LEWISTON — Twin Cities Republicans were stunned Tuesday to learn that Maine's senior U.S. senator, who was raised in Auburn, won't run for a fourth term.
The late-afternoon news shocked even the most plugged-in GOP activists in mid-Maine.
Jimmy Simones, owner of Simones' Hot Dog Stand, a stopover must for any candidate on the campaign trail, said he had "no indication whatsoever" that Snowe planned to leave Congress.
"It just caught a lot of people off guard," he said.
Snowe lived in Auburn and attended high school there. She moved from Augusta when her parents died. She came to live with her aunt and uncle in Auburn, who raised her with their five children then sent her off to the University of Maine at Orono, where she majored in political science.
After her late husband, Peter Snowe, died in a car accident while serving in the Maine Legislature, Snowe ran for his seat and won. The rest of the story marks the history of the winningest elected politician in Maine since 1946: two terms in the Maine House; one term in the Maine Senate; eight terms in the U.S. House and three terms in the U.S. Senate.
Snowe said in a statement released late Tuesday afternoon that she was frustrated by the "atmosphere of polarization and 'my way or the highway' ideologies has become pervasive in campaigns and in our governing institutions."
Simones said he understood.
"I think she may have just had enough," he said.
There was no mention of Snowe's pending announcement at the monthly Androscoggin County Republican meeting Monday night, Simones said.
"There was no indication of anything going on at all," he said. "And everyone was there," he said. "It was like, 'Wow!'"
Retired Bates College political science professor Douglas Hodgkin said Snowe's announcement came as a surprise but might have been signaled by recent actions. She had been expected at the Androscoggin County Republican caucus earlier this month, but she didn't come. And she declined an invitation to the upcoming annual Androscoggin County Republicans' Lincoln Day Dinner. Most officials seeking re-election attend the event.
Hodgkin, a member of city and county Republican committees in Lewiston, and a delegate from Lewiston to the state convention, said Snowe's decision leaves only a few weeks for candidates who might vie for her seat to collect signatures. Those who have campaign organizations already in place, such as candidates who have declared in other races, likely would have an advantage.
Georgia Chomas, one of Snowe's cousins who lives in Auburn, said she is certain Snowe will do what she can to help GOP candidates get on the ballot to challenge for her seat.
Chomas said she had been looking forward to working on the re-election campaign of the woman who grew up in her home and is like a sister to her. Chomas said she's worked on every campaign Snowe has launched over her undefeated political career.
"We thought she would be our candidate," Chomas said Tuesday. She said Snowe would be hard to replace.
Chomas said she had mixed emotions about Snowe's retirement from Congress. Maine and the nation are losing a devoted public servant who champions women's causes and has empathy for all of her constituents, Chomas said. But she's happy that Snowe will have more time to spend with her husband, former Maine Gov. John "Jock" McKernan.
"I did see her so happy in the Senate until the last year or two," Chomas said. Snowe's recent 65th birthday, coupled with recent deaths of family members, has caused Snowe to reflect on her life, Chomas said. Although Snowe wouldn't be on the national political stage, Chomas said she has no doubt Snowe's next chapter will continue to involve helping people.
Chomas said Tuesday's announcement wasn't exactly news to her. She and Snowe had talked recently, she said. "You can't be family to someone and not know."
1947: Born Feb. 21 in Augusta.
1957: Moves to Auburn, attends Edward Little High School, after her mother dies of breast cancer and her father dies of heart disease.
1969: Snowe enrolls at the University of Maine at Orono, where she earns a degree in political science.
1973: Husband Peter Snowe dies in a car crash. Snowe runs for her late husband's seat in the Maine House of Representatives and wins.
1974: Re-elected to the Maine House.
1976: Wins election to the Maine Senate representing Androscoggin County.
1978: Elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. At the age of 31, Olympia Snowe is the youngest Republican woman and the first Greek-American woman elected to Congress.
1989: Marries Maine Gov. John "Jock" McKernan.
1991: Son Peter McKernan dies of a heart ailment at age 20.
1994: Runs for seat vacated by Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell. Snowe wins, carrying every county in the state.
1998: Receives honorary degree from Bates College in Lewiston.
2000: Easily re-elected over State Senate President Mark Lawrence.
2001: Becomes the first Republican woman to secure a full-term seat on the Senate Finance Committee.
2005: Named the 54th most powerful woman in the world by Forbes magazine.
2006: Named by Time Magazine as one of the "10 Best Senators."
2006: Snowe honored with a residence named after her at Opportunity Farm for Boys and Girls in New Gloucester.
2008: World's tallest snow woman, 122-foot, 1-inch sculpture built in Bethel, is officially dubbed Olympia SnowWoman in the senator's honor.
2012: Announces she will not seek re-election.