YORKVILLE, Ill. -- Rep. Dennis Hastert, who was speaker of the House longer than any Republican, announced Friday morning he will not seek another term in Congress.
Speaking to hundreds of supporters outside the Kendall County Courthouse in his northern Illinois district, Hastert thanked staff, supporters and voters who helped keep him in office for 20 years.
"Together, we have made a difference," he said. Citing legislation for domestic security, Medicare, technology research, Social Security and alternative fuel sources, he added, "We passed improvements that have quietly made a real difference in people's lives."
Hastert left open the question of whether he would serve out his term or leave before it ends in January 2009.
"I'm going to serve as long as I feel I can be effective in the Congress," he told reporters after his speech.
Hastert served as speaker from 1999 to 2007. The longest serving speaker was Democrat Sam Rayburn of Texas, who held the post for more than 17 years. In mid-2006, Hastert became the longest serving Republican speaker, surpassing fellow Illinoisan Joseph "Uncle Joe" Cannon, who ruled the House from November 1903 until the Democrats regained the majority in March 1911.
President Bush praised Hastert, a former wrestling coach, in a statement. "Drawing on lessons he learned as a coach, he successfully guided Members of Congress to work together to enact legislation that has improved the lives of Americans," Bush said.
Retirement speculation had circulated since Hastert forfeited the powerful speaker's post when Republicans lost control of the House in last year's elections. Hastert, 65, declined to run for minority leader, taking on a role as elder statesman among Republicans.
In his release, Hastert said his accomplishments as a congressman for his northern Illinois district and as House speaker weren't his own doing, but happened because of support from constituents, friends and colleagues.
"We worked together to pass legislation to provide a service or to meet the need or those we served," he said. "We fought for our beliefs and worked to improve our communities, our district and our country."
Hastert's retirement has local Democrats starting to boast they can win another congressional seat, even as the GOP vows it won't easily give up a seat it has held for two decades. Hastert was considered by many to be unbeatable in his northern Illinois district.
"Any Democrat thinking of getting into this race does so at his or her own peril," said National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Ken Spain.
A Hastert vacancy is the second in Illinois that Republicans would have to contend with because retiring Rep. Ray LaHood is giving up a central Illinois congressional seat controlled by the GOP for nearly 90 years. LaHood will leave when his term ends in January 2009.
National Republicans "now have to defend another open seat in a blue state where the president is incredibly unpopular," said DCCC spokesman Doug Thornell.
Thornell said a race to replace Hastert would be a "a real opportunity" for Democrats in a "competitive district." The district stretches from Hastert's Plano home south of Chicago all the way to the Mississippi River.
Some local Democrats say they might snag Hastert's district away from Republicans because the populated areas are leaning more Democratic as people migrate there from the heavily Democratic city of Chicago in search of less expensive housing. They also point to last year's election, when two Democrats from Hastert's district won open seats in the Illinois Senate that had been held by Republicans.
"Times, they have a-changed," said state Sen. Michael Noland, one of those Democrats who now represents the Elgin area west of Chicago.
President Bush carried the district in 2004 with 55 percent of the vote.