Her decision leaves Republicans scrambling, with only two weeks to go before the March 15 filing deadline. One GOP consultant familiar with Maine described the situation as “mass chaos.”
“On the Republican side, they don’t really have anyone in waiting, so this is a thunderclap,” Maine Republican strategist Christian Potholm said. “But I think the Republican establishment and Republican forces will certainly not leave that race uncontested.”
Republican names being floated immediately after Snowe’s announcement included former gubernatorial candidate and Ambassador Peter Cianchette; ex-state House GOP Leader Josh Tardy; University of Maine Athletic Director Steve Abbott; state Treasurer Bruce Poliquin; and state Attorney General Bill Schneider. Scott D’Amboise was a long-shot candidate already running for the GOP nomination.
Cornyn still sounded optimistic that the party could net the four seats needed to take control of the chamber.
“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,” Cornyn said in a statement.
The most prominent declared Democratic candidate is former Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap. He officially announced his candidacy in December.
But with Snowe out, all eyes are on Reps. Chellie Pingree and Mike Michaud to run for the Democratic nomination. Pingree, a two-term Congresswoman, unsuccessfully challenged Collins in 2002.
“In the coming days, I will carefully consider how I can best serve the people of Maine,” Pingree said in a statement, adding that she called Snowe on Tuesday.
Michaud said in a statement that he is seriously considering running as well.
Other Democratic names mentioned include Pingree’s daughter, former state Speaker Hannah Pingree and former Rep. Tom Allen, who lost to Collins in 2008.
“As we said from day one, unexpected opportunities will emerge, and the DSCC will be in a position to seize on these opportunities,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Executive Director Guy Cecil said in a statement. “Maine is now a top pickup opportunity for Senate Democrats.”
Independent candidates are also seriously in the mix, including former gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler and former Gov. Angus King. King remains popular in Maine, and Cutler nearly beat Gov. Paul LePage (R) in 2010. Both would have campaign apparatuses at the ready, should they decide to pull the trigger on a Senate bid.
In her statement, Snowe said her decision was not about electoral fears, but about Washington partisanship.
In 2010, several moderate Republicans lost primaries to tea-party-backed challengers. After the midterms, Snowe topped tea party lists of potential targets. But LePage quickly endorsed her and essentially inoculated her from a challenge from the right. The two share a long personal history.
LePage was described as being “saddened” by the news.
Snowe was a political superstar in her home state. She never won a Senate race with less than 60 percent of the vote, and she won her last race in 2006 with 74 percent of the vote.
Kyle Trygstad, Joshua Miller and Shira Toeplitz contributed to this report.