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Maine senator’s retirement could benefit Harry Reid

Retirement of Olympia Snowe leaves open a seat that could go to a Democrat and help Reid retain majority leadership


AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari

Sen. Olympia Snowe speaks with reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Dec. 10, 2009.

Longtime Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine announced late Tuesday that she had decided to retire from her seat effective the end of 2012, putting back in play a seat that had for years been safely red but which this year stands a better chance of going blue.

It’s a huge break for Sen. Harry Reid, who is facing tough odds to keep Democrats in control of the Senate and retain his majority leadership.

"After an extraordinary amount of reflection and consideration, I am announcing today that I will not be a candidate for re-election to the United States Senate," Snowe said in a prepared statement published on the website of her now-suspended campaign.

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Sen. Harry Reid speaks to community members attending the 2012 Democratic Caucus Saturday, Jan. 21, 2012, at Cheyenne High School.

Snowe is not leaving for any of the usual reasons: age, health, spending more time with her family. She’s leaving, she said, because she’s tired of working in the increasingly polarized culture of Washington.

“What motivates me is producing results for those who have entrusted me to be their voice and their champion,” Snowe said in her statement. “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.

“I am a fighter at heart, and I am well prepared for the electoral battle, so that is not the issue. However, what I have had to consider is how productive an additional term would be,” she continued. “Unfortunately, I do not realistically expect the partisanship of recent years in the Senate to change over the short term. So, at this stage of my tenure in public service, I have concluded that I am not prepared to commit myself to an additional six years in the Senate.”

Snowe, 65, first came to Congress in 1979, serving in the House until 1995, when she began representing Maine in the Senate.

While she has always been a Republican, she has occupied a unique place in the political fabric of Washington, D.C.

Snowe is one of the most moderate Republicans in the Senate — in fact the only serving Republican senator more centrist than Snowe is her counterpart, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine.

Snowe's centrism has not made her a powerbroker in the ranks of the GOP, but it has made her one of Reid’s most likely allies in the Senate. For example, she voted in favor of the Dodd-Frank financial overhaul bill that has become a whipping post for Republicans wanting to dismantle the regulations it put on banks and even supported the Democrats' health care bill in committee (the only Republican to do so, she later voted with the GOP against the bill on the floor).

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Sen. Susan Collins

To some degree, Snowe's brand of moderate Republicanism was a byproduct of being from New England: while the region sometimes sends Republican representatives to Washington, it is, overall, a fairly liberal corner of the country.

That underlying character explains why Snowe’s retirement is a lucky break for Reid.

Maine may have two Republican senators, but the state hasn’t gone red in a presidential year since 1988, when George Bush Sr. was elected.

The bench of Maine Democrats ready to make a bid to succeed Snowe is also politically deeper than the Republican bench: Both sitting congressional representatives are Democrats, as is Tom Allen, who unsuccessfully challenged Collins in 2008. Maine’s current governor, Paul LePage, is a Republican. Its former governor, John Baldacci, is also a Democrat. (Fun tidbit for Nevadans: When Baldacci was a House representative, from 1995 to 2002, he lived in the infamous C Street house, overlapping with John Ensign.)

Democrats currently occupy 51 of the 100 seats in the Senate, though the count is usually registered as 53, because the two Independent senators caucus and usually vote with the Democrats. But 23 of those seats are up for grabs in 2012, as opposed to just 10 of the Republicans’ 47 seats.

Two other Republican senators, Jon Kyl of Arizona and Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, have announced their retirements. But neither is leaving a seat Democrats were favored to win.

Even though Snowe’s departure may open a door for Reid to retain a majority, it also seems to shut a window on bipartisanship making a bold return to Washington.

Snowe’s retirement, coupled with the retirement of Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska — the Senate’s most conservative Democrat — means that two of the three most moderate lawmakers in the body (the third being Collins) will not be in Washington after 2012.

Together, the three of them defined a center, swing vote that often served as a bellwether for the viability of bills over the past few years. They are by no means an official triumvirate: The lawmakers vote against each other more often than they vote in tandem, and oftentimes, when Collins, Snowe and Nelson are on the same side, others join them (Republican Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts, for example, also voted with Democrats on the Dodd-Frank bill).

Without them, the Senate’s center, small as it has been, probably cannot hold. But Snowe hopes a new core springs up elsewhere.

“As I enter a new chapter, I see a vital need for the political center in order for our democracy to flourish and to find solutions that unite rather than divide us,” Snowe said in her statement. “It is time for change in the way we govern, and I believe there are unique opportunities to build support for that change from outside the United States Senate. I intend to help give voice to my fellow citizens who believe, as I do, that we must return to an era of civility in government driven by a common purpose to fulfill the promise that is unique to America.”

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