PORTLAND, Maine — In a surprise announcement, moderate GOP Sen. Olympia Snowe said Tuesday she would abandon her campaign for a fourth term — a contest she was expected to win easily — because she is frustrated by a polarized atmosphere in Washington.
The move dealt an immediate blow to Republicans hoping to take control of the Senate in November by giving Democrats new hope of winning the longtime GOP-held seat.
"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."
The news came as a surprise to officials in both national parties. Snowe, 65, 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 had earned a reputation as an independent voice in the polarized Senate, but had voiced frustration with the sharp partisanship and gridlock that has come to characterize the upper chamber in recent years. 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. But under pressure from fellow Republicans, she voted with the GOP to oppose the final legislation.
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 Maine Democratic Party was also caught off guard by Snowe's announcement, which 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.
"This is a total game changer. It elevates this race to a top-tier race in the nation," said Ben Grant, the state Democratic Party chairman. "Obviously, this is going to cause a great deal of turmoil in the Maine political scene."
Already there were three Democrats running for Snowe's seat, a group led by former Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap. But the sudden vacancy means Democrats in both Maine and Washington may look for a stronger challenger.
Candidates have only until March 15 to collect the 2,000 signatures necessary to qualify for the November ballot. Maine Democratic officials Tuesday night plan to speak privately with the state's two Democratic members of Congress, Rep. Mike Michaud and Rep. Chellie Pingree. Neither had previously expressed interest in challenging Snowe, who was popular among Democrats and Republicans, but the vacancy changes everything.
Indeed, despite a disastrous 2010 election, Democrats have traditionally done well at the statewide level. State voters have not supported a Republican in a presidential contest since 1988.
"Maine is now a top pick up opportunity for Senate Democrats," said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Executive Director Guy Cecil.
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. She said in her statement 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" and that she sees opportunities to build support for that change from outside the Senate.
"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."
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. She is married to former Maine Gov. John McKernan.
Snowe was facing her first primary fight this year after cruising to a third term in 2006 with 74 percent of the vote, and 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 now.
"While I would never underestimate the fight ahead in defending any open Senate seat, Republicans remain well-positioned to win back a Senate majority in November," said U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Associated Press Writers Steve Peoples, Donna Cassata and Andrew Miga in Washington contributed to this report.