WASHINGTON — Sen. Olympia Snowe said Tuesday that she won’t run for re-election this fall, drawing the curtain on a storied Maine political career and delivering a blow to national Republican hopes to retake a U.S. Senate majority.

One of a dwindling group of GOP Senate moderates, Snowe said she no longer wanted to serve in an increasingly partisan and polarized Senate.

“As I have long said, what motivates me is producing results for those who have entrusted me to be their voice and their champion,” Snowe said in a prepared statement. “I do find it frustrating, however, however that an atmosphere of polarization and ‘my way or the highway’ ideologies has become pervasive in campaigns and in our governing institutions.”

Snowe stunned top Republican Senate leaders and her own campaign staff Tuesday afternoon when she delivered the news shortly before issuing a press release.

The news that Snowe won’t seek a fourth term set off a political frenzy both in Washington and Maine political circles.

In Washington, national GOP leaders and independent analysts had considered Snowe’s seat safely in Republican hands as the GOP aimed to topple Democrats’ 53-seat Senate majority.

“It gives Democrats another target,” said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington. “It certainly makes getting to 51 seats a little harder for Republicans. The game is not over. It just isn’t what they needed” in the national GOP drive to regain a Senate majority.

Snowe is a political moderate who backs abortion rights and often drew fire from GOP conservatives for casting key votes that helped Democrats pass major legislation.

She was the only Republican on the influential Senate Finance Committee to vote in favor of President Barack Obama’s health care reform bill in 2009, and though Snowe wound up voting against it on the Senate floor many conservatives blame her for the legislation becoming law in 2010.

Snowe was one of just three Republican senators, including fellow Maine Republican Susan Collins, to help Democrats pass the 2010 financial regulatory overhaul bill. She and Collins just last week were rated the two least conservative GOP senators for 2011 by National Journal.

Snowe’s Maine political career has spanned 33 years, beginning in 1973 when she was elected to the Maine House. She went on the Maine Senate and then the U.S. House in 1978 before being elected to the Senate in 1994.

Tragedy and success

Her life has included tragedy along with political success.

Snowe’s mother and father died when she was a young child, and Snowe grew up with and aunt and uncle in Auburn.

Her first husband, Peter Snowe, was killed in a car crash in 1973. He was a Maine House member, and Snowe then ran for his seat.

Snowe married then Maine Republican Gov. John “Jock” McKernan in 1989, and ran for the Senate in 1994 when Democratic Sen. George Mitchell announced his retirement.

Now, national GOP leaders not confident about the ability of the sole Republican left in the Senate race, tea party affiliated candidate Scott D’Amboise of Lisbon Falls, to hold the seat are searching for other options before the March 15 filing deadline.

And in Maine, the four Democrats vying to win their party’s Senate nomination are both celebrating Snowe’s exit as paving a path towards a Democratic victory in the fall and undoubtedly wondering whether more high profile candidates might jump in the race now. Currently running for the Democratic nomination are state Rep. Jon Hinck of Portland, former Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap of Old Town, State Sen. Cynthia Dill of Cape Elizabeth and Portland homebuilder Benjamin Pollard.

“Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe’s surprise retirement announcement on Tuesday dramatically shifts her Maine seat from the ‘safe Republican’ column and places it firmly in the center of the fight for the Senate majority,” said Nathan Gonzales of the nonpartisan Washington-based Rothenberg Political Report.

Snowe faced only nominal opposition from D’Amboise from the right in the GOP primary and national Democrats never viewed Snowe’s seat as a target as they tried to defend at-risk seats in other states and hold on to their majority, Gonzales said.

“But that has all changed now,” Gonzales said. “With just two weeks to go before the March 15 filing deadline, both parties are going back to the drawing board.”

John Baughman, a political science professor at Bates College, called Snowe’s retirement announcement “a gift for the Democrats.”

Baughman said he takes at face value Snowe’s reason for departing from the political stage after a career that began in the Maine Legislature in 1973 and continued on in the U.S. House for eight terms before Snowe won her Senate seat in 1994.

“As one of the very few remaining moderates in the Senate, Sen. Snowe’s vote was pivotal on one major bill after another,” Baughman said. “In an earlier era when there were real negotiations between the parties, that was a position of power and influence for much of her career. Lately, however, the polarization had become so strong that real bipartisan negotiations were rare and difficult (and) at that point, being the pivotal vote between the two camps had become exhausting rather than empowering.”

Doesn’t expect change

Snowe, who turned 65 on Feb. 21, said she and her husband are both in good health and that she was confident of her ability to win a fourth term in the Senate.

“Unfortunately, I do not realistically expect the partisanship of recent years in the Senate to change over the short term,” Snowe said. “So at this stage of my tenure in public service, I have concluded that I am not prepared to commit myself to an additional six years in the Senate, which is what a fourth term would entail.”

Snowe was facing a GOP primary challenge for the first time in her career. While D’Amboise, a health care technician and small-business owner, was not considered by analysts to be a major threat, Snowe was furious last spring when he accused her husband of improper business practices and called on Snowe to resign. She charged D’Amboise with running a smear campaign when he hurled those allegations at her, prompted by the Justice Department filing notice that it would intervene in a whistleblower lawsuit alleging that Education Management Corp. improperly compensated employees who recruit students to the for-profit college company’s institutions.

McKernan is board chairman of Pittsburgh-based Education Management, the nation’s second-largest for-profit college company, with more than 158,000 students and schools in 31 states, though none in Maine. The company is contesting the lawsuit and McKernan has said it is “entirely unfounded to suggest that this company did not comply with the regulation.”

But political insiders said Snowe’s private explanation for her decision not to run matched her public pronouncements. Snowe did not return messages last night.

A top GOP aide on Capitol Hill said Senate GOP leaders were taken by surprise Tuesday afternoon, noting that Snowe had nearly $3.4 million in her campaign chest as of Dec. 31, led by 40 points in internal GOP polls and won in 2006 with 74 percent of the vote.

Michael Cuzzi, a Democratic consultant in Portland, said he, too, accepts Snowe’s explanation.

“I think Olympia’s retirement is emblematic of her party’s march to the far right,” Cuzzi said. “The Republican Party of (presidential candidates) Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney is not the Republican Party of Olympia Snowe.”

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, the chairman of the National Republican Campaign Committee, asserted Republicans will hold on to the seat in Maine, but didn’t indicate in a statement which candidate the party is counting on to accomplish that goal.

“While I would never underestimate the fight ahead in defending any open Senate seat, Republicans remain well-positioned to win back a Senate majority in November,” Cornyn said.

Fellow Maine Republican Collins said she was “absolutely devastated to learn that Olympia has decided not to seek re-election to the United States Senate. Truly, there is no one who works harder on behalf of Maine and our nation.”

Democrats, too, lauded Snowe for her public service, even as they proclaimed it was a new day in the race for the Senate.

“This announcement obviously changes the dynamic of the race, but it doesn’t change our focus on solving the problems of working people,” said Ben Grant, Maine Democratic Party chairman.

Apart from the political machinations Snowe’s announcement immediately put into motion, colleagues close to Snowe expressed dismay about her decision.

Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, who Snowe sat with last month during the State of the Union, when a number of lawmakers participated in a bipartisan “date night” movement in an attempt to increase civility and compromise on Capitol Hill, said Snowe has been a “great partner” on the Senate commerce committee’s oceans subcommittee, where the lawmakers were the top members from their parties and worked on issues common to both coastal states.

Snowe “has incredible knowledge and understanding of the Senate, and has had a very positive influence during her years of service,” Begich said Tuesday via email.

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