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File photo: Barack Obama (L) waves to supporters as Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) looks on during a campaign rally at Verizon Wireless Virginia Beach Amphitheater October 30, 2008 in Virginia Beach, Virginia.
Freshman Democratic Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia announced Wednesday he will retire when his term ends next year, deepening the challenge to his party as it struggles to maintain a Senate majority in the 2012 elections.
In an e-mail announcement, the 61-year-old former Navy secretary said that after much thought and consideration, he had decided to return to the private sector. He offered no additional details about his plans but said he intends to remain involved in issues that affect the future and well-being of the country.
The announcement leaves the Democrats seeking a strong candidate who can keep the GOP from regaining the seat lost by Republican Sen. George Allen, who was ousted by Webb by about 9,000 votes in the 2006 election. Allen is running for his old seat.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee said Webb's decision makes Virginia an "even stronger pickup opportunity for Republicans in 2012." But the chairwoman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, said the party would field a strong candidate.
Tim Kaine, a former Virginia governor and chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said he had hoped Webb would seek re-election, but said the party has made strides "turning Virginia from a solidly Republican state to a highly competitive one ..."
President Barack Obama won Virginia in 2008, carrying a state that had traditionally been won by Republican presidential nominees. But Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell won the office in a landslide in 2009, and the GOP defeated three Democrat incumbents in congressional races last year.
Still, Kaine said he was confident that Democrats would hold onto Webb's seat next year.
Kaine did not indicate in the DNC statement if he would seek the Democratic nomination to succeed Webb and he did not return a telephone request from The Associated Press for comment. Kaine stepped down as governor just over a year ago.
Virginia state GOP Chairman Pat Mullins said the announcement "couldn't be worse news for the Democrats."
"Instead of facing the most hotly contested Senate race in the country with the advantages of incumbency, they must deal with a nomination contest and then face a Republican candidate in the fall in a state that has overwhelming rejected nearly every Democrat since President Obama was sworn into office," Mullins said.
State Democratic Party Chairman Brian Moran, however, said the party was ready for the fight.
Allen, the former governor and congressman whose 2006 campaign against Webb was riddled with embarrassments, including referring to a Webb aide of Indian descent as "macaca," is attempting a comeback in 2012. However, he faces primary opposition.
Virginia tea party leader Jamie Radtke has declared her candidacy and conservative Del. Bob Marshall, who finished a close second in his bid for the Senate GOP nomination in 2008, is angling toward another race next year.
In a statement Wednesday, Allen, the son of the late Washington Redskins coach, said he did not enter the race to run against any one person and his campaign will continue to focus on achievable reforms.
Webb is the fourth senator to announce plans to retire. The others are Kent Conrad, D-N.D., Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, and Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn.
Democrats, with a 53-47 majority, must defend 23 Senate seats next year, including two held by independents. Many are in swing states where Republicans hope to mount strong challenges.
By contrast, only 10 GOP-held seats will be on the ballot.
Webb's decision was not a complete surprise, as he had done little fundraising toward a reelection campaign.
President Barack Obama spoke to Webb by telephone on Wednesday and the president thanked him for serving the country, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said.
Dave "Mudcat" Saunders, a campaign strategist for Webb and other conservative Democrats, said he believed Webb felt "shackled" by the U.S. Senate.
Since taking office, Webb has focused much of his energy on international issues.
"I think with his writings, the artistic Jim Webb could easily do more to help forward the causes of economic fairness and social justice out here in the real world rather than the beltway," Saunders said.
Webb is the author of six best-selling military suspense novels and "Born Fighting," a nonfiction book published in 2004.
"I think there's no question Jim's a writer, and writers write," Saunders said. "I think that he can affect a hell of a lot of change with a pen."
Earlier in his career, Webb was a combat Marine in Vietnam, a lawyer, congressional aide and a published author. His appointment as Navy secretary came from President Ronald Reagan, a Republican. But when the Naval Academy graduate made his only run for public office, his upset victory over Allen came as a Democrat.
AP Special Correspondent David Espo in Washington, D.C., and Associated Press writers Dena Potter and Steve Szkotak contributed to this report.
© 2011 The Associated Press.