Democrat Jim Graves, who was expected to challenge U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann in the 6th District congressional race next year, dropped out of the race Friday following Bachmann's decision to not seek another term.

"After meeting with my closest family members, friends and supporters, we he have decided to suspendJim Graves for Congress indefinitely," Graves said in a statement.

"This was never about Jim Graves; this was about challenging the ineffective leadership and extremist ideology of Michele Bachmann on behalf of those she represents. As of Wednesday, that goal was accomplished, and our supporters should be incredibly proud of that accomplishment."

That "goal" was Bachmann's decision, announced in a pre-dawn video on Wednesday, not to seek another term.

The decision was a disappointment to Minnesota Democratic leaders, who counted on Graves to run a strong race. They immediately began a search for a replacement in what is now a wide-open race.

Depending on who replaces Bachmann as the GOPcandidate, herdecision couldmake the race much harder for any Democrat because the6th is considered a reliablyRepublican district.

Graves, a 59-year-old businessman and hotelowner,pushed Bachmann hard in 2012, when she was coming off a longshot campaign for the presidency. Graves lost by fewer than 4,300 votes, about one percent of the total. He had announced his candidacy again for 2014, hoping that Bachmann's series of controversies would finally spell her doom in the GOP-friendly 6th.

When Bachmann announced her plans not to seek afifth term earlier this week, Graves said he looked forward to facing whomever the GOP put on the ticket to replace her. He said she had recognized "it would be an uphill battle for her going forward."

Without Bachmann as a flashpoint for opposition, the 6th couldbe a GOP slam-dunk.

DFL Chair Ken Martin, who spoke to Graves Thursday night, said Graves simply didn’t have the same drive to run once Bachmann was out of the race.

“It was very clear his heart just wasn’t in it,” Martin said. “He has a passion for public service, but not necessarily of being in an elected office. I think he wants to make a difference in other ways. I don’t know if he’ll run again, to be honest.”

The largely suburban and exurban districtsurrounds the Twin Cities on the east, north, and western sides, including Benton, Sherburne, Stearns, Wright, Anoka, and Washington counties.GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney defeated Democratic President BarackObama by 15percentage pointsin 2012 even though Obama carried the state of Minnesota.

Bachmann's presence since her first congressional race in 2006 attracted money on both sides. She earned a national reputation as a TeaParty favorite, but the district was targeted by Democrats who considered her beatable.

Graves broke the news to state DFL Chair Ken Martin Thursday night, who was less than happy to hear that the candidate who’d nearly beat Bachmann last time was dropping out of the 2014 race as well.

“Obviously, disappointed. We felt that Jim was one of the strongest candidates we have had in that district in some time. He ran a really great campaign in 2012,” Martin said. “But for Jim Graves, clearly, his mission was accomplished. His whole reason for running the first time was to get (Bachmann) out of Congress and he was successful in doing that.”

As soon as the conversation with Graves ended, Martin and other DFL leaders started making calls to other potential DFL contenders – former politicians, business leaders, anyone who might be able to win over voters in the most conservative congressional district in the state. Open congressional seats are rare, and he hasn’t given up hope that the right Democrat might have a shot at the Sixth.

“Seeing (Graves) decide not to run is a big disappointment, but certainly not a fatal blow,” Martin said. “It’s a great opportunity for the DFL to win in this district.”

“I think you’re going to see a competitive race on both sides of the aisle. It’s a great opportunity for the DFL to win in this district. That hasn’t changed. Clearly, we had one strong candidate. In the days and hours ahead, we’re going to have other strong candidates enter in the field.”

Martin declined to say which local Democrats were on his call list, but he said he expected them to start making themselves known soon.

“I’m 100 percent confident that we’ll have a very strong field of Democrats running in the Sixth District,” he said. “We can win there, and we can win, particularly if the Republican Party doesn’t learn their lesson and they nominate someone just like Michele Bachmann.”

The Sixth is a Republican stronghold, but Martin said it’s also a district struggling with high unemployment and foreclosure rates.

“The people there are hurting,” he said. “If we can find someone like a Jim Graves, who has a lot of the same bona fides... I think we can win in that district.”

It is not known whether national Democrats will put money into a district with another GOP candidate running.

Brandon Lorenz, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said the national organization will "monitor the race as it develops." "We expect this district will feature a bitter Republican primary fight over who can get the furthest to the right the fastest," Lorenz said.

"Regardless of whether Michele Bachmann is running, her brand of extremism and obstruction has infected the Republican party," he added.

Alleigh Marre, spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said the decision is bad news for the Democrats nationally.

"As another one of the national Democrats' top recruits dropped out," she said, "Nancy Pelosi's fantasy of Democrats reclaiming the House becomes further out of reach every day."Pelosi is the Minority Leader in the GOP-controlled U.S. House.

Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C.said, "This district is a steep uphill climb for a Democrat. It’s much less steep if you’re running against Michele Bachmann.”

He saw Graves' decision as a concession by Democrats.

“This is Democrats' taking a seat that they were pretty sure they could win and would win with a strong, well-financed candidate against somebody growing weaker by the day,” Ornstein said. “And now they’re conceding that the dynamics of the district are just not there for them.”

Staff Writers Corey Mitchell and Jennifer Brooks contributed to this story

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