By Jeremy Herb - 01/16/14 10:24 AM EST
Choking back tears, House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) announced Thursday he was retiring from Congress at the end of 2014.
McKeon made it official that he would not seek reelection on Thursday in a statement in the Armed Services Committee room, where he has presided over the powerful committee for more than three years.
McKeon’s decision to retire opens up a race for both the Armed Services gavel and his congressional seat.
He made a clear endorsement for Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) to succeed him as the next committee chairmen.
“I think that he will run for the job as chairman, and I think he will win the job as chairman, and I think he’ll be an outstanding chairman,” McKeon said of Thornberry.
Two other senior members of the committee, Reps. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) and Mike Turner (R-Ohio), are considered possible challengers to Thornberry.
McKeon’s congressional seat could shape up to be a more competitive race.
Democrats are hopeful they can compete for McKeon's slightly Republican-leaning district in Southern California.
President Obama won 48 percent of the vote there in 2012. Lee Rogers (D), who held McKeon to under 55 percent of the vote in 2012, is running again and had $180,000 in the bank as of the end of September.
“Congressman McKeon is getting in a crowded line of Republican moderates who are abandoning John Boehner’s broken Congress so that they don’t have to defend their party’s indefensible priorities to the voters,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rep. Steve Israel (N.Y.) said in a statement.
“Congressman McKeon’s retirement puts yet another Republican-held seat into reach for Democrats, as he joins the likes of Tom Latham, Jon Runyan and Frank Wolf and others in rejecting the irresponsible behavior of their party.”
Two local Republicans — 2012 congressional candidate and former California state Sen. Tony Strickland, and California state Sen. Steve Knight — have said they would run if McKeon were to retire.
“Although the United States House of Representatives is losing a champion, I am confident that California families will elect a Republican leader who will serve with the same dedication as Buck,” Republican National Congressional Committee Chairman Rep. Greg Walden (Ore.) said in a statement.
McKeon said that the major factor in his decision to retire was the six-year term limits imposed on Republican chairmen.
“The biggest driver I think was we have term limits on our committee chairmen. I supported that,” McKeon said. “I’m term limited. I don’t want to be around here, second-guessing a chairman. I just don’t want to do that. I don’t want people making comparisons, saying we used to do it this way.”
McKeon emphasized that he still plans to have a busy final year, as both he and Senate Armed Service Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) complete their final Defense authorization bill, which sets Pentagon policy.
McKeon said that after he leaves Congress, he will continue to advocate for the military and for maintaining a robust Pentagon budget, which has been squeezed by sequestration and other budget pressures.
“I will continue to speak for funding for our military, for the training they need to give them best chance carry out their mission,” McKeon said.
McKeon also touted the inaugural Reagan National Defense Forum in Southern California late last year, and said that he has already secured commitments from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey for this year’s conference.