Rep. Mike Ross, D-Ark., announced he will not seek reelection in 2012, becoming the fourth moderate Blue Dog Democrat to head to the exits this year after a midterm election cycle that decimated their ranks.
In a statement released Monday morning, Ross cited Congressional gridlock and partisan politics as driving his decision to step down.
"A lot has changed since I was first elected to the U.S. Congress in 2000. Congressional campaigns have gone from several months in length to never-ending, costing millions of dollars every two years. As a result, fundraising never ends nor do the political attacks," Ross said.
"While I have worked hard to bring folks to the middle to craft commonsense solutions to the many problems that confront our nation, Washington is mired in gridlock, gamesmanship and constant partisan bickering. Too many issues and votes are based on partisan politics rather than good public policy."
Ross has expressed interest in running for governor, when current Gov. Mike Beebe, D-Ark., is term-limited. He said in his comments that a possible gubernatorial campaign in 2014 "factored in his decision" to retire.
"Whether I run for Governor in 2014 is a decision I have not yet made and won't make until sometime after my term in this Congress ends," Ross said.
"But I do know if I was re-elected to the U.S. Congress next year, my term in the Congress would overlap with the Governor's race. I believe it would be impossible to successfully run for Governor here at home, while effectively carrying out my congressional duties in Washington. That wouldn't be fair to the people who elected me to Congress and it wouldn't be fair to my supporters in a race for Governor."
Ross was first elected in 2000 and is Arkansas' lone Democrat in the four-member House delegation. Ross's retirement makes his House seat a prime battleground for 2012, one that Republicans believe they can pick up. The current district favored Republicans at the national level, voting 58 percent for John McCain in 2008. Under the state's already-approved redistricting plan, it becomes slightly more Republican.
Despite his district's preference for Republican presidential candidates, Ross won consistently by comfortable margins. He didn't even face Republican opposition in two of the last four elections, a sign of his popularity. But he won 57 percent last year, his lowest total since his first election.
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel said he was confident that a Democrat who "reflects the district" can hold the seat for Democrats.
"A Democrat has represented this district for more than a decade and Congressman Ross won by nearly 18 percent in 2010, one of the toughest election cycles of a generation," Israel said in a statement. "We are confident that a Democratic candidate who reflects the district will win this seat next November."
Ross was singled out by National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Pete Sessions and NRCC Vice Chair Greg Walden at a briefing last week as one of 12 Democratic-held House seats they believed they could pick up in 2012. The NRCC has also already run a radio ad in April against Ross after he didn't vote in favor of a budget.
"He may be the last Democrat in Arkansas, but he won't be the last Blue Dog to throw in the towel," said NRCC spokesman Paul Lindsay.
According to GOP sources, Beth Ann Rankin, who lost to Ross in 2010 and Iraq war veteran Tom Cotton are possible candidates to run for the congressman's seat.
Republicans have deliberately targeted Blue Dog Democrats, hoping to coax them to step down. Rep. Dan Boren, D-Okla., has already announced his retirement this year, while fellow Blue Dog member Rep. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., is vacating his House seat to run for Senate. Former Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif, resigned her seat in February to head the Woodrow Wilson Center.
Meanwhile, Rep. Heath Shuler, D-N.C., has also been mentioned as a possible candidate for the athletic director position at the University of Tennessee.
Before the 2010 midterms, there were 54 Blue Dog Democrats in Congress. That number has dwindled to 25 - with Donnelly, Boren and Ross heading for the exits after next year.