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Roll Call

The Zeal of the Convert

Rep. John Yarmuth, Former Rockefeller Republican, Among GOP’s Toughest Critics

Scott J. Ferrell/CQ Roll Call File Photo

When Rep. John Yarmuth talks about the Republican Party, he has little good to say — the way a former drunk talks about booze, or a jilted lover talks about his ex.

The scion of a wealthy family, the liberal Kentucky Democrat was once a card-carrying member of the GOP.

“[I] always considered myself a Rockefeller Republican,” Yarmuth told Roll Call of his younger days.

That particular breed of political dinosaur no longer roams the earth, and Yarmuth considers himself among those who like to say that he didn’t leave the Republican Party, it left him (an assertion at least as many Republicans make about the Democratic Party these days).

In Congress, Yarmuth is a rarity: Of the 81 former legislative aides currently serving who once worked for a Member, he is one of only three who did duty for a lawmaker of the other party. (The others are also Democrats, Rep. Dan Boren (Okla.), who worked for party-switching Rep. Wes Watkins, and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), who worked for liberal Republican Sen. Charles Mathias Jr.) 

While an undergraduate at Yale University, Yarmuth spent his summers working for Jefferson County Judge-Executive Marlow Cook.

Cook, a moderate Republican, was elected to the Senate in 1968. Three years later, Yarmuth joined his office as a legislative aide. 

Yarmuth’s initial loyalty to the Republican Party was part ideological, part genetic. 

Growing up in a Republican household, Yarmuth’s father had been a fundraiser for President Richard Nixon. But aside from his family’s political leanings, Yarmuth had an affinity for the more moderate wing of the Republican Party, embodied by the flamboyant governor of New York who lent his name to the cause: Nelson Rockefeller.

His mentor’s philosophy proved a suitable match for the legislative aide. Cook, among the early crop of Republicans to win national office from a Southern state, did not have the reputation of being an unbending partisan. 

During his one term in the Senate, Cook frequently challenged the party leadership, including the president. In 1970, he was one of 13 Republicans to oppose Nixon’s Supreme Court nominee, G. Harrold Carswell, who faced questions about his earlier support of segregation. (Cook backed him in committee, then voted “no” on the floor.)

In 1973, Cook joined 24 other Senate Republicans in overriding Nixon’s veto of legislation requiring Congressional approval before sending U.S. forces abroad.   

After Cook lost his re-election bid in 1974, Yarmuth returned to his native state, running for a seat on Louisville’s Board of Aldermen in 1975 and for Jefferson County District Commissioner in 1981. He lost both races and would never again run for public office as a Republican.

As the 1970s unfolded, the GOP moved right and Yarmuth moved left, wary of the growing influence of social conservatives in the Republican Party. The final straw came in 1985, he said, when the late Rev. Jerry Falwell dubbed South African Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu a “phony.”

Jasmine Farrier, a political science professor at the University of Louisville, lends credence to the rationale espoused by many Rockefeller Republicans that the party moved more than they did.

“Yarmuth might be consistent on a lot of issues, but the Republican Party doesn’t represent them anymore,” Farrier said. 

Mary Brennan, professor of history at Texas State University and author of “Turning Right in the Sixties: The Conservative Capture of the GOP,” also makes the point that many moderate Republicans had a lost-in-the-wilderness feeling that began in the 1960s and grew in the 1970s, much like the former liberal Democrats who grew disenchanted with their party and eventually formed the core of the neoconservative movement.

“All these liberal Republicans found themselves with nowhere to go after Watergate,” Brennan said. 

For Yarmuth, the place to go was the Democratic Party. 

But life is never as simple as politicians’ explanations, and ideological comparisons across decades are as difficult to make as trying to measure Walter Johnson against Roger Clemens.

Van Hollen worked for a very liberal Republican Senator who represented a very liberal state.

But a side-by-side comparison with the other former staffer who once worked for a member of the other party — Boren, who worked for Democrat-turned-Republican in a conservative state — reveals that the Oklahoma Democrat has hugged moderation a lot more tightly than his
Bluegrass colleague.

Since coming to Congress in 2007, Yarmuth has been a far more reliable vote for his leadership, backing the party line more than 98 percent of the time on votes in which a majority of Democrats aligned against a majority of Republicans, compared with Boren’s 79 percent over the same period.

And rhetorically, the Kentucky Democrat’s words are anything but the model of moderation, although they do retain a hint of Rockefeller’s acerbic style, if not content, as when he referred to former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, former Treasury Secretary John W. Snow and Christopher Cox, chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, as “three Bill Buckners” at a 2008 hearing.

“Republicans are the extreme element in politics right now,” Yarmuth said.  

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