URBANA, Ill. • U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson insisted on Thursday that his tear-choked retirement announcement was “100 percent” about grandchildren he’s missed, along with an unspecified private family issue.
"There are more important things than the next election," the six-term Urbana Republican told a packed room at the Urbana City Council Chambers. "I know some of my constituents better than I know some of my grandchildren. That’s going to change."
But it appeared during the emotional surprise announcement that Johnson — one of a dwindling number of centrists in an increasingly polarized Washington environment — might be shedding tears for lost political civility as well.
He lashed out at a system he said has become more toxic than he’s seen in four decades. He said a “grossly gerrymandered congressional map” created by Illinois Democrats would have forced him into a district in which he hadn’t previously represented two-thirds of the residents, including parts of the Metro East area.
And rancor in both parties in Washington, he said, “has reached a pinnacle.”
"I’ve never seen a more dysfunctional state of affairs," said Johnson, co-chairman of the Congressional Center Aisle Caucus, which promotes civility and bipartisanship in Congress. "We have become so bogged down … by partisanship and anger."
Johnson issued a warning to his fellow politicians about today’s tone: “I think the American people are fed up.”
Johnson easily won the GOP primary for re-election against two challengers less than a month ago, and all indications were that he would be on the general election ballot in November as a ‘safe” GOP incumbent.
His departure sets in motion a scramble among Republicans to select a nominee. Fourteen county chairmen will cast weighted votes to select a replacement to oppose David Gill, a Bloomington physician who won the Democratic primary.
Speculation about Johnson’s possible replacement as the Republican on the November ballot includes state Rep. Chapin Rose, R-Charleston; state Rep. Adam Brown, R-Decatur; state Sen. Sam McCann, R-Carlinville; former Johnson chief of staff Jerry Clarke; and Rodney Davis, former executive director of the Illinois GOP.
Also a possibility is Michael Firsching of Moro, one of the two Republicans who lost to Johnson in the March 20 primary.
Firsching, a veterinarian who works in Edwardsville, said he is “definitely going to let people know in the Republican structure that I’m interested” in being the candidate in November.
"It’s a little surprising," Firsching said of Johnson’s decision. "I had a feeling (during the campaign) that he didn’t feel engaged in the process."
Johnson’s other GOP opponent, Glen Carbon businessman Frank Metzger, couldn’t be reached for comment.
The development is certain to bring national attention and heavy spending to the race, with Democrats seeing a potential pickup in their uphill challenge to retake the House.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which is expected to pour resources into the race, said in a statement that “Republicans are not going to find a new candidate who can defend the Republican’s agenda that fails Illinois’ middle-class families.”