GARY D. ROBERTSON,Associated Press
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler of North Carolina announced Thursday he won't seek re-election in what's become another blow to conservative Democrats on Capitol Hill and the party's state congressional delegation.
Shuler, a former professional football player and conservative who challenged House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi for her post following the November 2010 elections, announced in a statement that he will not seek a fourth House term representing far western North Carolina.
Shuler said he discussed running for North Carolina governor with his family but decided against it earlier this week.
"I spent time with the family and realized I have to be at home more, spend some more time with them." Shuler and his wife have two children ages 10 and 7.
Shuler told reporters in Washington his decision had nothing to do with his unsuccessful challenge to Pelosi or his occasional clashes with party leaders, who are all more liberal than he is. He was a leader in the so-called Democratic Blue Dog Coalition in Washington, which included moderate and conservative Democrats who lobbied for greater fiscal responsibility in Washington.
"I feel very at peace," Shuler told reporters in Washington. "There's no other reason other than to spend as much time as I possibly can with them. When you've got a 7-year-old girl, and you left on Tuesday and she calls you Wednesday and says, 'Come home now,' I want to be home with those kids."
In January 2011, 11 Democrats voted for Shuler for speaker, an apparent effort to express some unhappiness with Pelosi's previous four years as speaker.
"We need more commonsense voices in Congress like Heath Shuler who judge policy based on its merits, not on party allegiance," U.S. Rep. Mike Ross, D-Ark., a Blue Dog Coalition co-chairman, said in a statement.
Pelosi praised Shuler as "a national leader for fiscal responsibility who has always maintained a laser-like focus on his constituents in western North Carolina."
Republicans in the state Legislature had made his 11th District seat more difficult to win through redistricting, particularly by splitting Democratic-leaning Asheville.
While Shuler, who was also considered anti-abortion, said polls showed he was still ahead by about 8 percentage points in the 11th District, at least nine Republicans had expressed interest in unseating him.
Shuler is now the second North Carolina Democrat not to seek re-election.
Five-term U.S. Rep. Brad Miller of Raleigh announced last week he wouldn't run because he had been drawn into the 4th District represented by veteran Democratic Rep. David Price of Chapel Hill. Miller is also now considering a bid for governor.
Shuler had become a strong voice for white Democrats in the South, said Chris Cooper, an associate professor in political science at Western Carolina University.
His departure "points to what a good job Republicans did on redistricting" to expand their power, Cooper said. "He was really increasingly becoming a key figure for the Democrats in Washington."
Shuler, now 40, grew up in North Carolina and was a football star at the University of Tennessee where he set numerous passing records before being drafted by the Washington Redskins. He also played for the New Orleans Saints and the Oakland Raiders before an injury ended his NFL career.
He said he expected to be in the business world in some capacity after leaving Congress.
Associated Press writer Alan Fram in Washington contributed to this report.