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Virginia Democrat Webb Won’t Seek Senate Re-Election

Virginia Senator James Webb
Virginia Senator James Webb. Photographer: Chris Kleponis/Bloomberg

U.S. Senator James Webb, a Virginia Democrat who won his seat in one of 2006’s key races, said today he won’t seek re-election next year.

Webb, a former Navy secretary and author of eight books, said in a statement that “after much thought and consideration I have decided to return to the private sector, where I have spent most of my professional life.”

Webb, 65 today, said he plans to continue focusing on national security and foreign policy issues during the remainder of his term.

He is the fourth senator who has decided to leave office rather than run for re-election in 2012. Announcing their retirements earlier this year were Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, a North Dakota Democrat; Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Texas Republican, and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, the 2000 Democratic vice-presidential nominee who is now an independent.

Webb’s decision short-circuits a potential rematch with Republican George Allen, the then-incumbent he defeated in 2006. Allen, 58, announced last month he is again running for the seat he won in 2000. Jamie Radtke, a former leader of the Federation of Virginia Tea Party Patriots, also has said she will seek the Republican nomination.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine, 52, a former Virginia governor, is viewed as a possible Senate contender for his party.

Conversation With Obama

President Barack Obama today praised Webb’s work in the Senate, including his advocacy of veterans’ benefits, and his earlier service as a Marine during the Vietnam War.

“From his courageous service in Vietnam to his tireless work in the United States Senate, Jim Webb has dedicated his life to serving our nation and those who defend it,” Obama said in a statement.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, asked whether Webb would make a good replacement for Defense Secretary Robert Gates -- who has said he intends to leave his post this year -- said the senator has “great experience.”

Although Obama carried Virginia in 2008 -- the first Democrat to do so in 44 years -- the state has been moving away from his party. Republicans won two Democratic-held House seats in last fall’s elections, and Republican Robert McDonnell won the governorship in 2009.

Webb’s Senate seat “goes from a good opportunity for Republicans to a great one,” said Nathan Gonzales, political editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report.

‘Macaca’ Remark

Allen, a former Virginia governor, was favored to win re-election and was being discussed as a potential 2008 presidential contender when his 2006 campaign began. During a campaign appearance in August 2006, he referred to a Webb campaign aide as “macaca.” The remark, circulated widely on video, is considered a racial slur in some countries, referring to a macaque, a kind of monkey.

Allen later said he made up the word and apologized for using it to refer to the Indian-American man who was videotaping him. Still, that campaign mistake combined with a wave of support for Democratic candidates that year helped Webb defeat Allen, 50 percent to 49 percent.

Webb’s win helped Democrats gain a Senate majority, which they have held since then. Currently, they control the Senate 53-47.

Senator Patty Murray of Washington, who leads the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said her party is determined to hold onto the seat.

‘Brutal Primary’

“As Republicans face a brutal primary between a flawed Washington establishment candidate and a right-wing extremist who is raising money at a good clip, Democrats will field a strong candidate,” she said.

Republicans say they are now more confident they’ll take it back.

“While there is no doubt Republicans will field a strong leader as our nominee, Democrats will have great difficulty finding an electable candidate for this open seat as Virginians continue to reject their agenda of higher taxes and reckless spending,” said Brian Walsh, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “We can only hope that Democrats succeed in recruiting President Obama’s number one cheerleader in Washington -- Tim Kaine.”

Allen has said his goals in office would include pushing for repeal of the health-care overhaul enacted last year and cutting spending. He praised Webb’s service in a statement today, adding that he “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.”

Vietnam Service

Webb, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, was Navy secretary during the administration of President Ronald Reagan, a Republican. He previously served as an assistant defense secretary under Reagan. His books include novels set in the Vietnam during the war.

In the Senate, Webb has a reputation for splitting with his party on some issues. Last year, he worked with Republicans to rebuff an effort by Democratic leaders to allow a vote on Obama’s health-care overhaul before Republican Senator Scott Brown, the winner of a special election in January 2010 to fill a Massachusetts Senate seat, could be sworn in.

Brown’s election cost Democrats a 60-vote supermajority that could have eased the overhaul’s passage, and they instead had to rely on various parliamentary procedures to enact the measure two months later. Webb voted for the health-care plan.

Committee Assignments

Webb sits on three committees that give him clout over military and foreign policy matters: Armed Services, Foreign Relations and Veterans’ Affairs.

In 2007, one of his aides was arrested after an X-ray machine detected he was carrying a loaded pistol and two clips of ammunition into a Senate office building. The weapon wasn’t registered in Washington, D.C.

While charges against the aide were later dropped, court papers showed that the aide, Phillip Thompson, had told police the gun and ammunition belonged to Webb. Webb told police that he didn’t give the weapon to his aide, and his office told reporters that the matter stemmed from an “oversight” on Thompson’s part.

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