Sen. Jim Webb on Wednesday became the third member of the Democratic caucus to announce he will not be seeking reelection, leaving his party with a challenging battle to hold on to his seat in Virginia.
"After much thought and consideration, I have decided to return to the private sector, where I have spent more of my professional life, and will not seek reelection in 2012," Webb said in a statement his office released this morning. The irrepressibly independent Webb gave party leaders about an hour's notice before making his decision public.
Webb ran as a Democrat but had conservative credentials--he was a Vietnam combat veteran who served as Ronald Reagan's secretary of the Navy--that helped his party snatch a Senate seat from the GOP in 2006. Webb's narrow victory over incumbent Sen. George Allen, R-Va., gave Democrats the 51st seat they needed to take control of the Senate chamber.
The news was not totally unexpected: Webb's fundraising had been lackluster and he sometimes seemed bored with the slow pace of the Senate. But it is a blow to Democrats, who now must come up with a new standard-bearer in a battleground state. "Democrats will field a strong candidate," promised Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who heads the party's senatorial campaign committee.
One possibility: former Gov. Tim Kaine, the current chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Kaine has denied interest in the Senate race, but that was before Webb made his decision official.
One sign of how formidable a candidate Webb would have been: Republicans celebrated his exit. “Senator Webb’s decision not to seek reelection makes Virginia an even stronger pickup opportunity for Republicans in 2012," Brian Walsh, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said in a statement. He dared Democrats to nominate Kaine, "President Obama's number one cheerleader in Washington."
Allen already has announced that he will be attempting a comeback. And he's got competition for the GOP nomination. Jamie Radtke, a tea party leader in the state, has also announced her Senate candidacy.
Virginia, once reliably Republican, is now a battleground state. In 2008, President Obama became the first Democratic presidential candidate to win Virginia since 1964, but Republicans made a comeback in 2009, when Gov. Bob McDonnell scored a decisive victory in a race that turned into a referendum on Obama's policies.
Webb is the fourth senator so far to announce plans to retire. The others are Kent Conrad, D-N.D.; Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn.; and Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas. All of the senators who are leaving are centrists, with reputations for crossing party lines on some issues.
Marc Ambinder contributed contributed to this article.