PORTLAND, Maine - A three-term moderate Republican senator from the northeastern state of Maine announced Tuesday that she will not run for re-election, giving Democrats an unexpected shot at gaining a crucial open seat in the November elections.
Sen. Olympia Snowe's announcement that she would abandon her seat — which she was expected to retain easily — dealt an immediate blow to Republicans hoping to take control of the Senate in November by giving Democrats new hope of winning a seat they have long coveted.
Democrats, who are facing tough odds this election cycle, hold a 51-47 majority in the upper chamber of Congress, with two independents who caucus with the Democrats.
"It makes this seat one of the top Democratic targets in the country, from not being a Democratic target at all," said Sandy Maisel, director of the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs at Colby College.
Snowe was facing her first primary fight, after cruising to a third term in 2006 with 74 per cent of the vote. While she staked a moderate position at a time when the conservative tea party was gaining influence in Maine, she had a healthy war chest and remained popular in her home state.
Snowe, a former House of Representatives member who has served a total of 33 years in Congress, said she was confident she would've won re-election and will be retiring from the Senate in good health. She cited frustration over Washington's current "atmosphere of polarization" in her announcement.
The news came as a surprise to officials in both national parties. Snowe, 65, for months had been laying the groundwork for a strong re-election effort, putting together a campaign team, keeping a busy schedule of events in the state and raising campaign money. She had more than $3.3 million in her campaign account at the end of last year, her last campaign finance report showed.
She had earned a reputation as an independent voice in the polarized Senate, but had voiced frustration with the sharp partisanship and gridlock that has come to characterize the chamber in recent years. She was the only Republican who voted for a version of President Barack Obama's historic health care overhaul, joining Democrats and casting a vote for the plan in the Senate Finance Committee. But under pressure from fellow Republicans, she voted with the party to oppose the final legislation.
Fellow Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine called Snowe's decision a "complete surprise."
"Nobody can replace Olympia in the Senate," she said. "It's going to be a real void."
The daughter of Greek immigrants, Snowe lost her mother to cancer when she was 8. Her father died a year later from heart disease and she was raised by an aunt and uncle. She was also widowed at 26, and is now married to a former governor.
Last week, one of her Republican challengers dropped out, but other Republicans could decide to enter the race.
Snowe's decision also opens the door to Maine's two Democratic House members — five-term Rep. Michael Michaud and two-term Rep. Chellie Pingree. Another potential candidate is former Rep. Tom Allen, who unsuccessfully challenged Collins in 2008.
"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," said U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Snowe said she sees a "vital need for the political centre in order for our democracy to flourish and to find solutions that unite rather than divide us." She said she sees opportunities to build support for such change from outside the Senate.
Associated Press Writers David Sharp in Maine and Steve Peoples, Donna Cassata and Andrew Miga in Washington contributed to this report.