Three-term Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine announced Tuesday that she will not run for re-election, citing frustration over Washington's current "atmosphere of polarization" and giving Democrats an unexpected shot at an open seat.
Snowe, who's viewed as a moderate, said she sees a "vital need for the political center 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.
Snowe's announcement is a boost to Democrats who are facing tough odds this election cycle. Senate Democrats hold a 51-47 majority 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, who has served 33 years in Congress, said she was confident she would've won re-election and will be retiring from the Senate in good health.
"It has been an indescribable honor and immeasurable privilege to serve the people of Maine, first in both houses of Maine's legislature and later in both houses of Congress," she said. "To this day, I remain deeply passionate about public service, and I cherish the opportunity I have been given for nearly four decades to help improve the lives of my fellow Mainers."
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.
Snowe was widowed at 26 when her first husband, state Rep. Peter Snowe, died in a car crash. She won a 1973 election to fill his vacant seat. Five years later she was elected to the U.S. House where she served for 16 years before winning her Senate seat. Snowe is married to former Maine Gov. John McKernan.
Snowe was facing her first primary fight, after cruising to a third term in 2006 with 74 percent of the vote.
Snowe was viewed by some as vulnerable because of her moderate position at a time when the tea party was gaining influence in Maine, but she had a healthy war chest and remained popular in her home state.
Last week, one of her GOP challengers dropped out, leaving Scott D'Amboise as the only other GOP candidate in the race, but other Republicans could decide to enter the race.
State Rep. Jon Hinck, state Sen. Cynthia Dill, former Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap and Portland home builder Ben Pollard have all announced they're running in the Democratic primary for the seat.
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.
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