AUGUSTA — Republican U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe’s sudden withdrawal from her re-election bid touched off a mad scramble Wednesday by potential candidates angling to take her place.

The frenzy was dominated by Democrats, who in the span of hours saw a virtually unwinnable contest against the incumbent Snowe transform into a free-for-all. The party’s biggest names rushed to file petition papers, the first step toward making an official run.  

U.S. Reps. Michael Michaud and Chellie Pingree, both Maine Democrats, as well as former Democratic Gov. John Baldacci will begin collecting signatures in preparation for the March 15 filing deadline to get on the primary ballot.

As of Wednesday evening, no Republican had taken out nomination papers. However, Secretary of State Charlie Summers and Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry, said they were considering a run at Snowe’s seat. 

The decision will be particularly difficult for Raye, who is already running for the 2nd Congressional District seat, and who is considered to have an excellent chance of unseating Michaud. Michaud’s move to the Senate race could increase Raye’s chances of winning, but he may also be the strongest candidate to help national Republicans retain Snowe’s seat in the Senate. 

Former independent Gov. Angus King also is considering a run, he told the Sun Journal. A spokesman for former gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler said he hadn’t closed the door.

Michaud and Pingree both said they are “strongly” considering getting in the race.

If they do — and it appears they will — the state’s two U.S. House races will see new faces, and new favorites. Ten candidates took out nomination papers Wednesday and rumors swirled of several more. 

Of the 10 officially gathering signatures, seven are targeting the 1st District seat. Only two are Republicans, including state Senate Majority Leader Jonathan Courtney of Springvale. The other is Markham Gartley, a former Democrat who in 1978 lost to Snowe during the race for the 2nd District seat. 

Another Republican, Patrick Calder, has already entered the race. 

The list is longer for Democrats in the 1st District. State Sen. Cynthia Dill of Cape Elizabeth and state Rep. Jon Hinck of Portland, who had planned to run against Snowe, quickly took out papers to run for Pingree’s seat. 

Democrat Matt Dunlap said he would continue his bid for Snowe’s seat, at least for now. 

“I’m not going to leap from rock to rock because of all this,” he said. “I didn’t get into this to get a big, fancy job, I got in it to help people.”

Snowe’s would-be primary challenger Scott D’Amboise also plans to stay in the Senate race. 

Other Democrats in the 1st District race include former Secretary of State David Lemoine, Wellington Lyons and David Costa. 

More names were still in the mix, including Chellie Pingree’s daughter, Hannah Pingree, the former Democratic State House Speaker. Adam Cote, who finished second to Chellie Pingree in the 2008 Democratic primary for the 1st District seat, was also rumored to be gathering signatures. 

The 2nd District was less frantic. Assistant Senate Majority Leader Deborah Plowman, R-Hampden, took out papers, as did House Minority Leader Emily Cain, D-Orono. Former Democratic state Rep. Bruce Bryant of Dixfield is also considering a run. 

Although the list of potential candidates seeking congressional seats has multiplied, the field could shrink quickly by the March 15 deadline to gather signatures. Republican and Democratic Senate candidates have to turn in 2,000 signatures to qualify for the primary; representatives have to submit 1,000 signatures. 

Independent senatorial candidates have until June 1 to gather 4,000 signatures. Former Republican Andrew Ian Dodge will be among the independents attempting to meet that deadline.

Dunlap, a former secretary of state, said gathering the requisite signatures would not be easy for many candidates. Dunlap also noted the mad dash of those seeking to capitalize on Snowe’s departure.

“It’s like a glacier suddenly melted and we have a field of rocks to deal with,” he said. 

Pingree said running for the Senate wasn’t something she’d considered until Snowe decided to bow out. However, she said, Snowe’s departure and the outpouring of progressive groups urging her to run underscored the significance of the race.

 “I think people are seeing how important it is push back against this right-wing agenda in Washington,” she said, adding that Republicans were advancing disastrous energy policies and taking away women’s reproductive rights.

Pingree dismissed the idea that her progressive politics might not resonate with voters in the 2nd Congressional District. 

“Sometimes people talk about the 2nd District as if it’s the other side of the Berlin Wall,” she said. “… But there are so many issues that are important to all of us. It has nothing to do with north, south, rural, urban. I’m very comfortable trying to gather support from all types of voters.” 

In a related matter, contrary to previous reports, Gov. Paul LePage will not seek to extend the deadline for candidates to confirm their candidacies.

Dan Billings, LePage’s chief legal counsel, said stories reporting that the governor was considering it did not originate from the Governor’s Office.

Extending the deadline would require a statutory change and an emergency, two-thirds vote by the Legislature. 

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