The Washington Post

A reset in the Nebraska Senate race

Nebraska Republican Gov. Dave Heineman's recent decision not to run for the Senate means two things. First, the race for the GOP nomination to replace retiring Sen. Mike Johanns (R) is more wide open. Second, Nebraska Republican pols looking to move up the ladder have two marquee statewide races to aim at in 2014.

"I think its clear to me that there will be a competitive primary for the Senate, and I reasonably believe we will have a competitive primary for the governorship," said Nebraska Republican Party Chairman J.L. Spray.

Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman. (Nati Harnik/AP)

What Heineman's decision doesn't do is make either contest instantly more competitive for Democrats. Nebraska is a conservative state with a thin Democratic bench, and Republicans remain heavy favorites in both the governor's race and the Senate campaign.

The broadly popular Heineman would likely have cleared the GOP Senate field. That would have made other credible Republican prospects more likely to look at a bid for Heineman's current job since the term-limited governor will leave office in January 2015.

Now, the Senate race is also expected to receive interest from several capable Republican contenders. And there is no shortage of possibilities in such a red state.

So, who's going to run for what?

Let's first look at the Senate race, which could attract a potentially crowded field of Republican candidates. The state's three U.S. House members -- Reps. Jeff Fortenberry, Adrian Smith, and Lee Terry -- are all possibilities. If Fortenberry runs, he can expect criticism from the right. The Senate Conservatives Fund super PAC has already said it will not support him because of his record on fiscal issues.

Shane Osborn is another possibility. He told the Omaha World-Herald he is "very seriously considering running." Osborn is a former state treasurer who gained celebrity status as a Navy pilot.

A handful of candidates who have run before are also worth watching. There's Pete Ricketts, the wealthy self-funder who failed to unseat Democrat Ben Nelson in 2006. Attorney General Jon Bruning and state Treasurer Don Stenberg, both of whom lost in the 2012 GOP primary,  might also run. (If Stenberg runs, it will be his 5th(!) bid for the Senate.)

But Bruning, Ricketts, Stenberg and other Republicans might also be tempted to look at the governor's race. Lt. Gov. Rick Sheehy's resignation and former state legislative speaker Mike Flood's decision to end his bid because his wife was diagnosed with cancer threw the governor's race wide open late last year. State Sen. Charlie Janssen is the only Republican in the race right now.

Spray said he thinks there's chance Flood would reconsider a run, depending on how his wife is doing. "I think he is actively thinking about it as her care progresses. My sense is that if she becomes thoroughly well he will reconsider at that point," Spray said.

Three more names to watch in the governor's sweepstakes: State Auditor Mike Foley, state Sen. Beau McCoy, and Midland University President Ben Sasse.

On the Democratic side, the options are limited. There's Center For Rural Affairs Director Chuck Hassebrook, who launched a 2012 Senate bid before stepping aside for eventual Democratic nominee Bob Kerrey. In addition, the Omaha World-Herald and the Lincoln Journal-Star both listed former lieutenant governor Kim Robak, state Sen. Steve Lathrop and Lincoln Mayor Chris Beutler as possible Senate candidates.

State Democratic Party Chairman Vince Powers said the unpredictability evident on the Republican side over the past few months has given his party more hope.

"When you live in Nebraska you say wait 24 hours and the weather will change. Now, we say you wait 24 hours and the GOP candidate for Senate and governor will change," Powers said.

There is one more takeaway from Heineman's decision. As the Fix boss recently wrote, the Senate isn't an especially fun place to be these days. Heineman's decision only reinforces that idea. Here's a guy who would have likely cruised to a seat in the Senate, and passed on the race anyway. That's not something you see every day in politics.

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



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