Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe’s surprise retirement announcement Tuesday blindsided fellow Republicans and gave Democrats another morale boost when it comes to their prospects for holding the majority this fall.
Her decision to forgo what would have been an easy re-election campaign is also the latest blow to moderates in the chamber — specifically Northeastern Republicans — whose ranks have been dwindling.
GOP sources said Snowe’s decision caught party leaders completely flat-footed. She did not inform Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) of the news until Tuesday afternoon.
“I am absolutely devastated to learn that Olympia has decided not to seek re-election,” Maine Sen. Susan Collins, a fellow GOP moderate, said in a statement.
Senate Republican aides were also stunned by the retirement, citing her love of the institution and prime position to take the head of the powerful Commerce Committee if the GOP regained the majority next Congress.
But sources suggested there had been hints of Snowe’s disenchantment with the direction of the Republican Party that tell the story of the moderate’s abrupt departure.
“I think she just doesn’t fit this place anymore,” one Republican aide said. “She’s, in a lot of ways, a very introverted person, and she doesn’t have a lot of people around who she used to be close with. Who is she there with, who does she have connections with?”
The aide continued: “She’s not exactly been a Senator who’s fit in or tried really hard to fit in with her colleagues in the Conference, which is very different from Sen. Collins.”
The ranks of Republican moderates in the Senate have been hit hard in recent cycles by retirements and primary losses. If Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown (R) loses his re-election bid to Democrat Elizabeth Warren, the Snowe retirement means Collins and Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) could be the only Senate Republicans left from the Northeast next year.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a fellow New Englander, said Tuesday he was “surprised” and saddened to hear of Snowe’s announcement.
“I knew Olympia Snowe when we served together in the House, and I think she is one of the most respected Members of the Senate and surely is one of the very last of the Republican moderates,” Sanders said just off the Senate floor.
Snowe was extraordinarily valuable to Democrats during the 111th Congress, when she supported multiple extensions of unemployment benefits, Wall Street reform and worked extensively in the Finance Committee to write what ultimately would become the Democrats’ signature health care law.
Snowe had hired Justin Brasell, a top Republican operative who ran McConnell’s last campaign, to manage her race, and she had $3.4 million in the bank. By all accounts, sources said, Snowe was all systems go.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.