By Suzi Parker
LITTLE ROCK, Ark (Reuters) - The only Democratic congressman in Arkansas, Mike Ross, said on Monday that he will not seek a seventh term in the U.S. House of Representatives, saying he wants to spend more time with his family.
The announcement sent a shock through Arkansas political circles, and opened the possibility of a Republican replacement for the popular congressman. The redistricting process has left Ross's district heavily GOP, with an uphill battle for Democrats there next cycle.
"Last year was a tough political environment to seek re-election," Ross told reporters.
"Yet, I won by 18 points -- one of the largest margins of any member of Congress in a swing district. The trust and confidence the folks here at home have continually placed in me is something I will never forget."
Democrats were counting on Ross to hold his district even though it was becoming more Republican, Jay Barth, an associate professor in the politics department at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas, told Reuters.
"Although the Democrats have a major advantage in having a long list of tested candidates in the district, it now is a distinct possibility that the Arkansas House delegation will lack a Democrat for the first time in its history," Barth said.
First elected in 2000, Ross, a Blue Dog Democrat who represents the fourth district in southern and western Arkansas, was the only Democratic member left in the state's U.S. House delegation after the midterm elections in 2010.
Ross said that as he turns 50, he wants to spend more time with his family and explore new opportunities.
Rumors have circulated for months that Ross may be planning a gubernatorial run in 2014 when Democratic Governor Mike Beebe's second term expires.
"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," Ross said.
In 2000, Ross, who owned a pharmacy in Prescott, decided to run for Congress after 10 years as a state legislator. Bill Clinton campaigned heavily for Ross, who had once driven Clinton around the state during one of his gubernatorial races.
Ross appeared Saturday night at the Democratic Party's annual Jefferson-Jackson dinner where he hurled harsh barbs at Arkansas Republicans.
In turn, the Arkansas Republican Party of Arkansas hit back Monday after Ross' announcement, linking Ross to Obama, who is not popular in the state -- a harbinger of what Ross possibly faced if he ran again for Congress.
"Congressman Ross and President Obama have been reckless with our country's economic future, refusing to responsibly cut spending and pass a Balance(d) Budget Amendment," Republican Party of Arkansas Chairman Doyle Webb said.
Ross, who is a co-chair of the moderate Democratic Blue Dog Coalition, addressed Washington's current political climate in his Monday announcement.
"A lot has changed since I was first elected to the U.S. Congress in 2000," he said.
"Congressional campaigns have gone from several months in length to never-ending, costing millions of dollars every two years. As a result, fundraising never ends, nor do the political attacks."
Because of the redistricting process after the 2010 census, Ross's district expanded into some counties considered tough GOP territory.
"If he'd announced before the redistricting process, Ross would have given Democrats more flexibility in designing two other districts to skew more Democratic," Barth said.
(Editing by Karen Brooks and Jerry Norton)