WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe rocked the political landscape Tuesday with a stunning announcement that she won’t run again, drawing the curtain on a storied political career and staggering Republican hopes to recapture a Senate majority.
Snowe, who has represented Maine in Congress since 1978, said she no longer wanted to serve in an increasingly partisan and polarized Senate.
“As I have long said, what motivates me is producing results for those who have entrusted me to be their voice and their champion,” Snowe said in a prepared statement. “I do find it frustrating, however, that an atmosphere of polarization and ‘my way or the highway’ ideologies has become pervasive in campaigns and in our governing institutions.”
A political moderate, Snowe backs abortion rights and often drew fire from GOP conservatives for casting key votes that helped Democrats pass major legislation.
She was the only Republican on the influential Senate Finance Committee to vote in favor of President Obama’s health care reform bill in 2009. Although she wound up voting against it on the Senate floor, many conservatives blame her for the legislation becoming law in 2010.
Obama issued a statement Tuesday night saying that “from her unwavering support for our troops, to her efforts to reform Wall Street, to fighting for Maine’s small businesses, Senator Snowe’s career demonstrates how much can be accomplished when leaders from both parties come together to do the right thing for the American people.”
The president also lauded Snowe, who turned 65 on Feb. 21, for being the first woman in American history to serve in both houses of a state legislature and both houses of Congress.
Snowe was one of just three Republican senators, including fellow Maine Republican Susan Collins, to help Democrats pass the 2010 financial regulatory overhaul bill. She and Collins just last week were rated the two least conservative GOP senators for 2011 by National Journal.
Collins said in a prepared statement that she was “absolutely devastated to learn that Olympia has decided not to seek re-election to the United States Senate. Truly, there is no one who works harder on behalf of Maine and our nation.”
Snowe did not return calls Tuesday seeking additional comment.
Her move stunned top Republican Senate leaders, as well as Snowe’s own campaign staff, who said they learned of the senator’s decision shortly before it was announced.
Snowe had stockpiled nearly $3.4 million in her campaign war chest as of Dec. 31, led by 40 points in internal GOP polls and won in 2006 with 74 percent of the vote.
Her decision not to seek a fourth term set off a political frenzy both in Washington and Maine political circles.
In Washington, national GOP leaders and independent analysts had considered Snowe’s seat safely in Republican hands as the GOP aimed to topple Democrats’ 53-seat Senate majority.
“It gives Democrats another target,” said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington. “It certainly makes getting to 51 seats a little harder for Republicans. The game is not over. It just isn’t what they needed.”
Snowe’s Maine political career has spanned 33 years, beginning in 1973 when she was elected to the Maine House. She went on to the Maine Senate and then the U.S. House in 1978 before being elected to the Senate in 1994.
Her life has included tragedy along with political success.
Snowe’s mother and father died when she was a young child, and Snowe grew up with and aunt and uncle in Auburn.
Her first husband, Peter Snowe, was killed in a car crash in 1973. Peter Snowe was a Maine House member, and Snowe then ran for his seat.
She married then-Maine Republican Gov. John “Jock” McKernan in 1989 and ran for the Senate in 1994, after Democratic Sen. George Mitchell announced his retirement.
In the wake of Snowe’s departure, the only declared candidate in the GOP primary is Scott D’Amboise of Lisbon Falls, a health care technician and small-business owner who is affiliated with the tea party. National GOP leaders who have expressed misgivings about D’Amboise’s viability as a candidate are searching for alternatives, but they face a March 15 filing deadline.
In Maine, the four Democrats vying to win their party’s Senate nomination are hoping Snowe’s exit paves a path toward a Democratic victory in the fall. But her decision will almost certainly attract other, higher-profile Democrats.
Currently running for the Democratic nomination are state Rep. Jon Hinck of Portland, former Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap of Old Town, State Sen. Cynthia Dill of Cape Elizabeth and Portland homebuilder Benjamin Pollard.
Nathan Gonzales, of the nonpartisan, Washington-based Rothenberg Political Report, said Snowe’s decision “dramatically shifts her seat from the ‘Safe Republican’ column and places it firmly in the center of the fight for the Senate majority.”
He said Snowe faced only nominal opposition from D’Amboise in the GOP primary, and that national Democrats, focused on preserving their Senate majority by defending at-risk seats elsewhere, never viewed Snowe’s seat as a target.
“But that has all changed now,” Gonzales said. “With just two weeks to go before the March 15 filing deadline, both parties are going back to the drawing board.”
Snowe has been decrying the acrimonious state of Congress for a considerable time.
Last August, she told MaineToday Media’s editorial board that she has never seen a legislative body as ineffective as the current Senate.
“Unfortunately, everything is concentrated in political messaging, and the art of governing and legislating has been virtually lost,” Snowe said.
John Baughman, a political science professor at Bates College, said he takes at face value Snowe’s reason for departing from the political stage.
“As one of the very few remaining moderates in the Senate, Sen. Snowe’s vote was pivotal on one major bill after another,” Baughman said. “In an earlier era when there were real negotiations between the parties, that was a position of power and influence for much of her career.
“Lately, however, the polarization had become so strong that real bipartisan negotiations were rare and difficult (and) at that point, being the pivotal vote between the two camps had become exhausting rather than empowering,” he said.
Snowe said she and her husband are both in good health and that she was confident of her ability to win a fourth term in the Senate.
“Unfortunately, I do not realistically expect the partisanship of recent years in the Senate to change over the short term,” Snowe said. “So at this stage of my tenure in public service, I have concluded that I am not prepared to commit myself to an additional six years in the Senate, which is what a fourth term would entail.”
Snowe was furious last spring when D’Amboise accused her husband, former Gov. McKernan, of improper business practices and called on Snowe to resign. She charged D’Amboise with running a smear campaign.
D’Amboise spoke out after the Justice Department filed notice that it would intervene in a whistleblower lawsuit alleging that Education Management Corp. of Pittsburgh improperly compensated employees who recruit students to the for-profit college company’s institutions. McKernan is chairman of the corporation’s board.
Political insiders said Snowe’s explanation for her decision not to run matched her public pronouncements about the value of bipartisanship.
“I think Olympia’s retirement is emblematic of her party’s march to the far right,” said Michael Cuzzi, a Democratic consultant in Portland. “The Republican Party of (presidential candidates) Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney is not the Republican Party of Olympia Snowe.”
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, chairman of the National Republican Campaign Committee, asserted that Republicans will hold on to the seat in Maine, but he didn’t indicate in a prepared statement which candidate the party is counting on to accomplish that goal.
“While I would never underestimate the fight ahead in defending any open Senate seat, Republicans remain well-positioned to win back a Senate majority in November,” Cornyn said.
Other colleagues voiced dismay about Snowe’s decision.
Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, sat with Snowe last month during the State of the Union address, when a number of lawmakers participated in a bipartisan “date night” movement in an attempt to increase civility and compromise on Capitol Hill. He said Snowe has been a “great partner” on the Senate commerce committee’s oceans subcommittee, where the lawmakers were the top members from their parties and worked on issues common to both coastal states.
Snowe “has incredible knowledge and understanding of the Senate, and has had a very positive influence during her years of service,” Begich said Tuesday via email.
This story was updated at 2:50 p.m. Wednesday to correct the spelling of Rep. Jon Hinck’s name.
MaineToday Media Washington Bureau Chief Jonathan Riskind can be contacted at 791-6280 or at: [email protected]