WASHINGTON — Rep. Joe Courtney will not run for the U.S. Senate, forgoing what is sure to be an expensive and hard-fought contest to succeed the retiring Sen. Joe Lieberman in 2012.

The 2nd District congressman announced Monday that he decided to stay in the House, where he and other Democrats, now in the minority after the 2010 Republican blowout, will spend the next two years beating back Republican legislative priorities.

After “careful deliberation,” Courtney said in a statement, “I have decided to focus on my work as a Congressman and will decline to enter the race for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate.”

In an interview, Courtney said his decision was about seven weeks in the making. With Republicans in control of the House, he concluded that defending the interests of his district would be too tough if he was also mounting a Senate race.

“Trying to visualize running a statewide race campaign and all that goes with that, it would be selling the district short by running for Senate,” Courtney said.

Courtney said the recent debate over GOP spending proposals, calling for deep cuts in domestic spending, illustrated the high legislative stakes in the 112th Congress.

“For four years, I have focused on growing jobs and improving our region’s economy,” Courtney said in his statement, highlighting key achievements, such winning support for new submarine production that will help Electric Boat and killing the alternate engine funding, which will boost Pratt & Whitney.

“Despite these advancements, House Republicans last week pushed through a measure to slash support for our firefighters, gut funding that helps homeless veterans, and ended critical infrastructure investment and the jobs that go with it,” Courtney said. “Their efforts highlight what is at stake for this district, and why it is critical that eastern Connecticut continue to have a strong voice defending its priorities over the next two years.”

There’s little question that the House is going to be the stage for continual legislative fights this year. During last week’s debate of the House Republicans spending bill for fiscal year 2011, Democrats found themselves fighting GOP proposals to defund the health care law, enact new abortion restrictions, and eliminate billions of dollars for transportation, health, and education programs.

House Democrats were almost universally unsuccessful in fighting those proposals. And Courtney’s decision to stay in the House means he will be playing defense for the next two years, with little power to push his priorities. He actually moved up in seniority, however, on the Armed Services Committee, an important perch for a congressman from a state that makes submarines, helicopters and military jet engines. Courtney also won a new assignment, to the House Agriculture Committee, at a time when Congres is expected to re-write a major farm policy law.

At the same time, a Senate campaign would have been a serious gamble for the three-term lawmaker, who now holds a relatively safe seat representing the eastern half of Connecticut. Courtney first won election to the House in 2006 by only 83 votes, but he cruised to a third term last year, defeating his GOP opponent by a nearly 20 percent margin as other Democrats struggled against a national GOP tide.

Courtney said it would be “impossible to describe” the 2nd District as a safe seat. He said he would have been happy to roll the dice, but it didn’t seem like the right time.

Still, entering the Senate race would have put Courtney in the middle of a three-way Democratic primary, facing off against one his House colleagues, Rep. Chris Murphy, D-5th District, as well as ex-Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz.

Courtney said he wasn’t ready to make any endorsement in the Democratic primary yet. He conceded that there may not be another clear shot at the Senate any time soon. “This is like a full solar eclipse. It doesn’t happen very often,” he said of the opportunity to vie for an open Senate. “That’s why we ran the traps.”

Murphy and Bysiewicz both entered the Senate campaign earlier this year; others may still join the fray. Lieberman announced his decision in January to retire at the end of his fourth term, creating an open seat for the second time in two years. Chris Dodd did not seek re-election to a sixth term last year.

On the GOP side, Republican Linda McMahon has said she is seriously considering another run. The former World Wrestling Entertainment lost to Democrat Richard Blumenthal in November, after spending $50 million of her own fortune on the contest.

Other GOP contenders may wait to see what McMahon does before making their own moves, since another multi-million-dollar self-funded campaign would dramatically impact the contest.

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