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Rep. Ross says he won't run for Arkansas governor

Andrew Demillo

U.S. Rep. Mike Ross said Monday he won't seek the Democratic nomination for Arkansas governor in 2014, upending a race that he was widely expected to join after opting against a re-election bid this year.

Ross announced that instead of seeking the party's nomination, he will take a job with the Southwest Power Pool as its senior vice president for government affairs and public relations. The nonprofit power pool, based in Little Rock, manages electric services for 65 utilities in a nine-state area.

Last year, Ross said he wouldn't seek a seventh term representing south Arkansas' 4th District as he mulled a potential gubernatorial run.

"As a result, instead of campaigning and raising money, I have been able to spend more time, including weekends, with my family for the past year. We have enjoyed getting back to a more normal way of life after 22 continuous years of elective service," Ross said. "This led me to the realization that there is life after politics."

A spokesman for Ross said the congressman wasn't available to comment further Monday afternoon.

Ross' decision shakes up a gubernatorial race that many believed he had been preparing for long before his retirement announcement last year. He has spent recent weeks speaking to groups outside his south Arkansas district and speaking out on state issues, including his opposition to raising Arkansas' severance tax on natural gas for highway improvements. Ross said last month he wouldn't decide on the race until sometime next year.

The announcement caught Democrats off guard as they're trying to prevent losses in a state that has moved more to the right in recent years. Republicans are confident they can win control of the state Legislature, and claim Ross' House seat this fall and a party spokeswoman said that's where the GOP's focus is now.

"We've always been proud of Congressman Ross and his longstanding service to the people of Arkansas and we look forward to his future work to create jobs and develop our economy with this future venture of his," state Democratic Party spokeswoman Candace Martin said.

U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor had already taken himself out of the running for the governor's race earlier this year, when he announced that he planned to seek a third term in the Senate in 2014.

Ross's decision prompted former Lt. Gov. Bill Halter to take a look at running for the Democratic nomination for governor. Halter, who made an unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate in 2010 rather than seek re-election, was flooded with calls urging him to run after Ross's announcement, a spokesman said.

"He's going to give it serious consideration," spokesman Bud Jackson said.

Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, another Democrat widely expected to join the race, said he called Ross to congratulate him on his service, but did not comment about his own political future.

"I wish him all the best as he begins this next chapter of his life," McDaniel said in a statement released by his political action committee.

Several Republicans are also widely believed to be weighing a potential run for the governor's office. GOP Congressmen Steve Womack and Tim Griffin, mentioned as potential candidates, both said Monday they're focused now on their jobs and re-election bids. Lt. Gov. Mark Darr, who has indicated he's more likely to run for governor than re-election, likewise sidestepped the question of whether he'd join the race after Ross' announcement.

Curtis Coleman, the founder of a food safety company and an unsuccessful candidate for the United States Senate last year, is the only Republican who has openly said he's considering a run for the seat. Coleman said Monday he likely won't make a final decision until sometime next year.

Asa Hutchinson, the former congressman and attorney who is representing the secretary of state's office in a redistricting lawsuit, brushed aside rumors that he also may run, citing his work on the redistricting case. But Hutchinson, who won the 2006 GOP gubernatorial nomination but lost the general election to Beebe, also didn't rule out a run.

"I'm staying away from politics in deference to that case and the fact that 2014 is a long ways away," Hutchinson said.

One of the most conservative Democrats in the House, Ross was one of the leading members of his party to oppose President Barack Obama's health care plan in 2009 and early 2010. He touted his health overhaul stance and distanced himself from national Democrats such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi during his re-election bid in 2010.

Southwest Power Pool said that Ross will develop and lead the non-profits government affairs at the federal level and the nine-state region it serves, and manage the company's public relations. Ross said he'll begin work after his term ends Jan. 3.

In his new role, Ross will develop and lead SPP's government affairs at the federal level and the nine-state region it serves, and manage public relations for the company.

"I can think of no one better to help SPP become more proactive in the state and federal legislative arenas and to raise public awareness of the company," said SPP President and Chief Executive Officer Nick Brown. "There's no doubt that he will add great value to SPP and our members in helping shape our nation's energy future."

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Andrew DeMillo can be reached at www.twitter.com/ademillo

The Associated Press