Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman (R) announced over the holiday weekend that he will not run for his state’s open US Senate seat next year, ending more than 13 weeks of political speculation concerning his decision. Heineman said he believed a campaign would take away from serving his final 18 months as governor but, at least at one point, claimed he was very close to becoming a federal candidate.
Heineman’s decision now opens up what should be a fierce campaign to replace one-term Sen. Mike Johanns (R), a former governor and US Agriculture Secretary, who decided not to seek re-election. All potential candidates had been awaiting Heineman’s decision, because his popularity is such that no person in either party is likely to defeat him.
The Democrats are in the more precarious position because they are now staring at two open statewide races with a depleted political bench. Former two-term senator and governor Bob Kerrey returned to the state last year and went down to an ignominious 58-42 percent defeat at the hands of then state senator Deb Fischer (R). The result left the Democrats in a politically moribund state as Kerrey was always viewed as the party’s best possible standard bearer. For him to lose as badly as he did to a state legislator in what should have been a strong Democratic year, casts major doubt over the party’s 2014 prospects.
That being said, the Democrats will likely concentrate on the open gubernatorial campaign, a position more important to party leaders. Heineman, who will be the longest-serving governor in the state’s history (10 years at the end of his term), is ineligible to seek re-election. At this point, the Democrats’ strongest candidate may be Lincoln Mayor Chris Beutler. He will likely run statewide, but probably as a gubernatorial candidate, thus by-passing the Senate contest. Beyond Beutler, their options are few.
This means the Republican primary voters will almost assuredly choose the state’s next senator. Though other Nebraska politicians such as Rep. Lee Terry (R-NE-2) pledge to continue persuading the governor to change his mind about running for the Senate, it is highly unlikely they will be successful. Therefore, potential contenders such as Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE-1) are now beginning to assess their chances in a wide open US Senate primary.
In addition to Fortenberry, former state treasurer and ex-Navy pilot Shane Osborn is a likely entry. Investor Pete Ricketts, a part owner of the Chicago Cubs baseball team and 2006 US Senate nominee, is another name that is on all prospective candidate lists. Ben Sasse, the Midland University (Fremont, NE) president, is another individual commonly believed to be studying his chances of winning the GOP nomination. Finally, state Treasurer Don Stenberg, who has run for the Senate no less that four times without success, could enter for a fifth time. For his part, Rep. Terry has already indicated he would remain in the House regardless of the Senate race status, while Rep. Adrian Smith (R-NE-3) has been generally quiet about the race but is viewed as an unlikely candidate.
Nebraska is not the only state where the political players are paralyzed awaiting the plans of a governor or former governor. To the west in Montana, the politicos are all waiting to see whether former governor Brian Schweitzer (D) decides to enter the Senate race. As in Nebraska, the Montana seat is open because Sen. Max Baucus (D) has already announced his retirement.
Like Heineman, it would not be particularly surprising to see Schweitzer, presumed to be a prohibitive favorite against any Montana Republican, decide not to run. The former governor was just elected chairman of the Stillwater Mining Company, a lucrative position, but says he is not ruling out a Senate run even though claiming to be “focused like a laser” on his new corporate responsibilities.
If Schweitzer decides not to enter the Senate race, we will see bruising primaries in both political parties and, unlike Nebraska, a competitive general election.