By Jason McLure
(Reuters) - Senator Olympia Snowe's decision to not seek re-election in November has roiled politics in Maine with both of the state's U.S. House members and at least two former governors considering runs for her seat.
Snowe, a popular pro-choice Republican in her 18th year in the Senate after 16 years in the House, was expected to easily win another term but stunned politicians and the public alike with a Tuesday announcement she would bow out, citing an "atmosphere of polarization" in Congress.
"Olympia Snowe was like a giant dam holding back the waters of Maine politics," said Greg Olson, campaign manager for Democratic Maine Congressman Michael Michaud. "Now it's like a flood with water flowing all over the place."
Michaud, Representative Chellie Pingree and former Governor John Baldacci have all begun petitions to put their names on the Democratic ballot. Maine Senate President Kevin Raye, a former chief of staff to Snowe, is seen as the favorite on the Republican side if he chooses to drop his bid for Michaud's seat in the U.S. House.
Two independents, Eliot Cutler, who narrowly lost a three-way gubernatorial battle in 2010 to Republican Governor Paul LePage, and former Governor Angus King are also considering bids.
Accelerating the scramble is a March 15 deadline for Republican and Democratic candidates to submit 2,000 signatures. Independents have until June.
Some of the major figures are likely to take themselves out of the race by then, said L. Sandy Maisel, a professor of government at Colby College in Waterville, Maine.
"It's very chaotic but I think it will shake out by the middle of next week," Maisel said, adding that Snowe's late announcement may have been designed to help Raye on the Republican side.
Raye, the president of the state senate and owner of an Eastport mustard company, spent 17 years on Snowe's congressional staff and was mounting a strong bid for Michaud's seat. State Treasurer Bruce Poliquin and Secretary of State Charles E. Summers Jr. are also considered Republican possibilities.
Pingree, a liberal favorite who is married to hedge fund magnate S. Donald Sussman, would have an edge in fundraising and could have an advantage in a state with a tradition of electing female U.S. senators. Former Senator Margaret Chase Smith represented Maine for 24 years until 1973 and was the longest-serving woman in the history of the body until Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski broke the record last month. Pingree ran for U.S. Senate unsuccessfully in 2002 against Republican Senator Susan Collins.
Michaud, a former paper mill worker, represents the state's impoverished second district, a 27,000 square mile expanse that stretches from the state's northern border with New Brunswick to the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
Baldacci, now President Obama's military healthcare czar, was governor from 2003 until last January but left office with polls showing less than 40 percent approved of his performance.
Voter turnout in Maine was already expected to be high in November as the ballot will include a referendum on legalizing same-sex marriage in the state.
Separately, in an editorial for the Washington Post on Thursday, Snowe elaborated on her reasons for leaving, saying that in her life after the Senate she sees a critical need to "engender public support for the political center."
She said she would work to reform the Senate from outside the institution.
(Additional reporting by Lily Kuo. Editing By Barbara Goldberg and Eric Walsh)