Sen. Johanns’s retirement could grow Republican Party's internal conflict

Sen. Mike Johanns’s (R-Neb.) retirement could open up another battleground in the  fight between the establishment and grassroots factions of the Republican Party, with a deep bench of potential candidates likely to run in a state in which $1 million can go a long way.

At least one outside group that typically backs grassroots and Tea-Party-affiliated candidates — the Senate Conservatives Fund — is looking at the race as an opportunity in 2014.

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“Senator Johanns’ retirement has moved this race up to the top of our list. Nebraska is a red state and Senator [Deb] Fischer’s victory in 2012 shows that a strong conservative candidate can win there,” SCF spokesman Matt Hoskins said in an email to The Hill.

Johanns announced Monday he would not seek a second term in 2014.

Hoskins said his group is looking at potential candidates, but that SCF would be unable to support Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) for the seat.

Fortenberry said in a statement Monday that he was considering running for the seat.

“His record on spending, debt, and taxes in the House is just too liberal. Republicans in Nebraska deserve better,” he said.

Matt Kibbe, president of grassroots group FreedomWorks, said his group will likely jump in the race — if a strong candidate emerges.

“We are definitely going to be involved if we can find a candidate worth working for. We are in the research and recruitment phase,” he said.
“We don’t want to move so quickly that we split our support and enable establishment types ... to eek [sic] out a primary win.”

SCF and FreedomWorks were active in the 2012 Nebraska Senate race. They joined the Club for Growth in spending more than $2 million backing state Treasurer Don Stenberg and targeting Attorney General Jon Bruning.

Ultimately, Deb Fischer, a state lawmaker, won the Republican primary. She was boosted by a last-minute infusion of outside cash from a super-PAC launched by Joe Ricketts, the founder of Ameritrade, and robocalls recorded by former GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

The outside groups went on to support Fischer in the general, and she defeated Democrat Bob Kerrey.

But Johanns’s retirement could give grassroots groups another opportunity to elect their chosen candidate to the seat — potentially sparking yet another conflict with the party establishment.

The establishment vs. grassroots scenario is likely to play out in a handful of Senate primaries nationwide this cycle.

Following a disappointing showing in the 2012 elections, in which weak candidates cost the GOP seats in Indiana and Missouri, Republicans have been looking for a way to get more involved in primary races to prevent similarly untested candidates from winning a primary but losing in the general.

Karl Rove and supporters recently launched the Conservative Victory Project to do just that. The super-PAC will engage in primaries, Rove told Fox News, to elect “the most conservative candidate who can win.”

CVP has already indicated it’s interested in getting involved in the GOP primary for retiring Sen. Tom Harkin’s (D-Iowa) seat.

But Jonathan Collegio, spokesman for the CVP, said in an email to The Hill that it’s “way too early to predict involvement” in Nebraska.

“We have no idea who will run, or if there will be multiple candidates,” he said.

The prospect of a contested primary might disappear, however, if Gov. Dave Heineman (R) decides to run. Many Republicans believe Heineman could clear the GOP field and coast to the nomination.

Heineman declined to run in 2012, but his term as governor will end in 2014. On Monday, Heineman told the Omaha World-Herald he will take “a few days” to consider his options.

If he stays out, the field would break wide open.

Said Fortenberry, “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.”

Rep. Lee Terry (R) is also not ruling out a Senate bid.

“Congressman Terry will contemplate a bid for Senate later. Right now it is about thanking Senator Johanns for his service,” his spokesman, Charles Isom, said in an email to The Hill.

Rep. Adrian Smith (R) could also jump in, and Stenberg and Bruning remain potential candidates.

A source connected to businessman Pete Ricketts, Joe Ricketts’s son, says he is also considering jumping into the race. Pete Ricketts was the GOP Senate candidate in 2006, but he lost to Sen. Ben Nelson (D).

Republicans are also floating former state Treasurer Shane Osborn.

Many of the potential contenders have similar records on the issues that are likely to play a central role in the GOP primary.

The involvement of outside groups could be determined more by whether individual candidates solicit their help, according to Nebraska GOP Executive Director Jordan McGrain.

 “It just kind of depends on the way the field takes shape, and the way each of these candidates cultivate relationship with these outside groups,” he said.

“At the end of the day, Nebraska’s a cheap state to play in. You can completely saturate the airwaves to the tune of a million bucks,” he said.