Longtime Illinois U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson cited family obligations as he tearfully dropped his re-election bid on Thursday, leading to a crowded race among his fellow Republicans to replace him and kindling Democrats' hopes of taking the seat to help regain control of the U.S. House.
The six-term congressman, who built a reputation for breaking with his party on some issues, said he plans to retire when his current term ends because he wants to devote more time to his nine children and more than a dozen grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
"One of my grandsons is 2 years old. I have seen him for a total of about 10 minutes," the 65-year-old Johnson said, pausing to fight back tears during a news conference in his hometown of Urbana. "I have another who asked me not long ago if I was ever going to come to one of his ballgames. I didn't have an answer."
The announcement came just weeks after his easy primary win and baffled officials in both parties. It left the state GOP with the task of choosing a replacement candidate to run in his new western Illinois district _ and at least two dozen Republicans were already lining up for the chance.
"He's been in public office for a long, long time. The suddenness is a little striking," said Illinois Republican Party Chairman Pat Brady.
Johnson said he first thought of retiring late last year as his family geared up to attend a holiday festival in a nearby town. He was called back to Washington to take a vote on an unemployment issue that he said should have been conducted much earlier.
"Man, there's got to be more to life than this," he said while surrounded by about two dozen family members. "I've been a part-time father all these years."
He said he was indirectly influenced by the health of a Republican colleague, U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, who suffered a stroke in January. Johnson has a reputation for being health conscious _ he has been an avid swimmer, is often seen walking in a local mall and makes no secret of his low-fat diet _ and said he was healthy.
"At my age, three years can be 50 percent of the rest of your life," he said.
Johnson said his decision wasn't based on partisanship in federal or state politics, though he described it as the worst he'd ever seen. Johnson was elected to the Illinois General Assembly in 1976 and to Congress in 2000.
He hasn't been shy about breaking with his fellow GOP lawmakers. Johnson last year called for an end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a stance he said he would encourage his successor to consider. Last month, he endorsed Texas Rep. Ron Paul in the Republican presidential race.
Johnson had been Illinois' only Republican member of Congress who didn't object to the new state congressional map, which they said Democrats had drawn to favor themselves. On Thursday, he said he didn't believe that the map had been gerrymandered by Democrats.
But only a small portion of his old eastern Illinois district was drawn into the new 13th Congressional District where he'd been running. It's a swath of mainly west-central Illinois that includes parts of 14 counties and leans toward Democrats.
Johnson earned a strong reputation for reaching out to constituents, making up to 100 calls to individuals in his district each day. He continued the approach during the primary election, attracting strong fundraising, and even rented an apartment in Litchfield, unfamiliar territory to him on the new congressional map.
"There's no one more energetic guy than that guy," said Montgomery County Republican Central Committee chairman Roy Hertel.
Johnson's seat had widely been considered safe by national Republicans. Come November, he would have faced perennial candidate Dr. David Gill, an emergency room physician who Johnson easily defeated three times in previous elections.
The National Republican Congressional Committee said Gill, who is pro-choice and advocates for comprehensive immigration reform, is too liberal for the district. And Johnson said Thursday that, while he respects Gill, he doesn't believe he has much of a chance of beating whoever the GOP selects to replace him.
But Democrats believed Johnson may have been more vulnerable this time around because of new constituents in a more Democratic-friendly district. And for the first time a decade, he faced opposition in a primary.
Gill, who narrowly won a primary contest against a Democratic candidate backed by U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, thinks he is in a good position to win.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which believes the party could pick up five seats in Illinois, identified Johnson's district as one to watch. Illinois saw its first Republican-majority congressional delegation in years after a 2010 Republican surge sent five new GOP freshmen to Washington.
But Republicans have already lost one seat this year: Longtime U.S. Rep. Don Manzullo lost a primary battle with first-term Rep. Adam Kinzinger.
The process to replace Johnson will take shape over the coming weeks. More than two-dozen candidates have been mentioned as possible contenders including Rodney Davis, an aide to U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, and Johnson's former chief of staff, Jerry Clarke.
After those who are interested step forward, county chairmen from the 14 counties in the new district will vote, a process some said could be wrapped up by early May.
Associated Press writer Sophia Tareen contributed to this report from Chicago.