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Snowe Retirement Launches Political Feeding Frenzy

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

A competitive race is suddenly brewing in the State of Maine. That's after long-time Republican Senator Olympia Snowe dropped a political bombshell yesterday, that she will not seek re-election this November. Would-be candidates, who have long-coveted her seat, are jumping at the chance.

Susan Sharon of Maine Public Radio has that story.

SUSAN SHARON, BYLINE: After 33 years in Congress, Maine Senator Olympia Snowe says she's fed up with the my-way-or-the-highway ideology in government and politics. In an interview with MSNBC this is how Snowe described the current climate in Washington.

SENATOR OLYMPIA SNOWE: And that's the point: We're not working out issues anymore. We're working in a parallel universe with competing proposals, up or down votes.

SHARON: At one of Snowe's favorite spots near her hometown, lunchtime customers at Simones Hot Dog Stand in Lewiston say they can't blame her for calling it quits.

PETER JENSEN: She strikes me as someone who has given her all. And she's, I think, she has every right to be tired. She has every right to relax.

SHARON: Republican Peter Jenson of South Paris says he wasn't planning to vote for Snowe. But Jenson has respect for a woman who was the first to serve in both houses of a state legislature, and both branches of Congress. And so does longtime Snowe supporter Peter Robinson of Lewiston.

PETER ROBINSON: I think Olympia Snowe was the smartest person in Congress.

SHARON: Robinson says he remembers former Maine Senator William Cohen describe similar frustrations with Congress nearly two decades ago. Since then, Robinson says the challenge for someone like Snowe has only gotten worse. In recent years, Snowe has reached across the aisle to pass the stimulus and the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

ROBINSON: You got to have brains and she was smart. Not the smartest woman, just the smartest person. And this state will be hard-pressed to find anybody to replace her.

SHARON: Shortly after Snowe's announcement, would-be Senate candidates of every political persuasion began mulling over their options and speculating about who might run for her seat. Former Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap is one of four Democrats who had previously thrown his hat in the ring. But now, Dunlap says the floodgates have opened.

MATT DUNLAP: Right now, the field consists of everyone from, you know, Chellie Pingree and Mike Michaud to Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy.

SHARON: Both Democrats, Maine Congresswoman Chellie Pingree and Congressman Mike Michaud have already begun collecting the necessary 2,000 signatures to pursue a Senate run. They, along with other candidates, have just two weeks to meet the deadline to qualify for the ballot.

Maine Democratic Party chair Ben Grant says he's optimistic about Democrats' chances for winning Snowe's seat.

BEN GRANT: If you sort of compare the state of candidates in the Republican Party in Maine versus that in the Democratic Party, we're in a much stronger position to have a top-tier candidate emerge to run for this open seat. She really did leave them without a lot of options.

SHARON: That's because, minus Snowe, the Maine GOP has no top-of-the-ticket elected leaders who are poised to run. Snowe's Republican Senate colleague Susan Collins says she's devastated by Snowe's decision. Without her fellow moderate to back her up, Collins says she thinks her own job will also become tougher.

For NPR News, I'm Susan Sharon in Lewiston, Maine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Deputy News Director Susan Sharon is a reporter and editor whose on-air career in public radio began as a student at the University of Montana. Early on, she also worked in commercial television doing a variety of jobs. Susan first came to Maine Public Radio as a State House reporter whose reporting focused on politics, labor and the environment. More recently she's been covering corrections, social justice and human interest stories. Her work, which has been recognized by SPJ, SEJ, PRNDI and the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, has taken her all around the state — deep into the woods, to remote lakes and ponds, to farms and factories and to the Maine State Prison. Over the past two decades, she's contributed more than 100 stories to NPR.