Senate announcements shake things up
By Larry Dreiling
Two announcements, one by a current U.S. senator and one by a potential candidate, shook up agricultural Washington over the Presidents Day weekend.
First, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced Feb. 15 he was not a candidate for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate from Iowa, to replace Tom Harkin.
Then, Sen. Mike Johanns, R-NE, announced Feb. 18 his decision not to run for re-election in 2014.
Word of Vilsack's announcement came from Matt Paul, a longtime Vilsack aide, according to a report in The Des Moines Register, which recently showed in an Iowa Poll that Vilsack, also a former Iowa governor, would be an appealing Senate candidate by 56 percent of Iowans, versus 35 percent that said he wouldn't be.
Of eight names the Register tested, only Vilsack earned majority support.
Although Vilsack's name had always appeared on short lists of possible Senate nominees, he hadn't publicly stated interest. But he hadn't knocked down the idea, either--until now.
Paul told the Register that Vilsack is focused on his job as secretary of agriculture. In a recent interview, Vilsack said he intended to return to Iowa to practice law following his tenure in that position, even to the point of saying he had just completed six hours of online Continuing Legal Education credits in legal ethics in order to retain his standing in the Iowa Bar.
Iowa hasn't had an open U.S. Senate race since 1974 and is considered a purple state, where neither party has an advantage, so it will be high on the watch list of political observers and among top dollars in campaign spending.
The early Democratic frontrunner is Rep. Bruce Braley. On the Republican side, Reps. Tom Latham and Steve King have said they're mulling Senate bids.
Aside from Vilsack, Latham, 64, and Braley, 55, are the only others whom the Iowa Poll indicated more Iowans like as candidates than do not --40 percent of Iowans think Latham is an appealing candidate; 36 percent view Braley as appealing. More Iowans than not dislike the idea of a candidacy by King, the poll showed.
Meanwhile, Johanns, a former secretary of agriculture in the George W. Bush administration and Nebraska governor, shocked the political world with his decision not to run for a second term.
The decision stems back to 2008, when doctors found a spot on Johanns' lung. Doctors suspected cancer, but they discovered during surgery that the spot on his lung was scar tissue from an old infection.
That "cancer scare," Johanns told a media conference at Papillion, got him thinking about life outside politics.
"I have to say, it does change your view of the world," said Johanns, who along with his wife, Stephanie, are devout Catholics. "We lived with (the possibility of cancer) for several months. When you start looking at your life through that lens, life looks a lot different."
His public statement reflected that sentiment.
"During these many years, we have cherished our time together. So as we think about the next stage of our lives, we want a quieter time with our focus on each other, our family and our faith," said Johanns.
Johanns made it clear he does not plan to retire. But, he said, he wants out of political life. He said he has no idea what he plans to do in two years, except spend more time at the couple's home in Florida, especially during winter months.
"We just both wanted some time to enjoy each other's company. Enjoy our family. Practice our faith. It's really not more complicated than that," he said.
The clear frontrunner for Johanns' seat is Gov. Dave Heineman, who took the seat after Johanns resigned to become secretary of agriculture.
Heineman told the Omaha World-Herald he will spend a "few days" thinking about a possible run, although he put no time limit on a decision. "I don't think I've ever indicated that being in the Senate is my dream job. But, obviously, I have to look at it."
U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, a Republican from Lincoln, also said he would now consider a run.
"I will listen to Nebraskans, explore the questions of how I might most effectively serve and weigh the demands of such an endeavor with my family," Fortenberry said.
One possible Democratic contender could be Chuck Hassebrook, head of the Center For Rural Affairs. Hassebrook, a one-time member of the University of Nebraska Board of Regents, mounted a Senate bid last year but stepped back after former Sen. Bob Kerrey got into the race.
Larry Dreiling can be reached by phone at 785-628-1117, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.