PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — With Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe's announcement that she won't seek a fourth term, a number of Maine Republicans and Democrats are considering jumping into the Senate race, setting off a scramble with just two weeks before a deadline to get on the June primary ballot.
Four Democrats who already announced they're running could be joined by U.S. Reps. Mike Michaud and Chellie Pingree, both of whom say they're weighing a bid for the open seat. If Pingree and Michaud both run, that would leave three of Maine's four congressional seats up for grabs.
"Everybody who has any ambition will look at it and ask if this is the time," said Sandy Maisel, director of the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs at Colby College.
Snowe's surprise announcement creates one of the best opportunities nationwide for Democrats in a race in which Snowe was considered a safe bet to win another six-year term. Democrats are struggling to retain control of the Senate with a 51-47 majority that includes two independents who caucus with them.
"It's an amazing opportunity because I don't think there's any denying that everyone figured it would go to Snowe. Now the favorability is on the side of Democrats," said Lizzy Reinholt, spokeswoman for the Maine Democratic Party. She said the party supports all Democratic candidates who choose to run.
Four Democrats, state Rep. Jon Hinck, state Sen. Cynthia Dill, former Secretary of State Matthew and Portland home builder Ben Pollard, all announced they're running the Democratic Senate primary.
Other potential Democrats in addition to Pingree and Michaud include Eliot Cutler, who ran as an independent in the governor's race and finished second to Republican Paul LePage, Maisel said.
On the Republican side, Scott D'Amboise, a small-business owner who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2006, is the only Senate candidate for now after tea party activist Andrew Ian Dodge dropped out of the primary race, opting to run as an independent. D'Amboise said he's the presumptive Republican nominee because it will be difficult for others to meet the March 15 deadline for submitting 2,000 signatures to qualify for the ballot.
But others Republicans may jump in, as well.
Maine Senate President Kevin Raye, Snowe's former chief of staff who's already running for Maine's 2nd District congressional seat against Michaud, said he's considering a Senate bid.
Snowe, a moderate who was popular with Democrats and Republicans, rocked the political establishment in both Maine and in Washington with her announcement on Tuesday. But it was no secret that she was frustrated over what she viewed as excessive partisanship and gridlock in Washington.
Facing her first primary fight in 33 years in Congress, Snowe pointed to her Greek heritage in describing herself as a Spartan who relishes a fight but questioned whether she could've been effective over a fourth six-year term as a moderate in chamber where increasingly strident conservative and liberal ideologies have left less room for a centrist like Snowe to maneuver in the middle.
"Unfortunately, I do not realistically expect the partisanship of recent years in the Senate to change over the short term," she said in a statement.
Snowe said she felt that she would have easily won re-election, despite the tea party's growing influence in Maine, and many political observers including Maisel agreed with her assessment. She'd built a strong organization and had $3.3 million in her campaign account at the end of last year.
Her decision may have other candidates thinking, as well.
Other Republicans mentioned as potential candidates include former gubernatorial candidate Steve Abbott, who's now the athletic director at the University of Maine; former congressional candidate Charlie Summers, who currently serves as secretary of state; and former gubernatorial candidate Peter Cianchette.
Other Democrats who might be contenders include former Gov. John Baldacci, who formerly served in the U.S. House in the 2nd District, and former 1st District U.S. Rep. Tom Allen, who tried but failed four years ago to unseat Snowe's Republican colleague from Maine, Sen. Susan Collins.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.