WASHINGTON — Sen. James Webb, D-Va., said today he would not seek re-election, giving Republicans a good shot at picking up the seat in 2012.
He is the third Democrat or Democratic-leaning independent to say he'd retire rather than seek re-election. The departures could increase the Republicans' prospects of gaining seats and perhaps a majority in the Senate, where Democrats now hold a 53-47 edge.
Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., who earlier announced his own retirement, said that Webb's decision sets the stage for a likely Republican gain in a state that's turned increasingly Republican in the past two years.
Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., also has said he'll step down at the end of this term. His state leans Democratic, though Republicans likely will compete for his open seat.
Webb said he would step down after one term — he defeated Republican Sen. George Allen in a close 2006 contest — to return to the private sector.
"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.
His election had punctuated a Democratic resurgence in a state long solidly Republican in presidential elections, a trend capped by President Barack Obama's win there, the first time a Democrat had carried Virginia since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.
Democrats had long enjoyed better results in state-office elections, and held the governor's mansion through most of the last decade. Their fortunes changed when they lost the governor's office in 2009 and several U.S. House seats last November, and the tide suggested that Webb would face a strong contest for re-election.
Allen already was planning to seek the Republican nomination, and as a former governor and senator with national aspirations, is considered a strong candidate for the nomination and for a general election.
"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," Allen said in a statement Wednesday.
"My campaign will continue to focus on achievable reforms that will help reinvigorate our economy, end reckless, runaway spending, and unleash our plentiful energy resources.
The one Democrat who would enter the race with stature comparable to Allen is former Gov. Tim Kaine, now serving as chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
Kaine did not comment on the possibility of his own candidacy in his reaction to Webb's retirement.
"Over the past decade, we've made major progress in turning Virginia from a solidly Republican state to a highly competitive one, including Senator Webb's victory in 2006, Senator Warner's victory in 2008 and President Obama's historic victory in 2008," Kaine said.
"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."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
For more McClatchy politics coverage visit Planet Washington