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GOP congressman to retire, giving Democrats a pick-up opportunity

In a surprising political move, Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Ark., announced Monday morning he was retiring after just two congressional terms, opening up a potentially competitive seat for Democrats in the Razorback State.

Saying he wanted to spend more time with his young family, the 45-year old Griffin said he wouldn't run again in 2014, but plans to complete his term and continue serving as a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve.

"God has blessed me with a wonderful wife, Elizabeth, and two precious children, and for several months Elizabeth and I have been discussing whether to seek a third term in Congress, especially considering the formative ages of Mary Katherine and John," Griffin said in a statement. "It has been an agonizing and difficult decision involving much prayer, thought and discussion. We have decided that now is the time for me to focus intently on my top priority, my family, as Elizabeth and I raise our two young children."

Griffin was elected in 2010 midterm elections to succeed retiring Democratic Rep. Vic Snyder. While his seat still leans Republican, by the numbers it's the best opportunity for Democrats in Arkansas. Mitt Romney got 55 percent of the vote there in 2012, and John McCain got 54 percent in 2008 -- the lowest percentages in any of the state's four congressional districts. In 2004, the district broke for George W. Bush by just 51% in 2004.

"No doubt this seat will be competitive," said one GOP campaign aide. Republicans note that this is a district, unlike others in the country, actually underperforms for them in a midterm year.

Former Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, who unsuccessfully challenged Sen. Blanche Lincoln in the 2010 Democratic Senate primary, has been looking at the seat, but he may not be the preferred or strongest candidate where a moderate Democrat could best succeed. According to a Democratic source, former North Little Rock Mayor Pat Hays will announce his candidacy Tuesday. However, the district has a 19% African-American population, which could help the more liberal Halter in a primary.

Early Republican names include Delta Trust CEO French Hill, a wealthy businessman and former George H.W. Bush White House aide who could self-fund a bid and could quickly emerge as the GOP's favored candidate. State Sen. David Sanders is also said to be eyeing the seat.

Griffin alluded to the fact that his seat could draw interest from both sides, but said that one reason he was announcing now was to allow Republicans to get a strong candidate in place.

"Several Democrats have reportedly been looking at running for this seat," said Griffin. "As a result, it is imperative that I make and announce my decision now not to seek a third term so that Republican candidates who wish to succeed me will be able to prepare their campaigns and compete on an equal playing field with the Democrats."

Griffin's exit after just two terms is shocking, especially given his political background. A former Republican opposition researcher for the Republican National Committee and George W. Bush's 2004 re-election bid, he was later named as a U.S. attorney. Since easily winning in 2010, he had frequently been floated as a potential statewide candidate, but passed on running for both governor and Senate next year.

Griffin also voted with Republicans and Democrats for a deal last week that reopened the government and raised the debt ceiling, which was criticized by many Tea Party conservatives.