First term Nebraska Senator Mike Johanns surprised the political world this afternoon with an announcement that he would retire at the end of his term, rather than seek reelection. Sen. Johanns had been widely considered to be running for reelection next year and was the prohibitive favorite to win. The state is strongly Republican, but Johanns departure could set up a competitive primary race.
Last year, NE GOP had a very competitive three-way primary to fill an open Senate seat, left vacant by a retiring Ben Nelson. Sen. Deb Fischer (R-NE) emerged the victor against state Attorney General Jon Bruning and former state lawmaker Don Stenberg. Dems recruited former Senator and Governor Bob Kerrey to challenge Fischer. Kerrey lost by more than 15 points.
NE Gov. David Heineman is term-limited at the end of 2014. He has not announced any plans, but he would be the presumptive favorite in any primary. His entry into the race could even clear the primary field of most major challengers.
All three members of NE’s House delegation are Republicans. One, Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE), even released a statement confirming that he was considering a run for the Senate. “Given this turn of events, I feel compelled to say I will consider a run for the United States Senate,” Fortenberry’s statement said.
The states other two Congressmen, Reps. Lee Terry and Rep. Adrian Smith (R-NE) are also likely to consider a run. Other names in speculation include Bruning, Stenberg and Pete Ricketts, who lost the Senate race against Ben Nelson in 2006.
Any open Senate seat provides some opportunity for the other party, even in a state as Republican as Nebraska. The challenge for Democrats, however, is that they have a very weak bench of viable statewide candidates. This was evidenced by their having to talk Kerrey out of retirement to run again. His landslide loss against Fischer, who was making her first statewide run for office, is a clear sign of the challenge the Democrats face.