LINCOLN — Gov. Dave Heineman dropped a post-election bombshell on Thursday, saying he was forgoing a run for U.S. Senate in 2012.
“The Senate's not my cup of tea,” said Heineman, who was re-elected Tuesday by a landslide to a final four-year term.
“I have the best job in America. Why would I give that up?” Heineman said at a press conference.
The decision by the 62-year-old Republican set off a scramble among potential GOP replacements.
And it eliminates what would have been a clash between Nebraska political titans in 2012: Heineman, the popular governor against incumbent U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson, the state's leading Democrat.
One likely Republican candidate moved quickly, while another asked Heineman to reconsider.
Attorney General Jon Bruning jumped to the front of the line, announcing shortly after Heineman's decision that he would hold a State Capitol press conference at 10 a.m. Friday.
All signs point to Bruning entering the race.
Bruning, 41, re-elected to a third term Tuesday, had raised more than $1 million for a U.S. Senate bid in 2008.
But he dropped out when then-U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns became a candidate. Bruning said more than $600,000 of those federal campaign funds are still available.
Veteran GOP warhorse Don Stenberg, elected state treasurer in the election, said he was saddened by Heineman's decision and hoped he would reconsider.
But Stenberg, a 62-year-old former attorney general, quickly added that “hundreds” of people during this year's campaign urged him to run for Senate.
A spokesman for Nelson said Heineman's decision will have no bearing on whether the 69-year-old Democrat seeks a third six-year term, and that it was too soon to discuss 2012.
Nelson was politically wounded after casting the deciding vote for the federal health-care legislation, and some speculate he may not run. However, Nelson continues to raise campaign cash and had $1.4 million in his campaign coffers.
“What will determine it for him is whether the people of Nebraska want him to serve another term and if he wants to seek one,” said spokesman Jake Thompson.
State GOP Chairman Mark Fahleson, who joined Heineman at Thursday's press conference, expected a handful of Republicans to seek to “boot out Ben” in 2012. He mentioned state constitutional officers and possibly a businessman.
State Auditor Mike Foley has been mentioned as a potential candidate, as have U.S. Reps. Lee Terry of Omaha, Jeff Fortenberry of Lincoln and Adrian Smith of Gering.
Omaha multimillionaire Pete Ricketts, whom Nelson defeated in 2006, also remains politically active, stoking speculation about his plans.
Heineman's announcement caught many by surprise since the governor said at his Tuesday victory celebration that he would take up to six months to decide.
Most observers have said Heineman would be the strongest GOP candidate for the Senate.
Had Heineman had jumped in, he would have scared off any other GOP competition, said David Kramer, a Republican political observer who was defeated in the 2006 U.S. Senate primary.
One consideration for any potential candidate is whether Nelson will run.
Kramer said the perception is that Nelson is politically wounded after delivering the 60th vote in favor of President Barack Obama's health-care plan.
But two years in politics is a “political eternity,” and anyone who underestimates Nelson does so at his own peril, Kramer said.
“Anytime you're running against an incumbent, it is never easy,” he said.
Nelson may be in line to become chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, which would give him a platform to mend his image.
And the political winds might shift again if Republicans swept into office don't deliver on promises to right the economy and repeal the health-care law.
Heineman said he decided after the election to announce his plans immediately.
He said he had discussed the Senate race with GOP House leader John Boehner of Ohio and Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky earlier this fall. He also discussed it with his wife and son.
Heineman said he'd rather live in Lincoln than Washington and prefers being a chief executive to being one of many legislators.
“I can make a difference every day (as governor),” he said. The U.S. Senate “takes longer to act.”
The governor said his decision would remove a distraction from the upcoming session of the Legislature, which will focus on the politically bloody job of closing a $1.4 billion budget gap.
State Sen. Bill Avery of Lincoln, a Democrat and retired political science professor, said Heineman's decision strengthens his hand in dealing with the Legislature. Avery said lawmakers now know he will be around for the full four years.
Lydia Brasch of rural Bancroft, a Republican who won election to the Legislature and attended Heineman's announcement, said she was glad that the governor will be around for a full term given the difficult decisions facing the state.
Heineman's announcement runs counter to a Nebraska tradition. Former Nebraska governors Johanns, Nelson, Bob Kerrey and J.J. Exon all extended their stay in the political spotlight by successfully running for U.S. Senate.
Rex Fisher, Nebraska president of Qwest Communications and a friend of Heineman, said he was driving across the state when he heard the governor's announcement on the radio.
“I'm surprised that he decided already, but it's his decision,” Fisher said. “It just proves that he loves being governor.”
World-Herald staff writer Martha Stoddard contributed to this report.