WASHINGTON — As Maine goes, so might the U.S. Senate majority.

Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe’s surprise retirement announcement last week didn’t just shift Maine’s political landscape – it triggered national tremors that will be felt through Election Day in November.

The attention of the political world is suddenly fixed on the fight to replace the 33-year lawmaker, which could decide which party controls the U.S. Senate after November.

With the stakes so high, an unprecedented amount of campaign cash will flow into the state, perhaps doubling what has ever been spent on a Maine race, say party consultants and independent analysts.

“My sense right now is that this is going to be the most expensive election campaign ever in Maine history and it won’t even be close,” said Mark Brewer, an associate professor of political science at the University of Maine. “TV ads, outside money, the heavy presence of both national party organizations, and this all focused around the Senate seat.”

Throw in the potentially competitive congressional races, a same-sex marriage ballot question and, of course, the presidential race, “and it is going to be an electric election cycle this year in Maine,” Brewer said.

Barry Bennett, a national Republican strategist and veteran Capitol Hill staffer, said local television stations will receive a political-ad windfall.

“The real victims (of Snowe’s retirement) are the people of Maine, who will have to suffer through a lot of really bad television commercials this fall,” Bennett quipped.

The focus is on a seat that neither Democrats nor Republicans thought was in doubt, but that now could dash GOP hopes for a Senate majority.

“At the beginning of the year there was the expectation that the Senate was going turn Republican, but now that expectation is greatly diminished,” said John Feehery, a national GOP strategist who was a spokesman for former House Speaker Dennis Hastert.

Snowe’s departure doesn’t mean a GOP Senate majority is “out of sight,” Feehery said Friday. But, “it makes it harder.”

If national Republicans are grimacing over Snowe’s decision not to seek a fourth term, national Democrats are chortling.

“With the news about Sen. Snowe, that gives us a little bit more of a spring in our step,” said Jim Manley, a national Democratic strategist and former aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. “This could be a key pickup that could help Democrats keep the majority next year. It may be the backstop needed to make sure that Republicans don’t take control of the Senate.”

The 2008 Senate race in which GOP Sen. Susan Collins easily defended her seat against Democrat Tom Allen generated a total of about $17.5 million in campaign spending.

Collins raised $8 million, Allen nearly $6 million and outside groups pumped in the rest, said John Baughman, a professor of politics at Bates College in Lewiston.

That will almost certainly be eclipsed in the race for Snowe’s seat, Baughman said.

Peter Fenn, a national Democratic consultant in Washington, said the candidates alone might spend a total of $30 million, especially if a credible independent such as former Gov. Angus King gets in the race.

But that’s just the beginning.

Republican and Democratic national committees could each pump several million dollars into the fray. And the landmark Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision by the Supreme Court removed political spending limits by corporations and unions, making way for super political action committees, or super PACs, to spend tens of millions of dollars nationally on key House and Senate races.

“There is a lot of money moving around” nationally, and now a big chunk of it will find its way to Maine, said Mark Lindsay, a former Clinton administration official who is now a Democratic strategist and lobbyist in Washington. “Having an opportunity in a place like Maine is wonderful news. It’s a very big deal.”

Democrats hold 51 seats in the Senate, plus two independents who caucus with the party. There are 33 Senate seats up for grabs in November, with Democrats defending 23 and Republicans just 10.

Democrats are expecting tight races in at least eight of the states where they are defending Senate seats: Hawaii, Montana, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Virginia and Wisconsin, according to the nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington.

Until Snowe’s announcement, Cook rated just two Republican-held seats as toss-ups: Massachusetts and Nevada.

Snowe’s retirement isn’t the only recent development to boost Democratic hopes. Former Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey decided last week to run in Nebraska, giving Democrats a legitimate shot at a Senate seat that had been rated likely to go to the GOP.

And Democrats are convinced that other developments have given them a better chance to go after GOP-held seats in several other states, including Indiana and Arizona.

Snowe’s retirement was the last thing Republicans needed, said Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report in Washington.

“Republicans can’t afford to lose too many of their own seats if they have any chance of gaining the three or four they need for a majority,” Gonzales said.

But even if Democrats don’t wind up winning the Maine seat, they are confident Republicans will have to divert precious resources, and that’s already a victory, said Michael Cuzzi, a Democratic strategist and Obama campaign aide in 2008 who is now a public affairs consultant in Portland. Cuzzi said he believes Democrats will have the advantage in the race for Snowe’s seat.

“Maine is a domino,” Cuzzi said. “The fact that it now goes into a lean-Democrat category means Republicans will unexpectedly need to work harder and spend significant resources here, diluting their ability to run competitively in other races and to win back control of the Senate.”

Brian Walsh, the spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said he doesn’t dispute that Maine has gone from a slam dunk for the GOP to a bitterly contested race. But Democrats shouldn’t get too cocky, he added.

“There is no question that Maine is going to be one of the key battlegrounds in November,” Walsh said. But, “for those Democrats who have started their victory lap, it is far too premature and frankly a little bit arrogant. I expect we will have a very competitive race in November.”

MaineToday Media Washington Bureau Chief Jonathan Riskind can be contacted at 791-6280 or at:

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