Nebraska political upheaval shines spotlight on Heineman’s next move

February 19, 2013

For a stark reminder that conventional wisdom in politics can be quickly displaced, look at Nebraska, where political upheaval in the months since the 2012 election has sharply disrupted the state of play in the 2014 Senate and gubernatorial campaigns.

The net result is two statewide races that could hinge on the decision of one man: term-limited Gov. Dave Heineman (R).


Term-limited Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman (R). (Nati Harnik -- AP)

If you’re just tuning in, here’s a brief recap of what’s been going on in the Cornhusker State:

* Sen. Mike Johanns (R) unexpectedly announced on Monday that he will not seek reelection in 2014, ending his Senate career after just a single term. Johanns, along with his wife, cited a desire to leave the world of electoral politics.

* Now-former lieutenant governor Rick Sheehy (R), once considered a front-runner to succeed Heineman next year, resigned earlier this month following the Omaha-World Herald newspaper's revelation that he used his state-issued cell phone to make over 2,000 phone calls to four women over four years, including one who says she had an affair with him.

* In December, Mike Flood, now the former speaker of the unicameral state legislature said he was dropping his GOP bid for governor, due to his wife’s breast cancer diagnosis.

All of which brought the current focus to Heineman, the best-known Republican in the state. He can’t run for governor again next year, but the Senate is a possibility. If he makes a bid, Heineman -- who won each of his gubernatorial campaigns with more than 70 percent of the vote -- would likely clear the GOP field and be a heavy favorite to win the general election.

Heieneman told the World-Herald Monday that he will take a “few days” to consider whether to run for Senate. But he made clear that the upper chamber isn’t exactly his favorite place. "I don't think I've ever indicated that being in the Senate is my dream job. But, obviously, I have to look at it," he said.

Heineman’s decision could impact not only the Senate race, but the governor’s race, too. If he runs for the Senate, Republican prospects looking to move up will likely be more tempted to explore the governor’s race. If Heineman doesn't run for the Senate, then there are two statewide races for them to seriously look at.

The GOP bench in Nebraska include the state's three House Republicans: Reps. Jeff Fortenberry (R) (who has said he is considering a Senate run), Adrian Smith, and Lee Terry. Shane Osborn (a former state treasurer who gained celebrity status as Navy pilot) is another potential candidate to watch, as are a pair of 2012 Senate candidates, Attorney General Jon Bruning and state Treasurer Don Stenberg. State Sen. Charlie Janssen, meanwhile, has already announced his gubernatorial bid.

We could see some heated competition, if, say, Heineman doesn't run for the Senate, but Fortenberry (who is no favorite of the political right) and Smith (who is more conservative) do make bids.

"We can already say that we won't be able to support Congressman Fortenberry if he runs. His record on spending, debt, and taxes in the House is just too liberal. Republicans in Nebraska deserve better," said Senate Conservatives Fund Executive Director Matt Hoskins. SCF, which was started by conservative Jim DeMint and involved itself in the 2012 Nebraska Senate GOP primary, is looking to identify a candidate it can get behind, Hoskins added.

SCF backed Stenberg and bashed Bruning in last year's campaign, as competing forces locked horns in a race that yielded an unexpected result. Now-Sen. Deb Fischer (R) won the wild three-way GOP primary in which the nasty and expensive battle between the establishment-backed Bruning and conservative outside group-backed Stenberg paved her road to a plurality victory. SCF endorsed Fischer in the general election, and spent money on her behalf.

No matter what Heineman decides, Nebraska is a very red state, and at this point, neither the governor’s mansion nor the Senate seat is expected to fall into Democratic hands, despite the events of the past few months.

It's important to note that unpredictability of the 2012 primary didn't do Republicans any detectable damage in the general election. Even as Democrats recruited well-known former senator Bob Kerrey, Fischer cruised to victory on Election Day, a reflection of the state’s heavy Republican tilt. So while open Senate and governor’s races could open the possibility of more intra-party battles in Nebraska next year, Democrats remain long-shots in both races.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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