Johanns Retirement Sets up Another Open Senate Seat in Nebraska

February 18, 2013 · 3:19 PM EDT

First-term Republican Sen. Mike Johanns’ surprise retirement sets up Nebraska’s second open seat Senate race in as many cycles. Republicans successfully took over Sen. Ben Nelson’s (D) seat in 2012 and will try to keep Johann’s seat next year.

Last year, Republicans had a competitive contest for the party’s nomination, and underfunded state Sen. Deb Fischer pulled off a surprising primary win against two controversial statewide officeholders. In the fall, she handily defeated former Sen. Bob Kerrey (D), 58 percent to 42 percent.

Politically, term-limited Gov. Dave Heineman (R) is the 500-pound gorilla in the state. He took a pass last time, but, if he decides to run now, he would be very formidable in both the GOP primary and the general election.

If Heineman declines to run, any of the three members of the congressional delegation might run, but Rep. Jeff Fortenberry is viewed as the most likely to get in. Fortenberry also passed in 2012 and would again be risking a safe seat if he decides to run.

Rep. Adrian Smith represents close to a majority of Republican primary voters but just earned a slot on the Ways & Means Subcommittee on Health, which he may not want to give up. Rep. Lee Terry’s Omaha-based district is becoming more competitive so he may be looking for a “safer” option, but, unlike Fortenberry and Smith, he represents a very small share of the statewide GOP primary electorate.

“Nebraska is overpopulated with Republican officeholders” who now have two wide open races to consider, according to one Cornhusker State source. But if Heineman decides to run for the Senate seat, his decision would shift most potential statewide candidates to the open governorship.

While Democrats have won statewide races in the past -- J.J. Exon, Ed Zorinsky, Nelson and Kerrey have served in the chamber at various times during the past thirty years -- they haven’t had much luck recently. Still, the DSCC surely will spend some time looking for a strong nominee. Of course, a messy GOP primary and a weak nominee could cause us to take another long look at the race.

Based on the fundamentals of the state and Fischer’s comfortable win over Kerrey last time, we are keeping the race as Currently Safe for Republicans for now.