Four years ago, Nebraska U.S. Sen. Mike Johanns feared he had lung cancer.
The spot on his lung turned out to be benign, but the Republican's brush with the disease got him thinking about life outside politics.
Johanns kept thinking about it until Monday, when he shocked the state's political world with his decision not to seek re-election in 2014. The mild-mannered politician and devout Catholic said his “cancer scare” left him wanting to spend more time with his wife, his family and his faith.
“I have to say, it does change your view of the world,” said Johanns. “We lived with it (a possible lung cancer diagnosis) for several months. When you start looking at your life through that lens, life looks a lot different.”
Johanns' decision to leave politics in two years prompted others to begin thinking about a run for U.S. Senate, most notably Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman.
Heineman says 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.”
Heineman was heavily courted by national GOP leaders in 2007 to run for U.S. Senate. He refused, saying he wanted to finish out his term as governor.
His term ends in 2014, giving Heineman a clear path to run for the Senate, without necessarily having to leave the Governor's Mansion. When asked whether he would step down if he decided to run, Heineman said at a press conference Monday: “You're way, way ahead of me. Maybe if I were to become head football coach, I'd have to step down, but you're way ahead of me.”
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.
Republicans weren't the only ones thinking about the Senate seat. One possible Democratic contender could be former University of Nebraska Regent Chuck Hassebrook. He mounted a Senate bid last year but stepped back after former Sen. Bob Kerrey got into the race.
Vince Powers, chairman of the Nebraska Democratic Party, expected others to consider the race over the coming days and weeks.
“I, like everybody else, was surprised” by Johanns' announcement, Powers said. “I think everybody is going to take a little bit of time to digest this.”
Johanns' decision started to trickle out as he began to call supporters, including Heineman, to inform them of his decision Monday morning.
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.
Johanns said that medical scare prompted him to begin thinking more about his personal life. He noted that he and his wife, Stephanie, have spent 32 years in public life.
The two met when they were Lancaster County commissioners. They often are seen together at state political events and are considered one of the state's top political power couples.
In fact, the letter Johanns sent out Monday was signed by both.
“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.
Johanns' departure from politics will change Nebraska's political landscape. He has been at the forefront of politics for decades, starting his political career in 1982 with a successful run for the Lancaster County Board of Commissioners.
He went on to serve as mayor of Lincoln, before winning a long-shot campaign for governor in 1998. In 2005, he was tabbed by then-President George W. Bush to serve as agriculture secretary. He left that job in 2007 to run for Senate.
“I can't thank Nebraska enough. I hope I've given back one-tenth of what the people of this great state have given us. We have friends in every single county,” said Johanns.
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Video: Sen. Mike Johanns discusses the reason behind his retirement announcement
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Johanns' letters to supporters
Dear Fellow Nebraskans,
We would like to share with you a decision we have made about running for re-election to the United States Senate. We have decided not to seek re-election.
Words are inadequate to fully express our appreciation for the friendship and support you have given to us over the past three decades.
With everything in life, there is a time and a season. 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.
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. We are also confident that there will be many more opportunities to serve our state and our nation.
We look forward to the remaining time in the Senate. It is an honor to have served in so many ways over so many years.
May God continue to bless Nebraska and our great nation.
Mike & Stephanie Johanns
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Statements about Johanns retirement
“Senator Mike Johanns is a remarkably outstanding public official. His career spans decades of dedicated service at the local, state and national levels. As a mayor, a Governor, a Cabinet Secretary, and now as a U.S. Senator, Senator Johanns has always been a leader of our state and of our nation.
“We are forever thankful for his commitment to serving our citizens, in particular, our farmers and ranchers, and our veterans. Sally and I are both thankful and grateful to Senator Johanns and Stephanie for their service. Nebraskans are proud of you.”
"For over 30 years, Mike Johanns has dedicated his life to serving the citizens of Nebraska. Mike's time in public service began as a County Board Member, then City Council Member, Mayor, Governor of Nebraska, Secretary of Agriculture, and United States Senator. Few Nebraskans have served in so many different roles and had such a tremendous impact in each one of them. But Mike would be the first to tell you that his success is only possible through the counsel, love, and support of his wife, Stephanie.
"I am personally grateful for Mike's leadership in the Senate and all he has done in helping to smooth my transition. His rare mix of strong leadership and warm collegiality has earned him the respect and admiration of his colleagues from both sides of the aisle. While I am fortunate to have two more years to serve alongside him, I am sad to see Mike leave the Senate. I am so thankful for his many years of service and on behalf of all Nebraskans, Bruce and I wish Mike and Stephanie the very best as they begin this new chapter of their lives."
"I want to thank my friend and colleague for his decades of service to Nebraskans and all Americans. He has been a fighter for fiscal responsibility, energy independence, and a strong agriculture economy. He has been a true steward of Nebraska interests and I wish him and Stephanie all the best in their future endeavors."
"Senator Johanns is an extraordinary public servant. I've had the honor of working with him since his time as Lincoln's Mayor. His leadership as Governor, Secretary of Agriculture, and now as U.S. Senator is marked by the honesty, integrity, and hard work he brought to each role. He has devoted his life's work to the wellbeing of our state and nation. Now, we thank him for a job well done. I look forward to working with him in coming months and wish him and Stephanie all the best in the years ahead."
"I thank Senator Johanns for his outstanding service to Nebraska and the nation. I am grateful for his friendship and the leadership he has demonstrated at the local, state and federal levels, and I look forward to continuing to work with him for the next two years to represent the people of Nebraska."