WASHINGTON — Republican Senator Olympia Snowe’s shocking decision not to seek reelection sparked a scramble yesterday among top Maine Democrats considering a run for the seat and complicated GOP chances of gaining control of the Senate.
Within hours of Snowe’s decision, US Representative Chellie Pingree was collecting signatures to be placed on the ballot in a dash to beat a March 15 filing deadline while other politicians from both parties - including Pingree’s Democratic colleague in the House, Michael Michaud - were also considering a run. A Pingree-Michaud face-off would mean three of the four seats in Maine’s congressional delegation would be up for grabs.
“We have a saying up in Maine that all the coffins are wide open,’’ said Christian Potholm, a Bowdoin College government professor with a specialty in Maine politics. “For the next week or so there will be dozens of people coming out of the woodwork. It’s a period where the wildest dreams are imagined, and everybody’s brother and sister thinks they can be a congressperson if they can’t be a senator.’’
For national Republican leaders, the development is a blow to their aggressive bid to dominate Capitol Hill in the fall elections.
“It took a totally safe Republican seat that Republicans were not going to have to spend any effort or money defending to making that seat in Maine the most vulnerable Republican seat in the nation,’’ said L. Sandy Maisel, a government professor at Colby College.
Republicans, who won the US House in 2010, need to pick up four seats to gain the majority in the Senate. Maine now joins Massachusetts and Nevada as states where Republicans must engage in a heated battle with Democrats to hang onto seats.
“They really didn’t see this coming, so it’s tough,’’ said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor at The Cook Political Report.
Republicans also learned yesterday that former Democratic presidential candidate Robert Kerrey will seek his former seat in Nebraska. GOP officials had thought they had the upper hand in replacing Senator Ben Nelson, a moderate Democrat who is retiring.
Snowe’s decision came just two weeks before the filing deadline for candidates to get on the ballot for the June primary.
Kevin Raye, a former Snowe staffer and now Maine Senate president, is perhaps the most credible Republican contender because he already has a campaign organization and fund-raising structure in place, Maisel said. Raye, who has not announced his intentions yet, had been planning to take on Michaud.
The only declared Republican candidate so far is Scott D’Amboise, a Maine businessman and Tea Party supporter. But Maine Republican Party chairman Charlie Webster said eight to 10 Republicans are now considering running.
Potholm said he considers the Democratic nomination, with a potential clash between the state’s northern and southern districts, the most intriguing contest.
Pingree, who represents the southern district, said last night that she is giving it “careful consideration’’ and will have volunteers working through the weekend to collect the 2,000 signatures necessary to get on the ballot.
“This is a big moment for the US Senate,’’ Pingree said. “This seat could actually control the balance.’’
‘We’re not working out issues anymore. We’re competing on a parallel universe.’
Michaud, who represents the northern part of the state and has picked up petitions from the secretary of state’s office, said he would make a decision in the coming days.
According to the Maine Democratic Party, former secretary of state Matt Dunlap and state Senator Cynthia Dill are currently in the race. State Representative Jon Hinck is also in the race but will run in the First Congressional District instead if Pingree runs for Senate.
The name of former governor John Baldacci, a Democrat, has also been floated as a possibility. The Associated Press reported that Baldacci had picked up petitions for signatures.
Former two-term Maine governor Angus King, an independent, said he, too, is considering a run. King said he was inspired by Snowe’s comments that she was retiring because of the polarization and partisanship of the Senate.
“It struck me that trying to fix the system by doing the same things we’ve always done, sending only Democrats and Republicans to Washington, is not going to change anything,’’ King said. “We have serious problems, but if we don’t start talking to one another, there’s no earthly way we’re going to solve them.’’
Snowe’s surprise announcement Tuesday served as the latest indicator of that toxic atmosphere. Other moderates such as Nelson and Joe Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut, have announced their intentions to step down.
And Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee resigned his leadership post as the number three Republican in January because he thought he could be more effective brokering bipartisan resolutions behind the scenes without having to toe the party line, which has shifted to the right with Tea Party influence.
The partisan rancor had prompted William S. Cohen, the former Republican senator from Maine who served as secretary of defense for Democratic President Clinton, to raise money for Snowe’s campaign because he saw moderate Republicans under siege.
Cohen, who had a fund-raiser scheduled for Snowe next Wednesday, said he understands her decision, given the problems on the Hill.
“Here we are debating contraception or whether Darwin is a theory,’’ said Cohen, who said the atmosphere is immeasurably worse since he left the Senate in 1996. “Other countries are looking at us with less and less awe and admiration and asking what are we doing?’’
In an interview with MSNBC yesterday, Snowe, 65, voiced her frustrations, saying the dysfunction has led to paralysis, blaming both parties.
“We’re not working out issues anymore,’’ Snowe said. “We’re competing on a parallel universe.’’
Snowe, her Maine colleague Susan Collins, and Scott Brown of Massachusetts are among the few Senate Republicans to have voted with the Democrats, Maisel said.
“There’s not going to be anything major done in the Senate for the rest of the year,’’ Maisel said. “And you see Senator Brown walking on this tightrope wondering, ‘Do I vote with my party or appeal to the citizens of the Commonwealth when I’m running for reelection?’ ’’
Alan Simpson, a former senator from Wyoming and a Republican whom Obama appointed to cochair his bipartisan deficit reduction commission, called Snowe’s decision to step down a tragedy.
“This is typical of Republicans,’’ Simpson said. “They give each other this saliva test of purity and then they lose and sit around and [complain]. Olympia’s not just there to toe the official line. She’s there to use her brain and I’m sure the people of Maine would have reelected her again. But she just said ‘To hell with it.’ ’’Bryan Bender and Shira Schoenberg of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Tracy Jan can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeTracyJan.