Rep. Bart Stupak, an anti-abortion Democrat targeted for defeat by tea party activists for his role in securing House approval of the health care overhaul, said Friday he's retiring after 18 years in Congress now that his main legislative goal has been accomplished.
Stupak said he believed he could have won a 10th term. He 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.
"The tea party did not run me out," Stupack told The Associated Press in a phone interview. "If you know me and my personality, I would welcome the challenge."
Stupak said at a news conference that he decided within the last 36 hours not to seek a 10th term. He said he had considered retirement for years but was persuaded to stay because of the prospect of serving with a Democratic majority and helping win approval of the health care overhaul.
"I've wanted to leave a couple of times, but I always thought there was one more job to be done," Stupak said. "Either I'll run again and be there forever, or it's time to make the break and move on."
His decision 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 of North Dakota.
Three little-known hopefuls are seeking the GOP nomination for Stupak's seat, and he faced a primary challenge from a Democrat who supports abortion rights. Stupak said he was tired after 18 years in office and wanted to spend more time with his family.
He said he's committed to helping Democrats retain the seat and that his announcement gives other Democratic hopefuls time to organize and get their names on the primary election ballot before the May 11 filing deadline.
He also mentioned threats he has received because of his stance on various issues.
"The three o'clock in the morning phone calls, that's people outside the district," he said. "That's not my district. I know these folks. They wouldn't do that. You sort of just ignore it and move on."
Stupak said the decision whether to retire was the main topic of conversation when he, his wife and son traveled to the NCAA Final Four to cheer on Michigan State.
"It allowed my family — the three of us — to sit down," he said. "There's a lot of windshield time between Menominee and Indianapolis."
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 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 the group's 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 announced his retirement, 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.
He acknowledged the criticism he received over the health care overhaul 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.
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."