How a Kentucky congressional race could showcase Democrats’ national split

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It’s the well-connected white state Senate leader with high praise for retiring Rep. John Yarmuth against the Black female state representative who wants to cause “good trouble” as the next member of Washington’s rambunctious squad.

The race for Kentucky’s suddenly open 3rd District congressional seat is setting up to showcase some of the same ideological and demographic fissures that are currently splitting Democrats in Washington.

And the winner of the Democratic primary for the Louisville-based seat next May will serve as a weathervane for the direction of the party both in Kentucky and nationally.

“I have never been the establishment or status quo Democrat. I challenge my own political party to do much better, especially by young people and women and people of color,” said Attica Scott, who jumped in the race in July as a primary challenger to Yarmuth before his announced retirement.

Scott, the first African American woman to serve in Kentucky’s General Assembly in two decades, is running as a pure progressive in the same vein of New York Rep. Alexandria Ocascio-Cortez and Missouri Rep. Cori Bush.

“I would hope they would welcome me into their ranks to be a member of the Squad,” she told McClatchy in an interview, framing her campaign as a test for primary voters. “It’s going to bring into question all of those people who last year were saying, ‘Listen to Black women, Stand with Black women.’ It’s going to question whether or not they actually meant those words with action, not just words.”

Whereas Scott had no heads up about Yarmuth’s retirement, Morgan McGarvey received a day’s notice through a phone call. That gave Kentucky’s Senate Democratic Leader a little time to line up a list of endorsements and hit the ground running as the first candidate to launch after Yarmuth went public with his decision.

In an interview, the third-term McGarvey lauded Yarmuth as a “fantastic congressman” and said the top priorities for voters in the race should be preserving the longtime Democratic seat and sending a proven leader to Washington.

Kentucky Senator Morgan McGarvey holds a state map showing infection rate of COVID-19 among Kentucky counties during the opening day of the Kentucky General Assembly’s special session in Frankfort, Ky., Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2021. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)
Kentucky Senator Morgan McGarvey holds a state map showing infection rate of COVID-19 among Kentucky counties during the opening day of the Kentucky General Assembly’s special session in Frankfort, Ky., Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2021. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)

“We’re losing a big presence and you definitely want someone with the experience to go in who on Day 1 will at least be able to start effectively working for the district,” McGarvey said. “The things I’ve learned in Frankfort here are the two most important things you can say are, ‘I don’t know’ and ‘What do you think?,’ to go and listen to people.”

While McGarvey is considered the early favorite, he’s already been told by friends he can’t take anything for granted. And with the filing deadline not until January, the field is likely to grow for a seat that hasn’t been seriously contested in 16 years.

A handful of other Democrats are making calls about the early contours of the contest and feeling out their viability with political operatives.

Josie Raymond, a state representative in her second term, told McClatchy she’s considering entering the race, having lived the experience of a working mom trying to manage childcare during the pandemic.

“There’s distinctions to be made between us, but there’s time for that,” she replied when asked where she’d fit politically between McGarvey and Scott.

Then, she ended the interview because McGarvey was calling her. Raymond, who declined to disclose what they spoke about, said the conversation had not changed her interest in the seat.

Two other women taking a look at the race include Jennifer Moore -- a trial attorney and former chair of the Kentucky Democratic Party who is close to former Gov. Steve Beshear -- and McKenzie Cantrell, a state representative.

And there may be a legacy candidate who could run on name alone. Aaron Yarmuth, the retiring congressman’s son, confirmed to The Courier Journal his interest, though there’s some doubt about his seriousness among political operatives.

Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky., speaks to a gathering of teachers in the rotunda of the Kentucky State Capitol during the opening day of the Kentucky State Legislature, Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2018, in Frankfort, Ky.
Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky., speaks to a gathering of teachers in the rotunda of the Kentucky State Capitol during the opening day of the Kentucky State Legislature, Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2018, in Frankfort, Ky.

Charles Booker, who some Democrats think could have glided his way into the congressional seat, tweeted “to remove any doubt” that he was staying in the race for U.S. Senate against Rand Paul.

Hanging over the entire race is what the 3rd Congressional District will even look like after the legislature redraws its lines. With Yarmuth out, Republican lawmakers might look to seize on the opportunity to move Democratic voters into other adjoining districts, including Lexington Rep. Andy Barr’s, in order to make the Louisville seat more competitive.

State Sen. Julie Raque Adams, a close ally of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, is considered the favored candidate of the Republican establishment. Secretary of State Michael Adams is also looking at the race.

But barring a catastrophic Democratic candidate and a national political environment that completely bottoms out for the party in power, it’s likely to be an uphill battle for the GOP.

Yarmuth won his last four races by an average of 26 points. Most everyone acknowledges it’ll be closer this time with no incumbent, but making up more than three touchdowns in a year is a lot of ground.

Republicans can hope for a crowded, divisive Democratic primary that lures in outside interest groups, drains candidates of resources and leaves the eventual nominee battered and bitter.

It’s too soon to measure the divisiveness of a primary still being formed, but the presence of Scott guarantees that a progressive voice will be pushing hard against more mainstream, conventional Democratic politicians.

Booker, in his 2020 U.S. Senate primary challenge, came within 3 points of upending Amy McGrath statewide. Now he’s likely to be leading the Democratic ticket next year as an avowed progressive in a solidly red state.

But in a multi-candidate race in heavily Democratic Louisville, the odds may be even more favorable to an insurgent candidate like Scott, who was named after the Attica Correctional Facility in New York, site of the famous prison rebellion staged for winning more favorable living conditions.

McGarvey, who touted a record of protecting marriage equality and victims of domestic abuse, declined to say if Scott is too liberal to hold the seat.

Scott was less reticent about her willingness to take on her opponent.

“Our voting records speak for themselves. I did not support issues like Blue Lives Matter or the gang bill, and haven’t taken a walk on important issues on abortion access. We have some differences,” she said. “He’s got a challenge, he’s got to catch up with me. I’ve been doing this for three months now, so he’s got to get caught up with doing exactly what we’ve been doing.”

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