POLITICS -- February 9, 2011 at 12:13 PM ET
Webb's Retirement Complicates Democrats' Hold on Senate Majority
Creative Commons photo courtesy Flickr user cliff1066
Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., the former Navy secretary who rode the 2006 Democratic wave to a United States Senate seat from Virginia, announced his plan to retire Wednesday, which also happens to be his 65th birthday.
"After much thought and consideration I have decided to return to the private sector, where I have spent most of my professional life, and will not seek re-election in 2012," Webb wrote in an e-mail to supporters.
Webb defeated Sen. George Allen, R-Va., in a very close contest in 2006 that helped deliver the majority in the Senate to the Democrats. Out of more than 2.3 million votes cast, Webb bested Allen by roughly 7,000 votes.
Allen, a former Virginia governor, has already made clear that he intends to run for his old seat next year. Tea Party activist Jamie Radtke is also seeking the Republican nomination.
As recently as a few weeks ago, DNC Chairman and former Virginia governor Tim Kaine said he would not seek to run for the Senate seat, even if Webb announced his retirement. Democrats on the Hill do not consider Kaine's comments to be a rock-solid refusal to consider a run.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash, the chairwoman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, issued a statement focused more on the Republican primary shaping up in Virginia than on the difficult position her party finds itself in by having to defend an open seat in a battleground state -- one that has been more hospitable to Republicans than Democrats in the last two years.
"As Republicans face a brutal primary between a flawed Washington establishment candidate and a right-wing extremist who is raising money at a good clip, Democrats will field a strong candidate. The 2012 Virginia Senate race will be competitive but Democrats will prevail there just like we did in 2006 and 2008," Sen. Murray said.
The Webb-Allen battle in 2006 was best known for then Sen.-Allen calling a Democratic operative of Indian descent "macaca." The comment fast became a YouTube sensation and Allen never recovered.
President Obama made history in Virginia in 2008 by being the first Democratic presidential candidate to win the commonwealth since Lyndon Johnson did so in 1964. With Mr. Obama on the ballot again in 2012, and his campaign organization heavily invested in keeping Virginia in his column, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee will be in need of a top-tier recruit who can keep this open seat battle competitive.
The Webb retirement watch had been in full swing in recent weeks. Democrats have already suffered a retirement blow in North Dakota when Sen. Kent Conrad said he would not seek reelection next year. That is a seat likely to fall into Republican hands. Having to defend an open seat in battleground territory is not likely to be welcome news for Democrats, especially if Gov. Kaine passes on the race.
Democrats have a very tough cycle ahead of them as they try to defend their majority in the Senate. They must defend 23 seats up this cycle, versus only 10 Republican seats. And much of the turf Democrats will need to protect is in states won by John McCain in the 2008 presidential election, such as Montana, Missouri, and West Virginia.
"Senator Webb's decision not to seek reelection makes Virginia an even stronger pickup opportunity for Republicans in 2012," said National Republican Senatorial Committee Communications Director Brian Walsh.
"We can only hope that Democrats succeed in recruiting President Obama's No. 1 cheerleader in Washington -- Tim Kaine," he added.