Rep. Mike Ross to retire

Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.) will retire at the end of his term, he announced in a press conference Monday morning.

"I believe it is time for me to begin a new chapter in my life by spending more time with my family and exploring new opportunities here at home in Arkansas," Ross said at a press conference in Little Rock.

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The retirement of Ross, a fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrat, will put another seat on the table for the 2012 elections. Ross has been considered a likely candidate for Arkansas governor in 2014, and said that while he wouldn't officially make a decision until after his term is over, he indicated that he would run.

"I have received a lot of encouragement to run for Governor of Arkansas when Governor [Mike] Beebe's term ends in 2014. I've always been very upfront and honest in the fact that, as a fifth generation Arkansan, I love our state and would like very much to help lead it at some point in the future," read a statement from Ross. "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."

The six-term Democrat was less than enthusiastic about the new congressional district the Democrats who control Arkansas's legislature drew in redistricting this spring. His old district had  gone for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) over President Obama by 58 percent to 39 percent in 2008, and Democrats removed some heavily African-American areas from his new district in order to give next-door freshman Rep. Rick Crawford (R-Ark.) a tougher reelection, making it more Republican-leaning.

Ross is the fourth Blue Dog Democrat to announce his retirement in recent months. Rep. Dan Boren (D-Okla.) decided against a bid for reelection earlier this year, Rep. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) is running for the Senate and former Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) resigned earlier this year to take over a foreign policy think tank.

The Blue Dog Coalition numbered 54 members before last election and had become an influential swing bloc of votes. It is now down to 25 members including Donnelly, Boren and Ross, although the group may bounce back in a better year for Democrats, and some conservative Democrats including former Blue Dog Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz.) plan to run for Congress next year.

Republicans promised to contest the race. "After years of listening to Mike Ross pay lip service to fiscal responsibility, voters will now have the chance to elect a candidate that truly represents their values," said National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Tyler Q. Houlton.

Arkansas has long elected more conservative Democrats at the local level while voting Republican at the national level, but two of its congressional districts flipped to the GOP last year, and former Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) lost her reelection bid to now-Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.). 

But Democrats are confident they can hold the seat with the right kind of candidate. "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," said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel (D-N.Y.). "We are confident that a Democratic candidate who reflects the district will win this seat next November."

Democrats are high on a few candidates that could replace Ross, including state Sen. Steve Harrelson, prosecutor Robin Carroll and former state Sen. Steve Faris. Possible Republican candidates include Arkansas Lieutenant Gov. Mark Darr, former U.S. Army Captain Tom Cotton, and businesswoman and former Republican staffer Beth Anne Rankin, who lost to Ross in 2010.

—This story was updated at 11:45 a.m. to include the NRCC's comment and 12:40 p.m. to include discussion of the Blue Dog Coalition.