Oct. 1, 2015 — Kentucky Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-KY-1), chairman of the formidable Energy and Power subcommittee of the House Energy & Commerce Committee, yesterday announced that he will not seek election to a 12th term next year. Whitfield, a former Democratic state legislator, was first elected in the Republican wave year of 1994, defeating one-term Rep. Tom Barlow (D). He is the only Republican to ever represent this western Kentucky district.
In what will be 22 years of congressional service when he retires, Rep. Whitfield will share the longest tenure in the district’s history. He joins Democratic Rep. Noble Gregory who also served 11 terms, from 1937-59. Whitfield is the first congressman from this district to retire voluntarily since 1958.
The territory has a colorful political past, at one time being represented by an individual who would later serve as vice president of the United States, Alben Barkley (D) under President Harry Truman, and Civil War era Rep. Henry Burnett (D) who is one of only five House members to ever be expelled from the body. Burnett’s colleagues bounced him from Congress for supporting the Confederate States of America. He would later serve in the Confederate Senate.
Though the district has a strong Democratic history, since Whitfield’s original election the seat has become ever more Republican. GOP presidential candidates scored huge 66 and 62 percent wins here in 2012 and 2008, respectively. KY-1 proved to be Mitt Romney’s 23rd best congressional district in the entire country. In what promises to be another strong western Kentucky Republican presidential run next year, Democratic prospects of converting the 1st become minimal.
The top Republican candidate waiting in the wings is State Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, who lost a nasty Republican gubernatorial primary early this year. He fell to current GOP nominee Matt Bevin by only 84 votes statewide, and reports interest in the open congressional seat race. Rejecting another statewide bid, Comer said if he ever ran again, “it would probably be around home.” His hometown of Tompkinsville resides in the 1st District.
Whitfield ex-congressional aide Michael Pape has already announced his candidacy. Former Bush White House aide Scott Jennings is another possible candidate as is ex-Hopkins County Attorney and Attorney General nominee Todd P’Pool. Democrats already have one minor candidate and a possible contender, military veteran Sam Gaskins and frequent candidate Charles Hatchett.
The 1st District occupies most of west and southwestern Kentucky, and then stretches east along the Tennessee border just south of Bowling Green before jutting north to annex a central portion of the state. Its largest cities are Hopkinsville, Whitfield’s hometown, Paducah, and Madisonville. The district is 89 percent white, with 98 percent American-born residents. High school graduates number more than 82 percent, with 15.5 percent holding a Bachelor’s or graduate degree.
Whitfield not seeking re-election means that 25 US House seats will be open headed to their next election, including the soon-to-be-scheduled special election in Speaker John Boehner’s open 8th District of Ohio. There are now 14 Republican seats in the open category and 11 Democratic districts. Of the 25, only eight are rated toss-up, Lean R, or Lean D. Republicans will retain an open KY-1.