WASHINGTON -- Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) is all but certain to make a bid for the Senate in the wake of Sen. Olympia Snowe's (R) retirement announcement, she told The Huffington Post in an interview Wednesday.
"I can't think of anything right now that's holding me back," Pingree said. "I mean, I love being in the House, I'm on the Ag[riculture] Committee and I'm working on all kinds of issues I care about, but there aren't too many opportunities that come along in life where you feel like you can have this big an impact on the future of politics in the Senate. So I'm not likely to say no."
The progressive movement has already coalesced around Pingree. Less than 24 hours after Snowe made her announcement, more than 2,000 individuals had signed a petition the Progressive Change Campaign Committee circulated in hopes of drafting the congresswoman. MoveOn had a similar petition, which more than 2,500 Mainers signed.
"We've gotten so many emails, calls, people offering to volunteer. I think MoveOn delivered 2,000 petitions to our office in Maine saying, 'Please run,'" she said. "Clearly there's already a ton of focus on this race and the role it could play in determining who controls the balance of power in the Senate. And I'm really excited about it."
Pingree, if she decides to run, will join Elizabeth Warren and Tammy Baldwin, running in Massachusetts and Wisconsin, in an effort to expand the ranks of progressive women in the Senate. "It's about time we enhance the numbers of women," said Pingree. "I just think women bring a different perspective into this, and particularly to have progressive women in the Senate, you know, it would be a whole different place. Maybe people would start to become confident in their legislative bodies again."
Snowe was expected to coast to an easy re-election. With her retirement, Democrats are thought to be in a substantially stronger position to hold on to the Senate. Maine currently has a Republican governor, but traditionally the state leans blue -- albeit with a quirky independent streak.
"Maine is now a top pick up opportunity for Senate Democrats," said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Executive Director Guy Cecil in a statement. "If there is one place in the country that is likely to reject the extreme, anti-middle class, divisive Republican agenda it is Maine. Democrats not only hold a strong registration advantage in the state, but this is a state that the President won by 17 points in 2008 and will likely win by a significant margin this year as well."
Potential candidates are rushing to collect the 2,000 valid petition signatures needed to run to replace Snowe. They have until March 15 to quality for the ballot. On the Democratic side, Pingree, Rep. Michael Michaud and former Gov. John Baldacci are taking steps to officially enter the race.
In contrast with Pingree, Michaud is a member of the moderate Blue Dog Coalition. He is the only Democratic cosponsor on the bill to repeal President Obama's compromise on contraception coverage for religiously affiliated organizations. He also supported the Stupak amendment during the battle over the Affordable Care Act, which would have effectively banned insurance plans in the health care exchange from covering abortion services.
Baldacci perhaps most notably signed a same-sex marriage bill in 2009, becoming the first governor to sign marriage equality into law when it was not previously mandated by a court.
Pingree, before coming to the House in 2009, was the head of the progressive advocacy group Common Cause. Perhaps her most high-profile progressive move came toward the end of the health care reform debate, when she and Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) urged Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) in a letter to push the public option using the majority-only reconciliation process. The effort gained significant traction with the online community, raising Pingree's profile with progressives, but ultimately failed.
One potential wildcard in the race is former Gov. Angus King, who served from 1995 to 2003. As an independent, he would be able to skip the primary process and jump right into the general election. He has until June to collect 4,000 signatures to get on November's ballot. In a state with a tradition of an independent streak, King has considerable name recognition and would likely be a strong candidate.
Snowe clearly caught her colleagues off guard with her announcement. An aide to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Snowe informed him of her plans on Tuesday, right before she went public with the news.
"We were surprised and disappointed," McConnell told reporters on Wednesday. "Obviously we hate to lose Olympia Snowe, who's been right in the middle of a lot of bipartisan legislation over a number of years."
McConnell said Snowe would most likely have been re-elected if she ran again. "But in the end, members in public life have to make a decision about whether they want to continue. We wish her well. We're going to miss her," he said.
National Republican Senatorial Committee Chair John Cornyn (R-Texas) remained optimistic in the wake of Snowe's announcement, saying in a statement, "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."
But Pingree said that the state's voters have serious buyers' remorse after electing the Tea Party-backed Gov. Paul LePage and a conservative state legislature.
"It's been pretty crazy what's going on in our legislature, and I actually think that's refocused people on politics," Pingree said. "I think there's deep regret in the state about the kind of ideology of the extreme right wing, and I think people are going to be ready for, you know, something that's more balanced, common-sense. I've been a small business owner, I'm very involved in agriculture and fishing issues. I think they're going to look for something that's just more practical, more Maine, not this sort of ideological, let's shut down women's rights and take away voting rights and kick people off of the health care plans."
Pingree said that in a primary contest between Baldacci and Michaud, her opponents would split their vote, both geographically and ideologically. In contrast, she said, "I have a very progressive base, I have a lot of activists who are very energized. I just spent all last Sunday at the caucuses talking to women about women's reproductive rights."
She added that her work in support of local and organic farming has won her support in rural areas. "I feel like I have a pretty big activated constituency and that I would do very well in a primary. I also have campaign infrastructure, I'm good at raising money. I have a national base of progressives who've been burning up the phone lines calling me, so I think I'd do a good job raising money quickly for a race like this, and you're just going to need that in a short window," she said.
"This is basically three months to win a primary and only eight months to the general, so this is a campaign that has to just get off the ground, raise a lot of money fast and be able to be competitive," she said.
UPDATE: 7:45 p.m. -- Pingree and Michaud huddled for about 15 minutes on the House floor Tuesday night. Michaud ducked reporters on the way out, but Pingree said they talked about the prospect of running against each other for Snowe's seat.
"He'll decide sometime next week whether, you know, he's really going to pull the trigger," she said. "If Mike and I end up in the same primary, I was in a six-way race to get here, and he was in a multiple candidate race too. I mean, that just happens."
Pingree said one thing that's "weighing heavily" on Michaud is the challenge House Democrats might face in holding onto his House seat if he runs for Senate. After the state's recent redistricting, Pingree's district went more Democratic, but Michaud's district went more Republican. Still, Pingree said, neither has said he or she will step out of the Senate race if the other one decides to run.
"I'm sure each of us would like the other one to say, but I think right now we're both just weighing our options," Pingree said. "We've known each other for a very long time and you know, we said, look, we don't want to run against each other, but this happens sometimes."
Jen Bendery and Ariel Edwards-Levy contributed reporting.