PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Whenever politicians leave office, they can't take any leftover campaign money with them. Sen. Olympia Snowe, who's leaving the Senate amid frustrations over partisan polarization, is giving her first hints at what she'd do with more than $2 million left her campaign's bank account.
Snowe, who abruptly announced on Feb. 28 that she wouldn't seek a fourth term, is telling her supporters that she might create organizations aimed at promoting centrist views and consensus-building in Congress, and raising the aspirations of women in her home state.
It's a big decision.
Former Sen. George Mitchell, who declined to seek re-election in 1994, counts as his greatest legacy a scholarship fund that he launched with unspent campaign funds. He views it as a bigger accomplishment than his work to promote peace in Northern Ireland and the Middle East.
"It's the most important thing I've done," Mitchell told The Associated Press.
Snowe is facing the same choice over what to do with her campaign money — about $2.6 million.
Some of her ideas include establishing a center aimed at creating support for the "sensible center" in politics and to give a boost to future female leaders.
"We've made no final decisions, but I'm giving serious thought to creating both a center to encourage consensus-building as well as an entity to help raise the aspirations of young Maine women," Snowe wrote in a letter to supporters last week. She also might spend some of the money to support like-minded candidates, she said. Some of the money could be returned to donors, as well.
Federal election law required Snowe to return $700,000 in donations for the general election. By law, the remainder can be for political purposes, including donating to candidates, or for approved charities. It also can be used to set up a political action committee.
Sharon Miller, a longtime friend and adviser to Snowe, said the senator has made no concrete decisions. Any formal decision, Miller said, will have to wait until Snowe leaves office.
There's no rush.
Some candidates leave their campaign committees open for months, or even years.
For Mitchell, he had $2 million in money set aside for his campaign when he decided not to seek re-election. He wrote a letter to his campaign donors offering to give back the money, and he ended up returning about half of the money to donors.
He used the remaining $1 million to create the Mitchell Institute to oversee his scholarship fund. He said he was inspired after visiting each of Maine's high schools as U.S. senator, as well as by his own story. Mitchell's father was a janitor and Mitchell worked his way through Bowdoin College.
Mitchell said he doesn't want to suggest what Snowe does with her money.
Across the country, candidates have used money for charitable causes, candidates and to further party interests.
In her letter, Snowe said she wants to use it to restore the political middle. "My intention is to use whatever campaign funds remain after meeting our obligations to give a national voice ... to restore the sensible center in Washington, so the government can once again govern," she said.
Snowe, who didn't respond to an interview request on Wednesday, said she'd also like to lift the aspirations of young women "to instill in them the need to become problem solvers, community leaders and consensus builders."