WASHINGTON — Sen. James Webb, D-Va., said Wednesday that he would not seek re-election, giving Republicans a good shot at picking up the seat in 2012.
The 65-year-old former Navy secretary is the third Democrat or Democratic-leaning independent to say he would retire. The departures could increase the Republicans' prospects of gaining seats and perhaps a majority in the Senate, where Democrats now hold a 53-47 edge.
Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., who earlier announced his retirement, said Webb's decision sets the stage for a likely Republican gain in Virginia, a state that has turned increasingly Republican in the past two years.
Sen. Joe Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut, also has said he'll step down at the end of this term. His state leans Democratic, though Republicans likely will compete for his open seat.
Webb said he would step down after one term — he defeated Republican Sen. George Allen in a close 2006 contest — to return to the private sector.
"After much thought and consideration, I have decided to return to the private sector, where I have spent most of my professional life, and will not seek re-election in 2012," Webb said in a statement.
His election had punctuated a Democratic resurgence in a state long solidly Republican in presidential elections, a trend capped by President Barack Obama's win there, the first time a Democrat had carried Virginia since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.
Democrats had long enjoyed better results in state-office elections and held the governor's mansion through most of the last decade. Their fortunes changed when they lost the governor's office in 2009 and several U.S. House seats in November, and the tide suggested Webb would face a strong contest for re-election.
Allen already was planning to seek the Republican nomination, and is considered a strong candidate for the nomination and for a general election.
The one Democrat who would enter the race with stature comparable to Allen is former Gov. Tim Kaine, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee.