Sabato's Crystal Ball

Snowepocalypse Greatly Harms Republican Chances of Senate Takeover

UVA Center for Politics March 1st, 2012

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And just when we thought we weren’t going to have any big Snowe storms this year, the decision by…

Eh, enough with the Snowe puns.

Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) shockingly announced her retirement on Tuesday night, which greatly frustrates Republican efforts to win back the Senate. This was a race that Snowe almost certainly would have won: She and her moderate Republican colleague, Sen. Susan Collins, are institutions not only in the U.S. Senate, but also in the Pine Tree State. Despite grumbles to her left and right, Snowe would have been very difficult to defeat in a primary or general election.

We previously rated Maine’s Senate race as “likely Republican” — now, without knowing for sure who will run, we’re swinging the state to LEANS DEMOCRATIC. Maine is a heavily Democratic state at the presidential level — it went for President Obama by 17 points in 2008 — and in this polarized era, we would expect the state’s blue tint to trickle down to its open Senate seat.

The top candidates for the Democrats would likely be one of the state’s two House representatives, Chellie Pingree or Mike Michaud, and former two-term Gov. John Baldacci is also weighing a run. Republicans don’t have as deep of a bench, but state Senate President Kevin Raye, who is currently challenging Michaud in the House, might be a decent candidate. Perhaps independent attorney Eliot Cutler will make another statewide run after narrowly losing to Republican Gov. Paul LePage in 2010, and a three-way race could complicate things tremendously. We’ll know soon who is running; the state’s filing deadline is March 15, unless that deadline is pushed back, which is possible.

Maine is now the Democrats’ top opportunity to win a Republican-held Senate seat, better even than Massachusetts, where Democrat Elizabeth Warren is challenging Republican Sen. Scott Brown in a titanic struggle, and Nevada, where appointed Republican Sen. Dean Heller faces a stern challenge from Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley. We recently switched Nevada to a TOSS UP, and Massachusetts has been a toss up in our ratings for some time. This gives Democrats another prime opportunity to play offense while they are defending many vulnerable seats across the country. The Senate is too close to call, but Harry Reid has a much better chance of remaining Senate majority leader today than he did at the start of the week. However, we suspect that the race for control of the Senate has many more twists and turns to go.