RICHMOND — With less than two years remaining in his first term, U.S. Sen. Jim Webb, D-Arlington, says he will not seek re-election in 2012, ruling out a rematch with former rival George Allen.
“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 said in a statement released Wednesday, his 65th birthday.
“It has been a great and continuing privilege to serve in the United States Senate,” Webb said, highlighting his work on the post-9/11 GI Bill, criminal justice reform and improved relations with East and Southeast Asia as points of pride.
Webb’s decision is a new headache for Democrats, who are clinging to a 53-47 majority in the Senate after losing control of the House last year. Of the 33 U.S. Senate seats on the ballot in 2012, Democrats are defending 23.
Former Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, on Wednesday praised Webb’s service and lamented his decision. Kaine said he is confident that Democrats will hold the seat — but did not address whether he will run.
Webb, a decorated Marine, fought in Vietnam and later served as assistant secretary of Defense and as Secretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration. He also is the author of several books.
He narrowly won his Senate seat in 2006 from Allen, who last month announced his bid to take it back in 2012.
“I respect Senator Webb’s service to our country and the very personal decision that he and his family have made,” Allen said in a statement Wednesday. “I did not enter into this race to run against any one person, but to fight for the families of Virginia to improve their opportunities in life.”
Larry J. Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia, was not surprised by Webb’s decision.
“He has been an excellent United States senator, but he is a terrible politician,” Sabato said. “He doesn’t suffer fools gladly, he doesn’t enjoy glad-handing — my sense of Webb is that he’s had enough of public life for a while.”
Webb has cut an iconoclastic figure in office, not seeming to care that he was an impolitic politician.
In July, he penned a piece in the Wall Street Journal arguing for the elimination of government-directed diversity programs, saying they have expanded “so far beyond their original purpose that they now favor anyone who does not happen to be white.”
Webb wrote that programs created to fight historic oppression of blacks have grown to include other ethnicities who did not suffer the same discrimination, to the point of damaging “racial harmony” and marginalizing “many white workers.”
In March 2009, Webb called for an 18-month, bipartisan examination of law enforcement, sentencing and incarceration. He depicted the spiraling cost of criminal justice as unsustainable. He recently reintroduced that bill after it failed in the Senate last year after passing the House of Representatives.
The day after Allen announced his 2012 candidacy, Webb brushed off the news, commenting that “today’s no different than yesterday for me.”
Webb has said for months that he would make a decision on whether to seek re-election after discussing the matter with his family.
Meanwhile, Allen and his early rival for the Republican nomination — tea party activist Jamie Radtke — have battered Webb for months, especially over his vote for the health-care overhaul.
While he voted for the law, Webb has been critical of the way in which it was handled, saying the Obama administration “did a really terrible job,” referring to the decision to rely on Congress to draft the plan.
Radtke on Wednesday called Webb’s announcement good news for Republicans, calling the senator “a reliable vote for President Obama and Senator Harry Reid and their ruinous agenda.”
“Senator Webb’s announcement today that he will not run for re-election in 2012 presents the Republican Party and all Virginians with a great opportunity to change the direction of our country by presenting Virginia with a clear choice for their next senator,” she said.
Also Wednesday, Corey A. Stewart, chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, issued a news release painting himself as the man for the job, though he stopped short of announcing a run for the GOP nomination.
“As chairman of the second-largest county in Virginia, I have the type of profile that is needed to win in November of 2012,” Stewart said.
Kaine told the Richmond Times-Dispatch last month that it was unlikely he would seek office again.
On Wednesday, Kaine lauded Webb’s service, but regretted the news.
“I had hoped that Senator Webb, having worked tirelessly to help elect him in 2006, would run for re-election and continue his service in the Senate,” Kaine said in a statement.
“With the investments that President Obama and the Democratic Party will make in Virginia in 2012, I am confident that our party will hold on to this Senate seat in 2012,” he added.
Republican Party of Virginia Chairman Pat Mullins disagreed, delighting in the news that Webb was out and welcoming the possibility that Kaine could be in.
“This couldn’t be worse news for the Democrats,” Mullins said, adding that if Kaine runs, “we look forward to reminding Virginians of his legacy of broken promises, higher taxes and unbridled support of President Obama’s agenda.”
In November, a survey conducted by North Carolina-based Public Policy Polling showed that Kaine would enter a Senate race with a 50-44 edge over Allen, similar to Webb’s projected edge.
Other potential Democratic candidates being whispered about in political circles are former Reps. Tom Perriello of Ivy, and Rick Boucher of Abingdon, both of whom lost their seats in the fall.
Perriello was out of the country Wednesday and could not be reached directly for comment.
However, Michael Kelly, a Perriello campaign spokesman, said: “Tom has tremendous respect for Jim Webb and his service to this country before and during his time in the Senate. He hasn’t made any decisions yet about future endeavors and is keeping his options open.”
Sabato said: “Kaine has the right of first refusal. It doesn’t matter what he said before, because he also said he was certain Webb would run again,” Sabato said.
“This is going to be a polarized election. If Obama wins Virginia, the Democrat’s going to win if it’s a credible, well-funded candidate,” he added, suggesting that Boucher might be the best choice other than Kaine.
“He’s the kind of rural Democrat who comes across well in Northern Virginia,” he said, noting that Boucher earlier in his 28-year career in Congress voiced interest in running for the Senate.
Del. Ward Armstrong, the Virginia House minority leader, ruled out a run Wednesday, but said Webb’s announcement gives Democrats time to regroup. He, like others, mentioned Kaine and Perriello as favorites.
Other possibilities mentioned in the halls of the state Capitol include Del. Kenneth C. Alexander, D-Norfolk, and state Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City.
Hester reports for the Richmond Times-Dispatch.