Yarmuth won’t seek reelection as Kentucky’s lone Hill Democrat

Budget chairman faced redistricting, primary challenge

House Budget Chairman John Yarmuth has opted against a ninth term.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
House Budget Chairman John Yarmuth has opted against a ninth term. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted October 12, 2021 at 2:20pm, Updated at 3:28pm

A Republican-turned-Democrat who helped craft a massive pandemic relief package earlier this year, House Budget Chairman John Yarmuth said Tuesday that he will retire at the end of his term rather than seek reelection. 

Yarmuth, the only Democrat in Kentucky’s congressional delegation, detailed his plans in a video that was first shared with NBC News

“I never expected to be in Congress this long. I always said I couldn’t imagine being here longer than 10 years,” he said. “This term will be my last.”

Yarmuth was first elected to the House in 2006, narrowly unseating Republican Anne M. Northup. He was never seriously challenged for reelection, but, this cycle, he faced the double threat of a well-known primary challenger from his left and the possibility of his Louisville-area 3rd District being broken up in redistricting.

Yarmuth, who has chaired the powerful Budget Committee since 2019, said in his retirement announcement that his “proudest moment” was his work on a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 aid package that he helped pass through Congress this spring. 

He is so far one of eight House members — three Republicans and five Democrats — who are retiring this Congress. A sixth Democrat said before the 2020 election that this would be her last term. Another five Democrats and six Republicans are seeking other offices.

Kentucky’s legislature controls its redistricting process, and Republicans have veto-proof majorities in both chambers, although they have not publicly started the process yet. Yarmuth’s district and the three safe Republican seats nearby have all grown, giving the party breathing room to draw the Louisville area into a more Republican-friendly seat.

[John Yarmuth went from Roll Call pinup to Budget chairman]

Yarmuth, 73, entered public life as a publisher. He ran for two public offices as a moderate Republican — once with the encouragement of Mitch McConnell, who was a county judge at the time. Now Senate minority leader, McConnell issued a statement Tuesday congratulating Yarmuth for his years of public service. 

 “We always shared a deep affinity for our hometown, Louisville, and a strong sense of loyalty to our constituents and neighbors. I wish John the best as he takes a step back to spend more time with his family,” he said. 

Yarmuth switched parties in 1985. In Congress, he has periodically been tapped to express the Democratic viewpoint on Republican tax and spending plans and other policies. His party chose him to be the ranking Democrat on the Budget Committee in 2017, replacing Maryland’s Chris Van Hollen, who was elected to the Senate. But Yarmuth has also cultivated friendships with GOP colleagues and demonstrated a willingness to work across the aisle. 

He was one of the first in Congress to call for the impeachment of President Donald Trump, co-sponsoring a resolution to impeach him for obstruction of justice and other charges in November 2017. 

But Yarmuth attracted scorn from Democrats’ progressive wing for his reluctance to embrace calls for a single-payer health care system. Humana — one of the nation’s largest health insurers — is based in Louisville. 

When he took over as Budget chairman in 2019, Yarmuth expressed optimism that divisions between liberal and moderate Democrats were not as insurmountable as some believed. But those differences ended up preventing him from even getting the support in committee to send a fiscal 2020 budget resolution to the floor, in part because of objections to trillions of dollars in tax increases the budget would have assumed in order to hold down the deficit amid spending increases.

Yarmuth was already facing a primary challenge from three-term state Rep. Attica Scott in the 3rd District, which, in its current configuration, has the most Black residents of the state’s six House seats. Scott, who is Black, said when she launched her campaign that Black women in the district needed more representatives who “look like us.” Yarmuth is white. 

Following Yarmuth’s announcement Tuesday, Morgan McGarvey, the top Democrat in the Kentucky state Senate, announced that he would also seek the seat.

Michael Macagnone contributed to this report.