Sen. Mike Johanns shook up the political landscape in Nebraska on Monday with an announcement that he will not seek re-election next year.

Johanns' sudden declaration opens up a Senate seat in 2014, turning all eyes swiftly to Gov. Dave Heineman, who will complete his governorship at the end of next year.

Heineman, who rejected Republican efforts to recruit him as a Senate candidate in 2012, said he'll take a look at the opening during the next few weeks.

"I'll think about it," the governor told a late-afternoon news conference.

"But thinking does not mean I'm running," he said.

Republican Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, who also had considered a 2012 Senate bid, wasted no time in declaring his interest.

"Given this turn of events," the 1st District congressman said, "I feel compelled to say I will consider a run for the United States Senate."

Johanns said his decision was entirely personal, not centered on frustration with a partisan and often paralyzed Senate or based on any health concerns.

"With everything in life, there is a time and a season," Johanns said in a message to Nebraskans co-signed by his wife, Stephanie.

"At the end of this term, we will have been in public service over 32 years. Between the two of us, we have been on the ballot for primary and general elections 16 times and we have served in eight offices.

"It is time to close this chapter of our lives," they wrote.

"We want a quieter time with our focus on each other, our family and our faith," they said.

Johanns, a two-term governor and former U.S. secretary of agriculture, was elected to the Senate in 2008.

His departure opens up a Senate seat at the same time Nebraskans will be filling an open governorship with Heineman completing his second and final term.

The sudden Senate opening scrambled the 2014 political canvas, prompting potential candidates in both parties to assess, and in some cases reassess, their plans.

"No one was beating down our door to run against Senator Johanns," Democratic state executive director Jim Rogers said. Now, he said, he expects a number of Democrats to take a look at a wide-open Senate race.

Names were flying through the air in both parties.

Early Republican Senate prospects included Heineman, Fortenberry, Attorney General Jon Bruning, State Treasurer Don Stenberg, former State Treasurer Shane Osborn and a new name, Ben Sasse, the president of Midland University in Fremont.

Heineman said contested primaries have been "a strength of our party" in Nebraska and he hopes there will be multiple candidates.

Two leading Democratic gubernatorial prospects, state Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha and former University of Nebraska Regent Chuck Hassebrook of Lyons, could also become Senate possibilities now.

Other familiar names bouncing around the new landscape included former Lt. Gov. Kim Robak and Lincoln Mayor Chris Beutler.

If Fortenberry should decide to enter the Senate race, then a whole new ballgame opens up in his eastern Nebraska congressional district. Fortenberry was first elected in 2004.

Johanns said his 2009 "cancer scare," when it appeared for a time that a spot on his left lung might be cancer, "changed how I looked at the world."

It put life, family, personal relationships and his faith in focus, he said, and helped him establish priorities.

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The spot on his lung turned out to be caused by a fungal infection.

And his health today is excellent, Johanns said during a telephone interview.

"I'm not sure what's next, but I'm going to make sure I have greater control of my schedule," he said.

"I won't retire. I like working. Nebraska is home and we have no plans to change that."

Next year will cap a remarkable political career for Nebraska's senior senator. He has been a member of the Lancaster County Board and the Lincoln City Council.

Johanns was elected governor in 1998, re-elected in 2002, and resigned in 2005 to accept President George W. Bush's nomination to be secretary of agriculture. In 2008, he returned to Nebraska to seek the Senate seat held by Chuck Hagel after Hagel decided not to seek re-election.

Stephanie Johanns is a former Lancaster County commissioner and state senator.

Johanns, 62, was considered a virtual lock to win re-election in 2014.

Heineman said Nebraskans will be "forever thankful for his commitment to serving our citizens, in particular our farmers and ranchers and our veterans."

In the Senate, Johanns has been a dependable conservative voice stressing federal debt reduction and government deregulation. He has parted from the GOP majority in supporting President Barack Obama's nomination of Hagel to be secretary of defense and in championing a new five-year farm program authored by the Senate.

Johanns has compiled a strong pro-life record and has been a leader in limiting or easing Environmental Protection Agency regulations.

"I am personally grateful for Mike's leadership in the Senate and all he has done in helping to smooth my transition," Sen. Deb Fischer said.

"While I am fortunate to have two more years to serve alongside him, I am sad to see Mike leave the Senate," she said. Fischer joined Johanns as Nebraska's junior senator in January after defeating Democratic Senate nominee Bob Kerrey in the 2012 election.

Reach Don Walton at 402-473-7248 or at dwalton@journalstar.com.


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