October 26, 2021

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Kentucky’s only Democratic member of Congress announces retirement as gerrymandering threat looms

Yarmuth’s retirement ends a political career that began when he was a Republican. The future congressman came from a wealthy and influential Louisville family, and his father was a fundraiser for Richard Nixon. Yarmuth, who would later say he “always considered myself a Rockefeller Republican,” worked for Jefferson County Judge-Executive Marlow Cook while in college, and he traveled across the state with none other than Mitch McConnell in 1968 to support Cook’s successful Senate bid. Yarmuth would recount that McConnell called him up three years later to ask if he’d take his place on Cook’s Senate staff, which Yarmuth immediately agreed to.

Yarmuth left Capitol Hill following Cook’s 1974 defeat and went on to found and publish a magazine back in Louisville. He remained active in local GOP politics in the ensuing years, including in 1981 when McConnell, who now held Cook’s old job as Jefferson County judge-executive, convinced him to wage an unsuccessful campaign for county commission. Yarmuth, though, drifted from his old party during the Reagan era, saying later he finally switched his registration to Democratic in 1985 after televangelist Jerry Falwell attacked Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Yarmuth spent the next two decades active in the Louisville media scene as the publisher of a liberal alternative weekly and frequent TV guest, but national party leaders were not enthusiastic when he decided to run for Congress in 2006 against veteran Republican Rep. Ann Northup. The congresswoman had won her last campaign 60-38 even as John Kerry took the 3rd District 51-49. The DCCC saw Iraq War veteran Andrew Horne as a more formidable candidate than the progressive publisher. Yarmuth, though, outspent his opponent thanks in part to his ability to self-fund and won the primary 54-32.

Northup used Yarmuth’s old writings, including his calls for legalizing marijuana, to portray him as unacceptably outside the mainstream, and the incumbent decisively outraised him. The DCCC was also pessimistic about their nominee’s prospects for much of the race, and it only added him to the Red to Blue list for top-tier candidates late in the race. The DCCC also spent only about $390,000 compared to $250,000 from the NRCC; the two groups, by contrast, spent well over $2 million each that year in the neighboring and far more conservative 4th District, where former Democratic Rep. Ken Lucas was well on his way to decisively losing his comeback bid against Republican Rep. Geoff Davis.

However, Yarmuth emphasized his opposition to the unpopular Iraq War and called Northup a “rubber stamp” for George W. Bush, which proved to be a winning argument for many Democrats in competitive seats. Yarmuth ultimately unseated Northup 51-48, an upset victory that made him the state’s first Jewish member of Congress.

Republicans hoped to retake this seat in 2008, and Northup agreed to run again after the party’s original choice had to drop out after being called up for the Army Reserves. But this time, Yarmuth had the advantages of incumbency and an even better political climate. He won their rematch in a 59-41 landslide as Barack Obama was carrying the seat 56-43.

National Republicans soon gave up on seriously targeting Yarmuth, who won 55-44 during the 2010 red wave against an unheralded foe. Yarmuth, who became the state’s only Democratic member of Congress following fellow Rep. Ben Chandler’s 2012 defeat, took at least 62% of the vote in his subsequent five campaigns and rose to become budget chair after his party retook the majority in 2018.

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