PORTLAND, Maine — Maine Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe's decision to retire from the Senate caused a scramble Wednesday among potential Democratic and Republican candidates just two weeks before a deadline to qualify for the June primary ballot.
Four Democrats who already announced they're running could be joined by U.S. Reps. Mike Michaud and Chellie Pingree and former Gov. John Baldacci, all of whom are weighing a bid for the open seat. If Pingree and Michaud both run, that would leave three of Maine's four congressional seats up for grabs.
Secretary of State Charlie Summers and Maine Senate President Kevin Raye could join the Republican race. Former independent Gov. Angus King and former independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler also were weighing runs.
"Everybody who has any ambition will look at it and ask if this is the time," said Sandy Maisel, director of the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs at Colby College.
The deadline was weighing on all candidates, who would have to submit 2,000 signatures to the secretary of state's office by March 15 to qualify for the ballot.
Maine Gov. Paul LePage has no plans to extend the deadline but would consider it if legislators introduced a bill to change the statutory deadline to give candidates more time, Adrienne Bennett, his spokeswoman, said from Augusta.
Snowe's surprise announcement creates one of the best opportunities nationwide for Democrats in a race in which Snowe was considered a safe bet to win another six-year term. Democrats are struggling to retain control of the Senate with a 51-47 majority that includes two independents who caucus with them.
By Wednesday afternoon, less than 24 hours after Snowe's announcement, Pingree was already collecting signatures, while Michaud and Baldacci picked up petitions from the secretary of state's office, the first step to collecting signatures.
"It's an amazing opportunity because I don't think there's any denying that everyone figured it would go to Snowe. Now the favorability is on the side of Democrats," said Lizzy Reinholt, spokeswoman for the Maine Democratic Party. She said the party supports all Democratic candidates who choose to run.
Four Democrats, state Rep. Jon Hinck, state Sen. Cynthia Dill, former Secretary of State Matthew and Portland home builder Ben Pollard all announced they were running in the Democratic Senate primary before Snowe's announcement. Another Democrat, former U.S. Rep. Tom Allen, said Wednesday that he had no interest in running.
Cutler, for his part, is a former Democrat but he told The Associated Press that if he runs, he'd do it as an independent.
Also considering a bid was King, another independent. He said he'll decide within a few days even though independents aren't bound by the March 15 deadline.
"I'm giving it some thought for the very reason that Olympia quit. It's just not working down there and maybe we need to try something different," King said Wednesday. "We have serious problems in this country but we can't begin to solve them until we solve this shrill deadlock."
On the Republican side, Scott D'Amboise, a small-business owner who ran unsuccessfully for U.S. House in 2006, could be joined by Summers or Raye, or both. Another Republican, tea party activist Andrew Ian Dodge, dropped out of the primary, opting to run as an independent.
There also were a plethora of potential candidates for Congress if Pingree or Michaud opt to run for Senate. All told, 10 potential candidates for House dropped by the secretary of state's office to pick up petitions, including Dill and Hinck, who were prepared to drop their Senate bids to run for the House.
Snowe, a moderate who was popular with Democrats and Republicans, made no secret Tuesday of the fact she's frustrated as excessive partisanship and gridlock.
Facing her first primary fight in 33 years in Congress, Snowe pointed to her Greek heritage in describing herself as a Spartan who relishes a fight but questioned whether she could've been effective over a fourth six-year term as a moderate in chamber where increasingly strident conservative and liberal ideologies have left less room for a centrist like Snowe to maneuver in the middle.
"Unfortunately, I do not realistically expect the partisanship of recent years in the Senate to change over the short term," she said.
Snowe, 65, said she felt that she would have easily won re-election and many political observers including Maisel agreed with her assessment. She had built a strong organization and had $3.3 million in her campaign account at the end of last year.
Associated Press writer Clarke Canfield in Portland, Maine, contributed to this report.