"I simply do not have the heart for another six-year term," Thompson said in a statement.
In announcing last September that he had decided to seek a second full term in the Senate, Thompson attributed his decision to the changed situation in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. But Republican leaders, including National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Bill Frist of Tennessee, had urged him to run again. Thompson's decision to retire came after his daughter, Elizabeth, died Jan. 20 from a brain injury following a heart attack. She was 38.
Thompson's unexpected announcement requires Republicans to defend another open seat in their battle to recapture the Senate--in a state that President Bush won by just a 51-47 percent margin in 2000.
Republicans now must defend a total of four open Senate seats this year. "No one was going to run against Thompson as it was," said a spokeswoman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "Republicans weren't going to have to spend a dime, and now the Republicans are going to have to be on defense."
Thompson's decision creates a vacancy on the Governmental Affairs Committee, where he served as chairman from early 1997 until the Democrats retook control of the Senate last year. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine is the next most senior Republican after Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, who already serves as Appropriations ranking member. Collins, who served as a Governmental Affairs staff member before entering the electoral arena, is seeking re-election to a second term this year.
Thompson, a onetime top aide to former Majority Leader Howard Baker, R-Tenn., came to fame as minority counsel during the Senate's Watergate investigation in 1973. He was a leading trial attorney in Tennessee before being elected to the Senate in 1994 by defeating then-Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper.
Thompson was initially chosen in a special election to fill the seat of former Sen. Al Gore, D-Tenn.--who had been elected vice president--and then won election to a full term in 1996. In his first campaign, Thompson ran as an outsider, traveling the state in a red pickup and wearing casual work clothes. His appearances in numerous movie roles did not hurt, either.
Thompson has made accountability in federal agencies a major part of his agenda. As Governmental Affairs chairman, he pushed lawmakers and other government leaders to hold agencies accountable for results by tying their budgets to performance goals. Last year, Thompson asked the General Accounting Office to assess agencies' annual performance plans and reports under the 1993 Government Performance and Results Act and issued a comprehensive report detailing mismanagement in the federal government as a whole and at individual agencies.