Dave Heineman’s ears should be burning.
The former Nebraska governor, who holds the record for being the state’s longest serving chief executive, has been a key topic of discussion within the state’s political circles recently as questions arise over whether he plans to make a comeback bid in 2018.
It seems an unlikely scenario on the face of it, especially considering that Heineman would be challenging a fellow Republican — and an incumbent — in Gov. Pete Ricketts.
Still, the talk continues in large part because Heineman has refused to completely rule out the idea. He has said in past conversations that he did not have any plans to run and that he loves his work since leaving office. But he hasn’t taken a gubernatorial bid entirely off the table, saying he would never say never.
Heineman did not respond to either a telephone call or an email request for an interview for this story.
“I would suggest to you that a primary run against Gov. Ricketts by former Gov. Heineman is one that is discussed in political circles over cocktails and hors d’oeuvres more regularly than people may want to admit,” said David Kramer, former chairman of the Nebraska Republican Party and a former U.S. Senate candidate.
“Until he makes a categorical and unequivocal pronouncement, I think it will continue to be the subject of conversation,” Kramer added.
No one loves rumors and speculation about future political races and possible candidates more than those involved in politics, whether it’s consultants, elected officials or staff members.
And it’s rarely a bad thing for candidates or would-be candidates to be the person who is being talked about. This is also true for former governors.
Staying relevant after being term-limited out of office in 2015 may be one reason why Heineman is refusing to take his name out of the mix. “The longer you’re out of office, the less relevant you become. In some respects, this may be a way he continues to be relevant,” said Kramer, who thinks it would be an uphill fight for Heineman if he did decide to run.
Others dismiss the Heineman speculation entirely, saying it’s a concoction of the rumor mill.
“I have absolutely no reason to think Gov. Heineman will run for governor again,” said J.L. Spray, national committeeman for the Nebraska Republican Party. “I don’t see any reason for anyone to run against Gov. Ricketts. He’s doing a commendable job on every front.”
Still, the Nebraska Constitution allows Heineman to run again after sitting out a term.
Heineman has kept busy since leaving office, in both business and political arenas. He serves on the board of directors of the Conklin Co., a Kansas City manufacturing company owned by Charles W. Herbster.
Herbster had his own political aspirations at one point. He ran for governor in 2014 but exited the race after a few months, citing his wife’s health concerns. Herbster then made history as one of the state’s largest single-candidate donors when he gave about $2.7 million to State Sen. Beau McCoy’s unsuccessful gubernatorial bid.
McCoy also now works for Herbster.
Herbster and Heineman are close, by all accounts. They attended the Republican National Convention together and both have been active in supporting Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency.
Heineman and McCoy serve as Trump’s state co-chairmen, and Heineman, Herbster and McCoy are on Trump’s agricultural advisory committee.
One reason why a Heineman primary challenge against Ricketts is viewed as not out of the realm of possibility is because the two politicians have a less-than-cozy relationship.
Heineman did not support Ricketts in the 2014 GOP primary for governor, instead backing former Attorney General Jon Bruning.
Still, nobody is talking about a big policy difference between the two.
Ricketts declined through his office to comment on the Heineman speculation. He has said, however, that he intends to seek a second term.
Ricketts has had some tough times already in his first term, most notably his difficulty in dealing with the Legislature. Lawmakers overrode several of the governor’s vetoes on such things as a gas tax hike and a repeal of the death penalty.
However, no one knows better than Heineman the difficulties that he would face in challenging a sitting governor from his own party.
In January of 2005, then-Lt. Gov. Heineman assumed the governorship after Mike Johanns resigned to become agriculture secretary for then-President George W. Bush.
Less than four months later, legendary Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne jumped into the race for governor, mounting a GOP primary challenge against Heineman.
In the beginning, most people believed that Osborne, then a congressman, would win easily. But as time went on, it became apparent that many Republican leaders and rank-and-file party members were backing Heineman. He may not have been in office for long, but Republicans viewed him as the incumbent.
Heineman won a stunning upset.
“It’s a hard row to hoe to turn out an incumbent, as Gov. Heineman knows from experience,” Kramer said.