LINCOLN — Gov. Dave Heineman threw open the doors on Nebraska’s U.S. Senate race next year by declaring Saturday he will not run.
His announcement leaves the field to a crowd of potential Republican and Democratic candidates, many of whom have been waiting to see what the popular two-term governor would decide.
The list of possible contenders includes well-known names as well as relative newcomers. None was willing to disclose specific plans Saturday afternoon.
Earlier in the day, Heineman sent a letter to supporters saying that he would not seek the seat now held by Sen. Mike Johanns, a Republican.
“After careful consideration of all of the issues involved in a race for the United States Senate, I have decided to keep my focus on being the best governor that I can for the citizens of Nebraska,” he said in the letter.
Heineman said Saturday he had come close to becoming a candidate. He said he considered it because of the “encouragement and support” he received from Nebraskans — Democrats as well as Republicans — over the past few months.
But talking with Johanns and other U.S. senators, especially those who had been governors, swayed him against the idea.
“They confirmed for me what I already knew,” Heineman said, which is that being a member of a slow, deliberative body is a long way from being the chief executive of a state.
In the end, he said, the choice came down to two things. One was his own level of interest.
“I have a passion for being governor of this state,” Heineman said. “I do not have the same passion for being in the United States Senate.”
The other was his determination that running for office next year would distract from his priorities as governor, which he listed as “tax relief and tax reform for Nebraska’s middle class families, expanding job opportunities for Nebraskans, and improving Nebraska’s education system by strengthening academic achievement.”
U.S. Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., said he isn’t ready to give up on a Heineman bid for the Senate.
The Omaha lawmaker said he will try to persuade the governor to change his mind, because, he said, Heineman is exactly the kind of person needed in the Senate.
“I want Heineman to run,” Terry said. “I think he’d be a great senator. He knows Washington’s messed up.”
State GOP Chairman J.L. Spray praised Heineman’s decision, as well as his years of service to the party and the state.
“I think he’s right. There’s a lot of important work to do yet, and he chose to focus on that,” Spray said. “His loyalty to our state and our citizens is unquestioned.”
Heineman, 65, has had a long career in government service.
He worked for former U.S. Reps. Doug Bereuter and Hal Daub and was elected state treasurer twice, in 1994 and 1998.
He left the treasurer position in 2001 when Johanns named him lieutenant governor. Heineman moved up to governor in 2005 when Johanns left to become U.S. agriculture secretary.
By the time term limits force him out of office in 2015, Heineman will have been in the office for 10 years and become the state’s longest-serving governor.
Vince Powers, Nebraska Democratic Party chairman, made reference to Heineman’s years as a public official.
“I want to welcome the governor to the private sector,” Powers said. “He’ll find out it’s not as easy as he thinks it is.”
Heineman was wooed by national Republicans to run in 2012, after Democratic U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson chose not to seek re-election. Heineman opted out then, too, saying he preferred to finish his term as governor.
Deb Fischer, then a state senator, won that race and took office in January. In a statement Saturday, she said she would have welcomed the chance to serve with Heineman in the Senate but looks forward to his continued leadership as governor.
Said U.S. Rep. Adrian Smith, R-Neb.: “I respect and admire his decision to focus his full attention on serving the people of Nebraska as our governor.”
With the party’s top prospect out of contention, Spray said he expects a competitive primary race and another victory.
“The Republican Party is blessed with a deep bench of possible candidates,” he said. “We look forward to continued success in statewide races in 2014.”
Election prognosticator Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report said she was not tempted to move the race from where she has it now — in the “solid Republican” column — as a result of Heineman’s decision.
“Are Republicans disappointed? Sure they are. Because he would have cleared the primary field. No credible Democrat would have run,” Duffy said. “But having said that, Republicans aren’t lacking for a bench. Democrats don’t have a strong bench.”
Democrats still have to find a strong candidate and hope for an ugly GOP primary battle, she said.
No candidates emerged from either party Saturday.
U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., had said previously that he would consider a Senate bid, but his spokesman, Josh Moenning, said Saturday that the congressman from Lincoln has made no decision and remains invested in his current job.
Former State Treasurer Shane Osborn said he will announce his decision soon.
“I’m very seriously considering it,” Osborn said. “But today is about Dave Heineman and the service he continues to render.”
On the Democratic side, former University of Nebraska Regent Chuck Hassebrook of Lyons and State Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha were mentioned as potential candidates.
Lathrop all but ruled out a run for Senate, but Hassebrook said he is weighing a run for either governor or Senate. He said Heineman’s decision has thrown the race wide open.
“I think it means the race is more winnable,” he said.
State Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha also believes Heineman’s decision creates new possibilities, which is why Ashford is thinking of running as a registered independent.
Independent candidates have not traditionally fared well in big races. But Ashford said he thinks that in the sharply divided Senate, an independent could gain significant power in short order, which would be good for Nebraska.
“People are fed up with divisive politics in Washington,” he said.
Johanns, retiring after one term in the Senate, said Republicans still look to be in good position to hold on to the seat, but he noted that the dynamic will be very different with Heineman out, and there are “many chapters yet to be written” on this race.
He said he would bet there are surprise candidates no one would expect who are talking to their families right now about whether to jump in.
Johanns said he wasn’t too shocked when Heineman called him Saturday morning to give him a heads-up that he wasn’t interested in the job.
“He’s been pretty consistent through the years that the job he really liked and wanted to do was to be the governor,” Johanns said.
As for what comes after being governor? Heineman wasn’t ready to say Saturday.
“I’ll worry about that in January 2015,” he said.
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GOV. DAVE HEINEMAN STATEMENT
After careful consideration of all of the issues involved in a race for the United States Senate, I have decided to keep my focus on being the best Governor that I can for the citizens of Nebraska. Every day, I enjoy the challenges and opportunities of being the Governor of the best State in America.
We are going to continue to focus on tax relief and tax reform for Nebraska’s middle class families, expanding job opportunities for Nebraskans, and improving Nebraska’s education system by strengthening academic achievement. I want to thank you, my friends, our supporters and the citizens of Nebraska for your encouragement and your support. You are very important to Sally and me.
A race for the United States Senate would distract from the State's priorities of tax relief, job creation and education.