U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Hopkinsville, announced Tuesday that he will not seek re-election to a 12th term in Western and Southern Kentucky's 1st Congressional District.
"Representing the people of the first district for 21 years has been an honor," Whitfield, 72, said in a statement. "I will cherish forever the countless opportunities to work with them to nurture and strengthen the 35 counties comprising Kentucky's first district."
Whitfield said he was particularly proud of helping to establish health benefits program for employees of the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant; creating a national forest at Land between the Lakes; and promoting the humane treatment of animals.
Whitfield's office said he will stay through the end of his term in December 2016.
Whitfield has been the subject of an ethics investigation during the past year that revolves around his wife, Connie, an attorney who worked as a lobbyist on behalf of the Humane Society of the United States.
The Whitfields have fought to end practices associated with the "soring" of Tennessee walking horses. Going against other Republicans, including in his state delegation, Whitfield filed legislation that would ban the use of pads and chains used to create exaggerated gaits. The bill drew more than 300 co-sponsors in the House and 57 for a companion bill in the Senate, but it never came up for a vote.
Whitfield blamed his critics in the walking horse industry for initiating the ethics investigation, which he said was done to stall the bill, and he denied that his wife lobbied him on the walking horse bill.
Whitfield also has worked on legislation to standardize drug regulations in horse racing and has filed a bill that would have created an independent "anti-doping" organization for racing. In May, industry groups who have rallied around a similar proposal, including The Jockey Club and the Breeders' Cup, credited Whitfield's efforts to push horse racing to deal with the issue.
In 2008, in the wake of the deaths of Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro and runner-up Eight Belles, Whitfield asked for and got a congressional hearing on medication issues and track safety. In 2005, Whitfield held a hearing on the lack of insurance protection for jockeys, prompting industry reforms.
He also worked to bar federal funding for the inspection of horses at slaughter plants, effectively eliminating the practice in the United States.
On the short list of possible contenders to replace Whitfield is state Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, who narrowly lost the Republican nomination for governor in May. Comer is from Tomkinsville, which sits in the middle of a district that stretches from Paducah to Campbellsville.
Comer couldn't be immediately reached for comment.
Whitfield's longtime district representative in Hopkinsville, Michael Pape, confirmed that he plans to run for the seat and expects to have Whitfield's support.
"It's a bittersweet day," Pape said. "I imagine there will be a lot of people get in (the race), but I'm going to run my own race, and I know the district and the people better than anyone."
State House Minority Floor Leader Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, said Tuesday he isn't interested in running.
"I expect James Comer's going to run," Hoover said. "I heard Michael Pape is interested. Also heard the name Jason Batts, an attorney in Hickman County, is calling people and he may be saying he will announce on Thursday."
Batts also could not be reached for comment.
Whitfield thanked his wife, his mother and his staff in his retirement announcement.
"While many Americans are frustrated with the institution of Congress, I still believe that politics is a worthy vocation and I know many men and women of character will always be willing to serve," Whitfield said. "Winston Churchill once said, 'We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.' Politics is and will always be an honorable way to serve."
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Louisville, said in a statement that Whitfield's decades of "steadfast service" had been an inspiration to the Kentucky delegation.
"Elected in 1994, Ed has delivered for Kentucky at every turn, whether it was championing and protecting the Land Between the Lakes, helping the employees of the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant and their families, or working to support our troops at Fort Campbell," McConnell said. "As chairman of the Energy and Power Subcommittee, Ed has also been an indispensable ally in pushing back against the Obama administration's war on coal."
McConnell said Whitfield was the first Republican elected in the 1st District.
"And it is thanks to his hard work and dedication that we can today celebrate the growth of a robust two-party system in the western region of the Bluegrass State," McConnell said.