PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — With centrists becoming few and far between, Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe cited the increasingly polarized climate of Washington in abandoning the U.S. Senate after three terms, giving Democrats new hope of winning the longtime GOP-held seat.
Sometimes criticized as a RINO — short for Republican in Name Only — Snowe continued to express her desire for the national parties to find middle ground to get things accomplished, saying she was frustrated by "'my way or the highway' ideologies."
Her announcement Tuesday came as shock to both parties, leaving an empty seat, throwing the Senate race into disarray in Maine and dealing an immediate blow to Republicans hoping to take control of the Senate in November.
"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.
While earning a reputation as an independent voice during her 33 years in public service, Snowe became frustrated by the sharp partisanship and gridlock that has come to characterize the upper chamber recently. She was the only Republican who voted for a version of President Barack Obama's health care overhaul, joining Democrats and casting a vote for the plan in the Senate Finance Committee.
She said she wanted the bill to go the Senate floor, where it could be changed, before she ultimately voted against it. But she came under intense criticism from conservatives.
"As I have long said, what motivates me is producing results for those who have entrusted me to be their voice and their champion, and I am filled with that same sense of responsibility today as I was on my first day in the Maine House of Representatives," Snowe said in a statement. "I do find it frustrating, however, that an atmosphere of polarization and 'my way or the highway' ideologies has become pervasive in campaigns and in our governing institutions."
Her frustrations with partisanship and polarization aren't new.
Discussing being one of a shrinking number of Republicans in the Senate in an April 2009 interview with The Associated Press, Snowe declared, "It's not healthy for the country to have parties with polar opposite views without that bridge that you need to build consensus."
"Ultimately, we're heading to having the smallest political tent in history, the way events have been unfolding. If the Republican Party fully intends to become a majority party in the future, it must move from the far right back toward the middle," she said later that same month when U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania defected to the Democratic party.
Obama said her career shows what can be done when both parties work together.
"From her unwavering support for our troops, to her efforts to reform Wall Street, to fighting for Maine's small businesses, Senator Snowe's career demonstrates how much can be accomplished when leaders from both parties come together to do the right thing for the American people," Obama said in a statement.
Democratic U.S. Sen. John Kerry and Republican U.S. Sen. Scott Brown, both of Massachusetts, praised her for reaching across the aisle.
"She comes from a line of moderate Republicans from John Chafee to John Heinz that made really working across the aisle a virtue," Kerry said. "It's been really sad to see that virtue derided in so many Republican primaries the last couple years."
Said Brown, who is facing a fierce re-election challenge: "We all are going to miss her independence and her ability to build bridges on some of the toughest issues."
Snowe, 65, is in good health and 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 spent more than a year working to beat back a tea party challenge, shifting her positions to the right in some cases and spending considerable time allaying the concerns of conservatives in Maine.
Her exit could boost Democrats, who are facing tough odds this election cycle. Senate Democrats hold a 51-47 majority with two independents who caucus with them.
Already there were four Democrats running for Snowe's seat, but the vacancy changes everything. Maine Democratic officials were speaking privately with the state's two Democratic members of Congress, U.S. Reps. Mike Michaud and Chellie Pingree. Michaud and Pingree both said they're considering a run.
Candidates have only until March 15 to collect the 2,000 signatures necessary to qualify for the November ballot.
Snowe was facing her first primary fight after cruising to a third term in 2006 with 74 percent of the vote. She 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 remained popular with both Republicans and Democrats. Maisel described her as virtually unbeatable.
Snowe is married to former Maine Gov. John McKernan. She 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.
She said she was confident she would have won re-election but saw 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 that change from outside the Senate, though she didn't elaborate.
"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," she said.
Last week, one of her GOP challengers dropped out of the primary race, choosing to run as an independent, leaving Scott D'Amboise as the only other GOP candidate in the race unless other Republicans decide to toss their hats into the ring. Maine Senate President Kevin Raye, already a candidate for Congress, said he was considering running for the open seat.
Snowe's decision makes her the third U.S. senator from Maine in the past two decades to voluntarily relinquish a seat to which they could have won re-election. Democratic Sen. George Mitchell chose not to run in 1994, and Republican Sen. William Cohen did the same in 1996.
Mitchell, who praised Snowe's public service and friendship, joked that he was once advised not to overstay his welcome. "A guy from Maine told me this: It's better to leave when we want you to stay, rather than after we want you go to," he said.
Associated Press writers Steve Peoples, Donna Cassata and Andrew Miga in Washington, Clarke Canfield in Portland, Maine, and Steve LeBlanc in Boston contributed to this report.