LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — U.S. Rep. Mike Ross, the only Democrat among Arkansas' four House members, announced Monday he won't seek re-election next year as he explores a 2014 bid for governor, dealing a potential setback to his party's attempts to stop a Republican surge in the state.
Ross said he wants to spend time with his family and explore "new opportunities here at home in Arkansas." He added that opting out of next year's House run keeps the gubernatorial race an open possibility.
"If I ran for re-election and won, then I think I would have closed that door," he said during a news conference in Little Rock.
Ross, 49, is serving his sixth term representing Arkansas' sprawling 4th District, which gained some counties from traditionally Republican territory in the northwestern part of the state during this year's redistricting process. The move wasn't expected to hurt Ross, who has consistently been one of the most conservative Democrats in the House, but could make the district questionable for Democrats without him.
Republicans already have identified Ross' seat as one of their top congressional targets next year.
The congressman said redistricting did not factor into his decision and that he could think of 10 or 12 potential Democratic candidates for the seat, but declined to name any and said he hadn't spoken with them.
"I never believed that my service in the U.S. Congress should become a permanent career," Ross said. "Simply put, it is someone else's turn to represent our state in the U.S. Congress."
Ross said he wouldn't decide whether to run for governor until his term ends. But the race was clearly on his mind.
"I believe it would be impossible to successfully run for governor here at home, while effectively carrying out my congressional duties in Washington," Ross said. "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. That certainly factored into my decision not to seek re-election to the U.S. Congress."
Ross' decision is the latest blow for Democrats in Arkansas after an election during which Republicans made historic gains in the state. The GOP picked up two longtime Democratic districts in November; both seats were left open after the retirement of longtime Democratic congressmen.
Crossroads GPS, a conservative group linked with Republican strategist Karl Rove, launched an ad campaign in the state criticizing Ross last week as part of a national campaign aimed at vulnerable House Democrats. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus on Friday called the seat one of the top races in the country.
GOP officials say several potential candidates are eyeing a run. Beth Anne Rankin, the Republican nominee who lost to Ross in the 2010 election, said Monday she will decide soon whether to seek the seat. State Rep. Lane Jean, R-Magnolia, said he's also considering running.
Democrats acknowledged the 4th District will be more competitive with Ross out, but Democratic Party Chairman Will Bond said Ross' announcement gives them ample time to prepare. Bond said there are several Democrats who previously expressed interest in running for his seat in 2014.
"We've had some conversations with folks about a race more distant than this one," Bond said.
One of those is Sen. Gene Jeffress, D-Louann, who said he's now thinking about a 2012 run.
Ross' decision also is a blow to the already beleaguered Blue Dog caucus of conservative Democrats, fiscal conservatives who took heavy losses in 2010. Ross is one of 26 House members who currently identify themselves as Blue Dogs, a number already nearly half what it was before the 2010 election. Fellow Blue Dog Democratic Rep. Dan Boren of Oklahoma last month announced he would not seek re-election.
"He may be the last Democrat in Arkansas, but he won't be the last Blue Dog to throw in the towel," said Paul Lindsay, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Ross was one of the leading Democrats to oppose President Barack Obama's health care plan in 2009 and early 2010. He touted his health overhaul stance and distanced himself from national Democrats such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi during his re-election bid last year.
He said frustration with partisanship in Washington contributed to his decision against a re-election bid.
"I went up there to try and find common ground," Ross said. "I'm very frustrated with the divisiveness and the highly charged partisan atmosphere we find in Washington today."
Ross was elected in 2000 with help from then-President Bill Clinton, who campaigned for him and against incumbent Republican Jay Dickey. The district includes Clinton's hometown of Hope, and Dickey engendered the ire of its favorite son when he voted in favor of impeachment during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Dickey tried unsuccessfully to unseat Ross two years later and no Republican has given Ross a scare since.
Before being elected to Congress, Ross served in the Arkansas Senate for 10 years, first winning election in 1990 at age 29.
Jackson reported from Washington.