Rumors that Kentucky Rep. John Yarmuth was poised to retire or resign were hot and heavy right up until the moment the Democratic congressman announced his re-election bid on Monday. But the public uncertainty provided a brief glimpse into what the race to replace him might look like when he decides to call it quits.
The exit rumors weren’t just wishful thinking by a Republican Party that hasn’t been able to seriously challenge for the Louisville-based 3rd District since Yarmuth knocked off popular GOP Rep. Anne Northup in 2006. Local Democrats were buzzing about the congressman’s plans and some were even preparing bids for an open seat.
Some of the retirement speculation began in December, when Yarmuth was interviewed by the local media and didn’t commit to running for re-election. "Who knows?" he said. "I think this next term is going to be very frustrating. So, we'll see how that looks midway through that term whether it looks like things are going to get better or worse.
"If they're going to get worse," Yarmuth continued, "then I don't think it's something you want to be a part of."
Those comments, combined with six subsequent months without an announcement, appeared to fuel speculation Yarmuth would retire or even resign. Then word began to spread about a Monday morning announcement, though no one knew what the congressman would say.
A resignation would have prompted a special election, which would have likely taken place this November when Democrats are expected to do well in the gubernatorial race, but the timing and rationale for such a move didn’t line up.
Yarmuth isn’t a consistent GOP target who is routinely hounded by Republican attacks. He’s won re-election four times by an average of 22 points. In the near term, Yarmuth is the Democrats’ team captain for the 14th annual First Tee Congressional Challenge , a charity golf tournament scheduled for July 27 with the prized Roll Call Cup at stake. So it didn’t make sense he would leave immediately.
But that didn’t stop the speculation about some potential Yarmuth successors.
State Sen. Morgan McGarvey is viewed as an articulate politician with potential, whose father was a long-time local television news anchor. According to local sources, McGarvey had lined up former Rep. Mike Ward (who lost re-election to Northup in 1996) to help with his campaign and McGarvey allies reached out to consultants about a potential bid before Yarmuth’s announcement.
Jennifer Moore is a prominent trial attorney and board chairwoman for Emerge Kentucky , which aids Democratic women running for office. Local sources believe she would be a credible contender and wouldn’t have any trouble raising money.
Popular Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer might be the most prominent potential candidate. He was elected in 2010 (after finishing second in the 2008 Democratic Senate primary) and began his second term earlier this year.
Yarmuth’s son, Aaron, is also mentioned as a potential successor. He is publisher of LEO Magazine, the local alternative weekly his father co-founded and published before getting elected to Congress. But he may have difficulty in a primary against Fischer or other elected officials.
Louisville Metro Council President David Tandy has been mentioned as a potential Democratic candidate as well. But local sources believe he is more likely to run for mayor of Louisville in the future.
The Democratic nomination is critical because the 3rd District is a blotch of blue in an increasingly red state in federal races.
Democratic Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes won the district, 57 percent to 41 percent, over Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell in 2014, according to Ace of Spades HQ , a conservative blog. Grimes lost statewide by 15 points. In 2012, President Barack Obama won the 3rd by 13 points, even though he lost statewide by 22 points. The Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report /Roll Call rates the race as Safe for Democrats , with or without Yarmuth.
With the uncertainty cleared up, it might be a while before aspiring Democrats get their chance to run for Congress. Yarmuth might be inspired to stay longer, depending on future opportunities within the caucus. With Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen running for the Senate, Yarmuth looks poised to become the ranking member of the House Budget Committee in 2017.