EAST HADDAM, Conn. — Christopher Dodd vowed just days ago that he was staying in the race for re-election to the Senate, but he announced Wednesday that he would not seek a sixth term and revealed the private soul-searching that led to his decision to end a four-decade career in Congress.
Dodd, speaking outside his home in East Haddam, said he will retire after his current term.
"I lost a beloved sister in July and, in August, Ted Kennedy. I battled cancer over the summer, and in the midst of all of this, found myself in the toughest political shape of my career," he said.
Dodd said the challenges he faced led him to ask himself why he was running.
Dodd said that question was on his mind as he cast a historic vote on Christmas Eve for a health care bill and then visited Kennedy's grave at Arlington National Cemetery in the snow, "wishing I could have seen the look in Teddy's eyes" as the Senate voted to pass the bill.
Dodd said he thought about his career and talked to his wife over the holidays.
"And that is how I came to the conclusion that, in the long sweep of American history, there are moments for each elected public servant to step aside and let someone else step up," Dodd said.
His political stock fell after a controversy involving low-rate mortgages he received under a VIP program, the financial meltdown and his failed 2008 presidential bid. The 65-year-old chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, who also served three terms in the House, was trailing former Republican Congressman Rob Simmons in the polls.
Connecticut's popular Democratic attorney general, Richard Blumenthal, quickly announced he would run to replace Dodd. Blumenthal, 63, said he has had his eye on the Senate for years.
"People in Connecticut know I have never walked away from a fight, and I have always put them first," said Blumenthal, who has been attorney general since 1990.
Blumenthal praised Dodd for his service and said he had learned of Dodd's decision within the previous 24 hours. He said he wanted to go to Washington to fight against scams and special interests.
Dodd's banking committee was at the center of efforts to stop the economic meltdown. And Dodd has played a prominent role in the debate over health care, taking over for Kennedy during his illness and then after his death.
Some of the home-state backlash came when, during his presidential bid, Dodd moved his family to Iowa several weeks before the caucuses there.
The mortgage controversy dogged him for months. The Senate ethics panel cleared him of breaking rules by getting the mortgages but scolded him for not doing more to avoid the appearance of sweetheart deals. Dodd insisted the rates he received were available to other consumers with good credit.
The controversy faintly recalled the troubles that brought down his late father, former Sen. Thomas J. Dodd, who was censured by his colleagues in 1967 for using campaign money to pay personal bills. Thomas Dodd served two terms in the Senate.
"You have honored me beyond words with your confidence," Dodd said Wednesday. "Let me quickly add that there have been times when my positions and actions have caused some of you to question that confidence. I regret that."
Dodd led his primary challenger, businessman and former Air Force officer Merrick Alpert, in the polls, but those surveys suggested his Republican challengers stood a chance of knocking him off in the November election.
"He really was not able to budge his low honesty and trustworthy number and that's something really hard for an elected official to change," Quinnipiac University Poll Director Douglas Schwartz said. "Once people don't trust you, it's a tough thing to turn around."
Dodd said he was "very aware of my present political standing here at home, but it is equally clear that any certain prediction about an election victory or defeat nearly a year from now would be absurd."
A spokesman for Dodd said the senator spoke with President Barack Obama before making Wednesday's announcement. Details on what was said weren't released. Dodd didn't take questions at his news conference.
Obama said in a statement that Dodd's leadership would be missed.
"He has worked tirelessly to improve the lives of our children and families, support good jobs for hardworking Americans, and keep our nation strong and prosperous," Obama said.
The three Republicans running for Dodd's seat – Simmons; Linda McMahon, the former chief executive of World Wrestling Entertainment; and Peter Schiff – said his decision won't hurt their chances.
"Whoever the Democratic nominee is, he or she will have to defend the failed Democratic policies of higher taxes, bigger government, exploding debt and a misguided approach to national security," Simmons said.
With Blumenthal as the candidate, Democrats have the edge, Schwartz said. His lowest job approval number since 2001 was 71 percent in November 2004. His highest was 81 percent in March 2009.
"It's not over, but certainly the Democrats are in much better shape," Schwartz said. "The race has flipped from leaning Republican to leaning Democrat."
Howard Reiter, a University of Connecticut political science professor emeritus, said Blumenthal starts out in a strong position, but "I don't think he's had a tough campaign in a long time."
Blumenthal, a former Marine who lives in Greenwich with his wife and four children, is a former federal prosecutor and former state legislator.
Haigh reported from Hartford, Conn. AP writers Liz Sidoti and Andrew Miga in Washington and Dave Collins in Hartford contributed to this report.