WASHINGTON -- With Sen. Olympia Snowe's (R-Maine) announcement that she is not running for reelection, the Republican Party is losing one of its few remaining pro-choice voices in the U.S. Congress. Indeed, her decision came right in the middle of her party's push on issues of abortion and contraception access, and her absence may further polarize choice issues.
In her statement about her retirement plans, Snowe did not specifically mention the Republican Party's renewed focus on women's issues in recent weeks, but she did decry the "partisanship" in politics.
"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," she said.
There's no doubt, however, that she disagreed with the GOP leadership's push to restrict abortion access.
Snowe is pro-choice. Last year, Snowe scored only 45 percent for her record on choice, according to NARAL Pro-Choice America, but in the past she has scored 100 percent. She is consistently one of the most pro-choice members of the Republican caucus.
"I've found her to be thoughtful, intelligent and oftentimes very courageous on this issue," said Donna Crane, policy director at NARAL. "She's been a wonderful, independent voice and champion on the choice issue in a climate that's been harder and harder for her and people like her."
Most recently, she broke with most of her Republican colleagues and backed President Obama's compromise on contraception coverage by religiously affiliated employers.
In November, she told The Huffington Post that she did not agree with the efforts of the House GOP to defund Planned Parenthood and would have preferred to see a stronger focus on jobs and the economy from both parties.
"It's not where I would be, obviously, in my own positions," she said of the anti-Planned Parenthood campaign. "I think that's unfortunate. What we ought to be focusing on is how we're going to build the economy. In my perspective as a ranking member of the Small Business Committee, women-owned business is the fastest-growing segment of the economy, and I see it everywhere, certainly in my state of Maine. That's what we ought to be focusing on, is developing those skills."
Snowe and her fellow GOP senator from Maine, Susan Collins, come from a moderate Republican tradition in the state. Perhaps the most famous figure is Margaret Chase Smith, who served as one of Maine's U.S. senators from 1949-1973, and was the first woman to serve in both chambers of Congress. Most memorably, she gave a "Declaration of Conscience" speech that denounced McCarthyism.
There is a chance that Snowe's seat could go to a pro-choice Democrat. But Kellie Ferguson, executive director of Republican Majority for Choice, argued that the pro-choice cause will suffer by having fewer allies on both sides of aisle. She pointed to Sens. Collins, Scott Brown (R-Mass.), Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) as the only remaining pro-choice voices in the Senate.
"The issue of choice suffers if there's no bipartisan support," Ferguson said. "I think a strategy of saying, 'The Democratic Party leadership tends to be better on choice than the Republican Party leadership' is a huge mistake. We've seen that politics is cyclical, and we have to have a base of support for choice within both parties. ... Pro-choice voters and pro-choice organizations focusing just on supporting Democrats is doing a disservice to the issue overall. We need a strong base of support from both parties."
Crane has been at NARAL for 12 years and grew up in a pro-choice Republican household. She said her parents believed that a limited government meant limiting its role in the personal lives of women.
"I think here that the pro-choice value is one that should be embraced broadly by Republican lawmakers. In fact, if you look at the public, there are lots and lots and lots of pro-choice Republican people, and their elected officials don't represent them any more. It's really been an unfortunate development," she said.
There are just 17 women in the U.S. Senate. Six female senators are up for reelection this year, and all of them are Democrats. Snowe and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) are retiring.
Several other pro-choice Democratic women -- including Rep. Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin, Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts, Rep. Mazie Hirono in Hawaii and Rep. Shelley Berkley in Nevada -- are presumed to be their party's Senate nominees or have commanding leads in their primaries. On the GOP side, Linda Lingle in Hawaii is pro-choice and set to be the GOP candidate in the race. In Connecticut, Linda McMahon is leading and considers herself pro-choice (but with caveats). Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.) also has a strong lead in her primary. She has said she believes "abortion is morally wrong almost all of the time," but also opposed a constitutional amendment banning abortion and supports a woman's to choose in cases of rape, incest and when her own life is at risk.
Ferguson said that Snowe's statement about the "my way or the highway" atmosphere in Congress clearly "points to the pressure within the Republican Party to toe the party line" -- including on issues of choice.
"It certainly is the atmosphere on Capitol Hill that limiting the right to choose and putting further restrictions on decisions that women and families make when it comes to reproductive health -- it is a priority for the Republican Party," Ferguson said. "I think there's no doubt that pro-choice Republicans are in a difficult position. Sen. Snowe has been willing to stand up for her views, regardless of what it means within the caucus. She stands up for limited government across the board, not limited government just when it comes to fiscal policy, but also when it comes to social policy."
Snowe's office did not return a request for additional comment.