Johanns Departure A Cornhusker Shocker, But GOP Favored

Thought you were immune to shock? So did I. But the announcement by Nebraska Republican Senator Mike Johanns that he would not seek re-election came as a major surprise.

Johnanns is an immensely popular Senator. While his voting record rarely departed from his Republican colleagues (he most recently joined 21 other Rs in opposing the Violence Against Women Act), Johanns really was not a hard-lined anything and was a quiet advocate for Nebraska. In recent days, he had been one of just two Republican Senators to express support for Hagel’s Defense nomination.

Johanns has held visible statewide office in Nebraska for two decades. As Mayor of Lincoln, he took flak by his own party by promoting President Clinton’s stimulus package. When he entered the 1998 Governor’s race, that was one reason that he was not initially favored. But the person who was, 2-term area Omaha Congressman Jon Christiansen, discredited himself with a slash and burn campaign. Johann’s won the three way primary and beat a former Bob Kerrey aide, Bill Hoppner,in the general with 54%.

Johann’s won a second term with 69% and had been pondering a challenge to Ben Nelson for the state’s other Senate seat when President Bush named him Secretary of Agriculture in 2005. He stayed there before leaving to pursue the other Senate seat, which he won with 58%.

Johanns is the first Governor-turned-Senator since the 70’s to opt for retirement after just one full term. Harold Hughes of Iowa, whose 1968 Senate win was a surprising squeaker (6,000 votes) stepped down in ’74. And Dewey Bartlett of Oklahoma was forced into retirement by cancer in ’78. He died 2 months later. Zell Miller, who had previously served as Georgia’s Governor, declined to seek a full term in 2004 but he had been appointed to the seat after Paul Coverdell died.

That seat, which before Johann’s was held by Hagel, will be a near lock for the party to hold. The party now controls both Senate seats in Nebraska for the first time since Roman Hruska and Charles Curtis, both of whom completed a four-term reign in the 1970’s. Bob Kerrey, without question the strongest candidate Democrats could field, managed just 42% against now Senator Deb Fischer last year.

So with a bench so deep, Republicans may face a cacophonous field and with it may come some minor nuisances. Attorney General Jon Bruning and Treasurer and ex-AG Don Stenberg (the latter who is quickly approaching Harold Stassen status for perennial runs for office), both sought the Senate nomination last year, but lost amid so-so campaigns.

Popular GOP Governor Dave Heineman, who is ineligible to seek a third full term as the “Cornhusker State’s” Chief Executive is the 800 pound gorilla in the room. He said he will “take a few days” to mull over the race but considering he once said interest in a Senate seat was “minus 1,000 and dropping,” the party should not hold it’s breath.

Should Heineman pass, the party would likely turn to 1st district Congressman Jeff Fortenberry. He said yesterday that he is pondering run and has long appealed to social conservatives. Worth noting. Fortenberry backed Fischer when she was still long shot. Would she return the favor?

Adrian Smith, a rising star who holds “the Big 3rd” Congressional district (68 counties and virtually everything west of Lincoln), would have to be seen as an appealing candidate but he seems to only have received scant mention in ’12.

Lee Terry is the senior Congressman of the trio who may also consider the race but in an era where the Tea-Party dominates, may be viewed as too much of an establishment figure., Also working against Terry: his unexpectedly narrow 51-49% re-election means must mend fences back home. And with high turnout now virtually assured for the general election, he may again struggle.

Maybe Iowa Republican Congresssman Steve King can be coaxed across the border to run, sparing the GOP a headache in that state? His politics would be far less of a liability in Nebraska.

A Democrat will step up to the plate for the Senate race just as a GOP candidate will emerge in recently vacated New Jersey. But the reality is, while candidates of the non-dominant party were able to win in the days of yore, that seems a politically mammoth task these days. When it comes to federal races, Democrats don’t win in Nebraska and Republicans don’t win in New Jersey.

Democrats would love to recruit Scott Kleeb, part of a young, telegenic new breed of Democrats, who won a respectable 40% against Johann’s in ’08, but that seems unlikely. Chuck Hassebrook, who resigned his University of Nebraska Regents seat to seek the Senate last year (before Kerrey joined the race) is another possibility, as is State Senator Steve Lathrop.

But the party, keenly aware of the uphill nature of winning a statewide federal race will likely put more into the open Governors seat, where a Republican donnybrook awaits as well. And for departing GOP Chair Mark Fahleson, that will make his remaining tenure anything but dull, a fact that he made reference too when he quipped,“ so much for ending my term as Nebraska GOP chairman with calm waters and smooth sailing.”

Author: SCOTT CRASS

1 Comment

  1. Why is he leaving?? Is it because he didn’t like the way the GOP handled the Hagel nomination??

    It just seems pretty sudden– maybe the insanity of the national party is getting to him.

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