Snowe’s Decision Shakes Senate Landscape

February 28, 2012 · 6:14 PM EST

Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe’s surprise retirement announcement on Tuesday dramatically shifts her Maine seat from the Safe Republican column and places it firmly in the center of the fight for the Senate majority.

The moderate Snowe had burnished her own independent credentials so deeply that the only real threat to her came from a GOP opponent to the right. She had escaped that threat so far, with only nominal opposition from former Lisbon Falls selectman Scott D’Amboise. Several Democrats were lining up to make a long-shot campaign, but national Democrats never saw this as a target, especially as they were on defense in other crucial states.

But that has all changed now.

With just two weeks to go before the March 15 filing deadline, both parties are going back to the drawing board. The primary is scheduled for June 12.

Democrats, reveling in their new opportunity, aren’t talking about potential candidates, but former Rep. Tom Allen is certainly getting plenty of phone calls. He lost a 2008 challenge to Sen. Susan Collins, 61 percent to 39 percent, and has spent the last few years in Washington as CEO of the Association of American Publishers, but would be a credible candidate.

Rep. Chellie Pingree (D) released a statement saying she was “carefully considering” her options.

For Republicans, the top of their early list appears to be former state Rep. Peter Cianchette, a businessman who lost the 2002 gubernatorial race to then-Rep. John Baldacci, 47 percent to 42 percent.

Other potential GOP candidates include Steve Abbott, Sen. Collins’ former chief of staff who finished fourth the GOP gubernatorial primary in 2010; Bruce Poliquin, who also lost in the gubernatorial primary but was subsequently elected state treasurer by the legislature; former state legislator/appointed Attorney General Bill Schneider; and attorney/former state Rep. Josh Tardy.

State Senate President Kevin Raye (R) was in D.C. on Monday talking up his challenge to Rep. Mike Michaud (D), but isn’t necessarily in mix for a Senate bid.

Maine does have a Republican governor, Paul LePage, but he was elected in 2010 with less than 38 percent, and isn’t regarded as particular popular after his first year in office. Independent Eliot Cutler finished second with 36 percent while Democrat Libby Mitchell was third with 19 percent.

Snowe’s decision creates a ripple effect through the entire Senate landscape -- one no doubt some of her Republican colleagues won’t be too pleased with, especially given the late timing of her decision. Now both parties could be forced to spend money here -- a welcome opportunity for Democrats, but a distraction for Republicans who would rather use their resources picking off other Democrats.

Snowe’s statement announcing her decision only further underscores the growing problems in Congress. While she accurately predicted that she would have won reelection, she laments the disappearing political center. If Republicans are to hang onto this seat, they will have to find someone in the same mold as Snowe and Collins, but that may be a tall order based on an early glance at the GOP bench in the state.

Depending the party nominee’s, Maine could vault to the top of the Democratic opportunities, even ahead of Massachusetts and Nevada. Snowe’s decision is huge boost for Democrats, but until the candidate fields shake out, we’re moving the race from Republican Favored to Pure Toss-Up.