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GOP favored for Tennessee pickup but didn’t go after Kentucky seat

Even in oceans of red, there are blue islands

House Budget Chairman John Yarmuth's seat in Kentucky remains strongly Democratic, but he is retiring rather than seek another term.
House Budget Chairman John Yarmuth's seat in Kentucky remains strongly Democratic, but he is retiring rather than seek another term. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

ANALYSIS — While Kentucky and Tennessee haven’t voted for a Democratic presidential nominee in 25 years, and President Donald Trump won both states in 2016 and 2020 with more than 60 percent of the vote, Democrats had locked down a trio of House seats. That’s about to change. 

With final say in the redistricting process in both states, Republicans could have taken Democrats down to a single seat. But they only chose to eliminate one Democratic seat in Tennessee while preserving Democrats’ lone seat in the Bluegrass State. 

Currently, Tennessee voters send seven Republicans and two Democrats (Reps. Jim Cooper and Steve Cohen) to the House. After taking a pass in previous cycles, GOP state legislators decided to divide up and dilute Democratic voters in Nashville (Davidson County) in order to gain another seat. 

It turned Cooper’s 5th District from a seat Joe Biden won by double digits in 2020 to one Trump would have won by double digits, and he decided in January to retire. Cohen’s Memphis-based seat will be the lone Democratic seat left in Tennessee. The final result will likely be that Republicans gain a House seat — one-fifth of what they need nationwide for a majority — in the Volunteer State alone.

Republicans could have done the same thing in Kentucky. They could have extended their 5:1 advantage in the House delegation to a 6:0 sweep by dividing up Louisville and Jefferson County. But they didn’t. From early in the process, everyone from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (a former Jefferson County Judge/Executive) to GOP Rep. Brett Guthrie expressed interest in keeping the Democratic-leaning 3rd District intact. 

That’s good news for Democratic Rep. John Yarmuth, who has been serving in Congress since he knocked off GOP Rep. Anne Northup in 2006 in a great Democratic cycle when it was a competitive seat. 

But Yarmuth is not seeking reelection. And considering Biden would have won the 3rd District with 60 percent of the vote, the May 17 Democratic primary is critical. The outgoing chairman of the House Budget Committee has endorsed state Senate Minority Leader Morgan McGarvey as his replacement. State Rep. Attica Scott is running in a more progressive lane, and was in the race before Yarmuth announced his retirement. But McGarvey outpaced Scott in fundraising through the end of the year by a significant margin. 

Tennessee’s 5th District (Open; Jim Cooper, D)

Even though Cooper sounded committed to running for reelection no matter what Republicans did to his district, it’s no surprise he bowed out after the lines were complete. In 2020, Cooper didn’t even have a Republican challenger in a district Biden won with 60 percent. The newly drawn district would have voted for Trump with 55 percent. That puts heightened importance on the Aug. 4 GOP primary. 

The Republican race is crowded, but former Trump State Department official Morgan Ortagus and music video producer Robby Starbuck are regarded as the top contenders up to this point. Trump’s early endorsement of Ortagus caused some consternation in Trump world because Starbuck is considered part of the MAGA movement. Initial rating: Likely Republican.

Want a peek behind the scenes of political handicapping? With the new lines and the favorable national political environment, the 5th District race could be rated Solid Republican. But it’s easier to track seats that flip from one party to the other when they are noted on the list of competitive races instead of being buried in a Solid rating category. 

Overall, it means that neither Kentucky nor Tennessee is likely to host a competitive House race, in the general election, in the next decade. And we’ll wait to see whether Republicans succumb to temptation, and divide up Louisville after the 2030 census. 

Races rated Solid Republican

Tennessee

Kentucky

Races rated Solid Democratic

Tennessee

Kentucky

Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst for CQ Roll Call.

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