Snowe Cites Partisanship in Congress for Retirement Decision

Republican U.S. Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine cited frustration with Congress’s partisanship for her decision not to seek re-election in November, an action that hampers her party’s chances to seize control of the chamber in November.

Snowe, a three-term senator who at times votes with Democrats, said in a statement that she doubts another six-year term would yield results. She said her health is good and she had been prepared to win. Her announcement yesterday came two weeks before a March 15 filing deadline for candidates, with the primary election set for June 12.

“With my Spartan ancestry I am a fighter at heart; and I am well prepared for the electoral battle, so that is not the issue,” said Snowe, the first Greek-American woman elected to Congress. “However, what I have had to consider is how productive an additional term would be. Unfortunately, I do not realistically expect the partisanship of recent years in the Senate to change over the short term.”

Snowe’s decision brings to 10 the number of senators who plan to retire after this year, seven of them Democrats. Democrats control the Senate, 53-47, and Snowe’s retirement will complicate Republican efforts to win a majority.

“Putting a Republican seat in play is not what they needed; this makes it harder,” said Jennifer Duffy, Senate editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “But we have to see how this shakes out.”

Bob Kerrey

Snowe’s decision adds to a week of potential shake-ups in the battle for control of the Senate. As early as today, former Nebraska senator and governor Bob Kerrey, a Democrat, plans to announce whether he will run for the state’s open Senate seat. Republicans have been favored to take the seat of retiring Democratic Senator Ben Nelson, though a Kerrey run could change that.

While Republicans have made gains in Maine, as underscored by Republican Governor Paul LePage’s win in 2010, the state leans Democratic. President Barack Obama won Maine in the 2008 election with 58 percent of the vote, his 11th-best showing among the 50 states.

Senator John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 3 Senate Republican leader, said Snowe’s surprise announcement hinders the party’s drive for a majority, though he insisted the goal is still within reach. The party needs to gain three seats to govern the Senate if a Republican wins the White House, providing a Republican vice president who would be a tie-breaking vote in a 50-50 Senate.

‘Heavy Lift’

“I think we knew that it would be a heavy lift to start with, but realistically it’s another state that’s going to be a competitive state,” Thune said. “And it’s one that we’re going to have to pay a lot more attention to and spend probably a lot more resources on to try and retain it.”

Snowe, 65, has been a target of the anti-spending Tea Party and had drawn a primary challenger from the movement, businessman Scott D’Amboise. Tea Party activists were angered that she voted with Democrats on the bank bailout, Obama’s economic stimulus and other issues. She was the only Senate Finance Committee Republican to back the president’s health-care overhaul, although she opposed the final bill.

Favored to Win

Still, she was heavily favored to win her primary and the general election in November. She was endorsed by LePage and had $3.4 million to spend on her race at the end of December. No other declared candidate in either party had more than $135,000 cash on hand, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington group that tracks political spending.

Tea Party-related groups, including the Tea Party Express and FreedomWorks, had decided to turn their attention to two other Republican incumbents they want to defeat in this year’s primaries: Richard Lugar of Indiana and Orrin Hatch of Utah.

Democrats already in the Maine Senate race include Matt Dunlap, former secretary of state, and state Representative Jon Hinck. Duffy of the Cook Report said Snowe’s decision may encourage others who had declined to run to reconsider, including Democratic U.S. Representative Chellie Pingree and Republican state Treasurer Bruce Poliquin.

Snowe served in both chambers of Maine’s legislature before moving to Congress. She was a member of the U.S. Senate and House for a combined 33 years, making her the third-longest-serving woman in congressional history.

Praise From Obama

President Barack Obama yesterday praised Snowe’s service. Her career “demonstrates how much can be accomplished when leaders from both parties come together to do the right thing for the American people,” the Democratic president said in an e-mailed statement.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called Snowe a “tireless advocate” for her home state, small businesses and the military.

“Olympia’s colleagues have no doubt that she will add much to that record after leaving the Senate at the end of this year,” the Kentucky Republican said in a statement.

Snowe has long been viewed as a bipartisan consensus-seeker, and that continued after the Tea Party movement eyed her seat. Only Senator Susan Collins, her Maine Republican colleague, voted with Democrats more often in 2011, according to ratings released last week by National Journal.

‘Devastated’ About Decision

“I am absolutely devastated to learn that Olympia has decided not to seek re-election to the United States Senate,” Collins said in a statement yesterday. Collins has served alongside Snowe since 1997.

Snowe is a member of the Finance and Commerce panels, and is the top Republican on the Small Business Committee.

In an interview this month, Snowe expressed frustration with Congress’s inability to pass a tax overhaul at a time of economic uncertainty. She said she advised Obama to make it a top priority when he took office in 2009.

“It would have been another fundamental that would have been tackled in a way that would have provided certainty,” she said. “We are in an unusually heightened state of economic policy uncertainty. I am concerned about where we are today in the whole tax code. Why can’t we do it this year? We’ve had so many hearings this year.”

She cited the “polarizing environment” as the reason.

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