and instructor at Vanderbilt University, but Thompson’s 2002 retirement indirectly gave him an opportunity to return to the House. Democratic Rep. Bob Clement left the safely blue Nashville-based 5th District behind to unsuccessfully run for the Senate, and Cooper entered the primary to succeed him.
Cooper quickly emerged as a leading candidate in the crowded race even though he hadn’t previously represented any of the city, but he faced serious opposition from state Rep. John Arriola and Davidson County Sheriff Gayle Ray. Ray, who had the support of EMILY’s List, ran ads arguing that Cooper’s 1994 health care plan wouldn’t have provided essential services to women, while the NRA backed Arriola over both Cooper and Ray. The former congressman, however, enjoyed a huge financial edge over his rivals thanks in part to self-funding, and he ended up beating Arriola by a wide 47-24.
While Cooper never again gave his party as much trouble during his second stint in Congress as he did during the 1994 fight, he once again resumed his role as a thorn in the side for his leadership. He often opposed Nancy Pelosi in speakership elections (though he backed her in 2021 for the first time in years), and he voted with the Trump administration nearly 40% of the time in 2017 and 2018.
Cooper, though, seemed completely safe at home, especially after his brother, John Cooper, was overwhelmingly elected mayor of Nashville in 2019. So it was a surprise when the congressman won his primary the next year by a surprisingly modest 57-40 against Keeda Haynes, a public defender who was running an underfunded campaign against him from the left, in what proved to be his last campaign. Community activist Odessa Kelly launched a campaign to deny him renomination months later, but he ultimately retired rather than try and defend a seat that was now gerrymandered against him.