The nine-term GOP lawmaker has served as a centrist in Congress. At least five people have expressed interest in his Third District seat.
Citing fatigue and political isolation, U.S. Rep. Jim Ramstad triggered a scramble by potential successors with a surprise announcement Monday that he is retiring from Congress next year after nine terms.
Ramstad, 61, had barely finished announcing his decision when at least five potential candidates declared an interest in going after his seat while other potential hopefuls were mentioned.
And even though the Third District in the Twin Cities' western suburbs has been supremely safe for him, Ramstad said there's no guarantee it will remain so for a Republican successor.
He said he has grown tired from the relentless physical grind of service in Washington and weary of being a lonely centrist in an increasingly polarized legislative body.
"After 17 years of getting on a plane every Monday and coming back every Friday, I'm burned out," Ramstad said at a news conference Monday. "I'm tired. I still have a passion for policy and a passion for politics, but I want to be home."
The congressman called himself one of the last of a "dying breed of Republican moderates." He has increasingly called on Washington politicians to "work in a more bipartisan and pragmatic way," as he put it Monday. "People need to put aside the harsh rhetoric on both sides of the aisle."
Although Ramstad has long easily cruised to reelection, he warned that the Third District "is not a safe Republican district," pointing out that Bill Clinton won it twice, John Kerry almost won it and it currently has more DFLers in the Legislature than Republicans.
He said that he first began thinking about retirement after his last election, shortly after he married Kathryn Mitchell. They cemented the decision during a vacation to Nantucket Island last month. "After I reached the conclusion, I didn't see why I should delay."
About a month ago, during a session at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, Ramstad said he had been feeling increasingly isolated in his party as it has tacked to the right.
Larry Jacobs, the University of Minnesota political science professor who moderated that session, said that as a moderate Republican, Ramstad "was a minority within his own party. And when the Republicans lost the majority in the House, he became a double minority."
Seeking a legacy
Before he retires, Ramstad said, he hopes to pass legacy legislation making it easier for people with mental health and addiction problems to get access to health insurance.
For Ramstad, a recovering addict, it would be the fulfillment of a bipartisan project he began more than a decade ago with the late Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone, whom he called "our friend Paul."That's the legacy I want to leave," he said. "For millions of Americans suffering from mental illness and addiction, I want it to be a legacy of access to treatment and recovery."
Ramstad said he has no plans to return to politics. Instead, he wants to teach and work with people suffering from chemical addiction and possibly work a stint in academia.
He is now cosponsoring the mental health "parity" legislation with Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., whom Ramstad has been mentoring since Kennedy's high-profile car crash, which was related to prescription drug use.
Ramstad's work with Kennedy, the son of Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy, is in keeping with a voting record that often took him across party lines.
He broke with his party five times this year in key votes, most notably against the troop surge in February. He voted with Democrats to increase the minimum wage to $7.25 per hour over the next two years, to allow the government to negotiate directly with drugmakers for lower prescription costs and to implement recommendations by the 9/11 Commission.
He also voted for a bill that would repeal tax cuts to oil companies and fund renewable energy programs.
He voted with the GOP against a troop reduction in July and for funding for the war without withdrawal deadlines in May.
How competitive a district?
"On most substantive issues in this Congress, Jim Ramstad has voted with the Democrats," said DFL Party chair Brian Melendez, who said he expects Democrats to be strongly competitive in wresting the seat from Republicans after Ramstad retires.
Republicans dispute that notion, noting that the district tipped in favor of Republicans George Bush and Tim Pawlenty. "We feel very confident about our chances of retaining this seat," said Ken Spain, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
"This is a Republican-leaning district that will perform well for us," he said. As for Ramstad's apparent popularity as a centrist, he noted, "The Third will elect a Republican who represents its values."
But Democrats say the electorate is changing, and it's shifting their way.
"There's an openness in this district to someone who can get things done," said Melendez.
As for Ramstad, however, there was little dispute as to whose turf it was. "The seat was probably his for as long as he wanted it," Melendez said.