URBANA, Ill. (AP) — Longtime Illinois U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson cited family obligations as he tearfully dropped his re-election bid on Thursday, leading to a scramble among his fellow Republicans to replace him and fueling 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 family.
"One of my grandsons is 2 years old. I have seen him for a total of about 10 minutes," Johnson, a 65-year-old father of nine, said 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, coming just weeks after his easy primary win over a Republican challenger, baffled officials in both parties and left the state GOP with the task of choosing a replacement candidate to run in his new western Illinois district.
"He's been in public office for a long, long time. The suddenness is a little striking," said Illinois Republican Party Chairman Pat Brady. "We're sad to see him go because he's such an effective campaigner."
Johnson said he first thought of retiring late last year. His family was gearing up to attend a festival of lights in a nearby town, but 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. Johnson broke down crying — something he said he hadn't done in a decade — and had to take time to gain composure. "I've been a part-time father all these years," he added.
He said he was also indirectly influenced by the health of Republican colleague U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, who suffered a stroke in January and faces a long road to recovery. Johnson has a reputation for being health conscious — he was an avid swimmer, treadmill user and made 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 had little to do with partisanship or the atmosphere in Washington, which he described as the worst he'd seen in his career. Johnson was elected to the Illinois General Assembly in 1976 and to Congress in 2000.
Last year, Johnson called for an end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and last month, he endorsed Texas Rep. Ron Paul in the Republican presidential race. He was Illinois' only Republican member of Congress who didn't object to the new state congressional map, which Democrats drew to favor themselves.
The newly drawn district was to strongly affect Johnson. Just a small portion of his old eastern Illinois district was drawn into the new 13th District, a swath of west central Illinois that stretches to include parts of 14 counties.
He earned a strong reputation for reaching out to constituents over the years, making up to 100 calls a day. He continued the approach during the primary election, attracting strong fundraising and even renting an apartment in Litchfield, which was 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, who also added that Johnson was not afraid to break with his own party. "He's been his own person. I don't think he's marched to anybody's drum."
His 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.
However, 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, said he was in a good position to win the seat.
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 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 U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger.
However, the National Republican Congressional Committee said the district seat favors Republicans and that Gill, who is pro-choice and advocates for comprehensive immigration reform, is too liberal for the district.
"Tim Johnson focused his energies in Congress on communicating with his constituents, and that tireless effort allowed him to precisely represent their most cherished priorities for over a decade," Texas Rep. Pete Sessions, the NRCC chairman, said in a statement.
The process to replace Johnson will take shape over the coming weeks. Several 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.
Associated Press writer Sophia Tareen contributed to this report from Chicago.