LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — When the only Democrat representing Kentucky in Congress announced his retirement last year, many expected a frenzy of contenders vying to replace him. Instead, voters in the state's most competitive Democratic congressional primary will choose Tuesday between only two candidates, both state lawmakers from Louisville whose politics align closely with the man they hope to succeed.
Sen. Morgan McGarvey and Rep. Attica Scott share many of the progressive stances espoused by U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, who decided to retire after representing Kentucky's 3rd Congressional District for 15 years. But they come to the contest from very different backgrounds.
Scott, a Black woman, is an activist and former Louisville metro councilwoman who was arrested during protests after the shooting of Breonna Taylor by police in 2020. McGarvey, a white attorney, is a top-ranking Democrat in the Republican-dominated Kentucky Senate who has the backing of several prominent Louisville Democrats.
Whoever wins will play a role in deciding whether Democrats can maintain their slim majorities in Congress. The party that wins control of the White House typically loses congressional seats in mid-term elections, a fate that has befallen every president this century.
The 3rd District remained intact under the GOP’s new redistricting plan and is far more diverse than other parts of Kentucky. It covers most of Jefferson County, where white residents make up nearly two-thirds of the district’s population and Black residents account for about 20%, according to census figures.
In their bids to replace Yarmuth, the current House Budget chairman and a well-known progressive voice in Washington, Scott and McGarvey both support “Medicare for All,” decriminalizing marijuana, more laws to fight climate change and universal, federally funded pre-kindergarten.
Scott emerged as a prominent Democratic voice in 2020, when she marched with other demonstrators in support of racial justice. One of three Black women in the Kentucky House, she chose to run for Congress to take matters into her own hands.
“One of the things that 2020 showed us is that we can no longer sit and wait for a savior,” Scott said. “That’s not going to happen. We have to save ourselves.”
Scott vows to push for improvements to the district’s infrastructure, including public transportation, and to fight for environmental justice.
Motivated to turn her community’s “protest into policy,” Scott drafted a so-called Breonna’s Law, which sought to ban no-knock search warrants in Kentucky and impose new requirements on police practices. Although the measure eventually signed into law was not the total ban Scott had sought, it included elements inspired by her legislation.
Scott said she hopes to prioritize the voices of those in the district who may feel overlooked.
“I’ve always been a bold progressive, and I’ve been clear that my responsibility and alignment and commitment is not necessarily to the Democratic establishment and the status quo,” Scott added.
Despite her active role in the protests, Scott drew criticism from members of Breonna Taylor’s family after she filed to run against Yarmuth. Taylor’s mother, Tamika Palmer, backed Yarmuth before the congressman announced his retirement.
Her opponent, McGarvey, is more of an establishment pick. Yarmuth endorsed McGarvey in February, and the state senator also has endorsements from several local state lawmakers, Louisville metro council members and labor unions. He also holds a huge fundraising advantage.
McGarvey, facing the possibility that Democrats could find themselves in the minority, touts his experience being a voice of resistance against a Republican majority. Kentucky’s state legislature is dominated by Republicans. As Senate minority leader, he has led the opposition to GOP-backed bills that banned transgender kids from school sports, changed rules for public assistance and limited abortion access.
He said his experience getting legislation through sets him apart from Scott, referencing 18 bills he says he authored and passed.
“I’m not going to take the defeatist attitude that we can’t do things in government. I think we can still do big things. And the way I do that is not by talking but by listening,” he said. “I believe in government. I believe that our government can do big things that help people.”
Several candidates have entered the race on the Republican side: Darien Barrios Moreno, Rhonda Palazzo, Gregory Puccetti, Daniel Cobble, Mike Craven, Justin Gregory and Stuart Ray. Palazzo, a real estate agent, lost to Yarmuth in 2020.
The 3rd District is one of the few remaining Democratic strongholds in the state. The Republican nominations for the other five congressional seats are expected to remain in the hands of incumbents after the primary Tuesday. James Comer (KY-01), Brett Guthrie (KY-02), Thomas Massie (KY-04), Hal Rogers (KY-05) and Andy Barr (KY-06) all are overwhelming favorites to keep their seats in the general election, too.
Barr, whose district contains Democratic-leaning Lexington, is likely to benefit from recent redistricting that extended the 1st District’s fishhook deeper into central Kentucky. The 1st District now stretches into Franklin County, which includes the Democratic-leaning state capital of Frankfort, making Barr’s 6th District lean more towards the GOP.
Hudspeth Blackburn is a corps member for The Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.