Rep. Bart Stupak, an anti-abortion Democrat targeted for defeat by tea party activists for his crucial role in securing House approval of the health care overhaul, said Friday he would retire from Congress this year.
The nine-term congressman told The Associated Press he could have won re-election and insisted he wasn't being chased from the race by the Tea Party Express, which is holding rallies this week in his northern Michigan district calling for his ouster. Instead, Stupak said he was tired after 18 years in office and wanted to spend more time with his family.
"The tea party did not run me out," he said in a telephone interview. "If you know me and my personality, I would welcome the challenge."
Three little-known hopefuls are seeking the GOP nomination, and Stupak faced a primary challenge from a Democrat who supports abortion rights.
Stupak, 58, said he had considered retirement for years but was persuaded to stay in Congress because of the prospect of serving with a Democratic majority and helping win approval of the health care overhaul, which he described as his top legislative priority.
"I've fought my whole career for health care and thanks to Barack Obama and my colleagues, we've gotten it done," he said.
Stupak's decision to bow out comes amid a string of recent retirements by Democrats, including Reps. William Delahunt of Massachusetts and Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island, and Sens. Evan Bayh of Indiana, Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and Byron Dorgan.
A political moderate, Stupak is known for an independent streak that sometimes put him at odds with his party's leadership. He voted against the North American Free Trade Agreement and an assault weapons ban in the 1990s, despite appeals from then-President Bill Clinton.
During the health care debate, Stupak emerged as spokesman and chief negotiator for Democrats who withheld support from Obama's plan because they feared it would allow public funding of abortions.
At one point, Texas Republican Rep. Randy Neugebauer shouted out "baby killer" during a floor speech by Stupak.
Just hours before the vote, Stupak reached an agreement with the White House under which President Barack Obama would issue an executive order confirming that the legislation would not allow federal funding of abortion. With that, Stupak and other anti-abortion Democrats voted for the bill, sealing its passage.
Since then, Stupak has become a symbol for critics of the overhaul. The Tea Party Express labeled him its No. 2 target for defeat after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
The group kicked off a $250,000 television and radio blitz in Stupak's district Wednesday, ahead of rallies that began Thursday night and were continuing through the weekend.
"The surprising announcement that Congressman Bart Stupak is abandoning his campaign for re-election shows the power of the tea party movement," said a statement posted Friday on its Web site.
Stupak was the first "casualty" of the health care overhaul vote, Michigan Republican Party Chairman Ron Weiser said in a statement.
Michigan's 1st District is notoriously difficult turf for anyone trying to unseat the incumbent. Measuring 600 miles wide, it encompasses about half the state's land mass - including the entire Upper Peninsula - and has no major media market. The largest city, Marquette, where Stupak was planning to officially announce his retirement later Friday, has about 20,000 residents.
Stupak has routinely won re-election by wide margins, defeating former state Rep. Tom Casperson with 65 percent of the vote in 2008, and said he was confident of prevailing again.
He acknowledged the criticism he received over the health care overhaul - including telephone threats to his office - had taken a toll, but said he had thrived during the debate. What wore him down, he said, was the grind of constant travel across his sprawling district.
"When I come home I can't stay home," he said. "I'm there 12 hours and take off. That has gotten hard."
Rich Brown, clerk of the Michigan House and a former Democratic state representative from Bessemer in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, said Stupak made himself visible in the district.
"It is such a grueling job, with how large the district is and the travel," he said.
Other factors could have played a role, too.
"I gotta believe that the ugly messages he was getting and the hate mail and all that stuff - it's got to wear on you," Brown said. "And Bart's been there for 18 years. Maybe he just said that enough is enough."
Stupak said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer had urged him to seek re-election. Republicans represented his rural, blue-collar district for nearly three decades before he won in 1992, and his departure will create a strong opportunity for the GOP.
He said a moderate Democrat would have a good chance.
"There are a lot of great Democratic elected officials and activists throughout the entire district. I'm confident we'll have a very strong candidate," said Mark Brewer, chairman of Michigan Democratic Party.
Democrat Connie Saltonstall, an ex-teacher and ex-Charlevoix County commissioner, was endorsed last month by the National Organization for Women in her bid to win the 1st District seat.
"This retirement presents Republicans with a very promising opportunity heading into the November elections," said Tom Erickson, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. They're certainly going to have a tough time trying to hold on to this seat."
Stupak said he reached his decision this week after talking with his family and was making a quick announcement to give other Democratic hopefuls time to organize and get their names on the primary election ballot before the May 11 filing deadline.
Stupak said he reached his decision this week after talking with his family and was making a quick announcement to give other Democratic hopefuls time to organize and get their names on the primary election ballot.
"I feel like I can finally step away," Stupak said. "I can be home more often with my wife. I'm young enough to start a new career. I'm at peace and very comfortable with my decision."
Associated Press writers Mike Householder in Detroit and Tim Martin in Lansing contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)