PORTLAND — While it’s common knowledge that the tea party was frustrated with Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe, activists were divided over whether the woman sometimes described as the most liberal Republican in the Senate should exit Congress.

With no formal organization or leadership, tea party activists were fractured over whether to work with the senator, or to work for her ouster. Some were hoping for a more conservative candidate, though Snowe seemed a shoo-in for re-election.

“You have to be careful of what you wish for,” said Peter Harring, an Auburn carpenter who’s a leading voice in the movement. “The replacement could be worse.”

Snowe’s announcement last week that she would not seek a fourth term because of excessive partisanship put a seat that was expected to remain in GOP hands up for grabs, with nearly a dozen Republicans and Democrats deciding whether to run or step aside to make way for others.

The move gives Democrats a shot at the seat. One of the potential candidates is Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree, who represents Maine’s liberal, coastal congressional district. Another Democrat weighing a bid is former Gov. John Baldacci. Four other Democrats already are in the race.

On the GOP side, conservative Scott D’Amboise was the choice of tea party activists who felt Snowe was out of step. But instead of coasting unopposed with Snowe’s departure, D’Amboise now faces up to four GOP competitors, including former state Sen. Rick Bennett. They could be joined by Secretary of State Charles Summers, Attorney General William Schneider and state Treasurer Bruce Poliquin.

Further shaking things up: Popular former independent Gov. Angus King announced he’s going to run, providing an alternative to the major parties criticized for causing gridlock in Congress.

Tea party activists across the country added to the hyper-partisan atmosphere in Washington, but Snowe didn’t blame them for her decision to leave the Senate.

“Maine tea party groups and Maine tea party activists played no role in her decision. Her remarks on partisanship were mostly directed at the current dysfunction and polarization of the Senate itself,” said Justin Brasell, her campaign manager.

Over the past year, Snowe held numerous town meetings and face-to-face sessions with tea party activists, including Harring and others like Beth Wallinga, a Republican from Old Town, and Cynthia Rosen, one of the tea party-inspired Republicans who took over the party platform at the GOP convention last summer.

Snowe’s campaign said most tea party activists were willing to listen, and Snowe earned support from some of them. “In fact, some of our hardest working volunteers were in some of those initial meetings, and once they decided to support the senator, could not have been more helpful to the campaign,” Brasell said.

But many continued to see her as too liberal.

“She swings a little too far to the left for my liking. I would have liked to have seen a constitutional conservative get in there and take the spot away from her. Now I think the choices are so far and wide that it’s going to be tough to call,” said Harring, known as “Pete the Carpenter” in online forums.

Wallinga felt that Snowe was listening but said she was still was too liberal to call herself a Republican. She pointed out that Snowe was the only Republican to vote last week to affirm an Obama administration directive requiring employers to provide contraception coverage to their workers regardless of religious or ethical concerns.

“We won’t miss her in Washington, being down there supposedly representing us,” Wallinga said.

The size and scope of the tea party’s influence is unknown in Maine.

The activists share universal concerns over the growing size of government; increasing levels of taxes, spending and national debt; and the rights and liberties of Mainers. The goal is to support candidates who want smaller government, lower taxes and a strict interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, Rosen said.

“They’re supposed to be in there to guard liberty the way a mother bear guards her cubs. That’s their jobs – not all of the shenanigans and fixing things,” Rosen said. “They need to get back to a real limited form of government because it’s getting out of control.”

Even in the tea party, however, Snowe has defenders.

Carter Jones of Aurora began working with Snowe during the health care debate, during which she was roundly criticized by conservatives for voting for President Barack Obama’s health care bill in the Senate Finance Committee. Ultimately, she voted against it on the Senate floor.

He said tea party conservatives had a respectful relationship with Snowe, but he fears that won’t be the case with her successor, particularly if it’s a Democrat.

As for Snowe, he said he hopes she doesn’t go away.

“Somebody who stands in the middle is going to get it from both sides,” he said. “My hope is that she’s going to work to help the state with state issues and from the outside to get away from this polarization.”