U.S. Sen. Mike Johanns of Nebraska announced Monday that he will not seek re-election in 2014, saying he wants a "quieter time" to focus on his family following a busy political career that included stints as governor and President George W. Bush's agriculture secretary.
The Republican announced that he was retiring from the Senate after one term. He said he and his wife, Stephanie, had decided that the time has come "to close this chapter of our lives."
"During these many years, we have cherished our time together," the couple said in an email statement. "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."
Johanns, 62, joined the U.S. Senate in 2009. He served as agriculture secretary under Bush and was Nebraska's governor from 1999 to 2005.
The announcement came as a surprise to many GOP insiders. Several Republican office-holders praised Johanns for his collegiality and thoughtfulness in a deeply divided Washington.
"I am personally grateful for Mike's leadership in the Senate and all he has done in helping to smooth my transition," said Sen. Deb Fischer, a Republican who was sworn in for her first term in January. "His rare mix of strong leadership and warm collegiality has earned him the respect and admiration of his colleagues on 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."
Johanns' departure could leave an opening for Republican Gov. Dave Heineman, who is leaving office in 2014 because of term limits. Heineman was courted by national party officials after Democratic U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson announced in 2011 that he was retiring. But Heineman declined to enter the race at the time, saying he wanted to focus on his work as governor.
In a statement, Heineman called Johanns "a remarkably outstanding public official."
"We are forever thankful for his commitment to serving our citizens, in particular, our farmers and ranchers, and our veterans," the governor said.
His decision to retire opens a new 2014 race in Nebraska, a solidly red state where Republicans hold all the congressional seats.
But Nebraska voters are notoriously unpredictable. Fischer was elected after defeating two better-known Republican candidates in the 2012 primary and beating former Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey in the general election. And despite Nebraska's heavily Republican leanings, voters have shown some willingness to elect conservative Democrats to statewide office.
Although he began his political career as a Democrat, Johanns has made a name for himself as a staunch conservative since his election to the Senate in 2008.
In his first year, Johanns voted with the GOP 94 percent of the time, including opposing the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. He opposed the 2010 health care reform law championed by President Barack Obama, calling it bad policy even after the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 upheld it as constitutional.
But unlike many Republicans, including Fischer, Johanns publicly backed former U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel — the man whose Senate seat he took — for secretary of defense.
In 2012, when it was revealed that the Environmental Protection Agency was using aerial surveillance to check farms in the Midwest for violations of federal clean water regulations, Johanns introduced an amendment to a multifaceted farm bill to stop the flights, but it fell four votes short of the 60 needed.
He began his foray into politics nearly three decades ago, when he was elected as a Democrat to the Lancaster County Board of Supervisors in southeast Nebraska. He switched parties in 1988, winning election as a Republican to the Lincoln City Council and, three years later, the city's mayor.
His political status — and conservative leanings — have only grown since. He was elected Nebraska's governor in 1998, and during his second term accepted Bush's appointment to U.S. secretary of agriculture. He stepped down in 2007 to launch his U.S. Senate bid.
During his tenure in the Senate, Johanns has eschewed earmarks, legislative amendments that allow members of Congress to add money for local projects to national bills in a process that is often obscured from public scrutiny.
Johanns faced a health scare during his first year as a senator, undergoing surgery in March 2009 after doctors found a spot on his left lung. No cancer was found, but doctors removed the lower left lobe of his lung as a precaution. Johanns was a smoker, but quit more than 20 years ago.
"Mike Johanns epitomized principled leadership during his near three decades of public service, always putting the needs of Nebraskans first," said U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "I thank him for his service and wish (him) and his family the very best in their next chapter. The Cornhusker state will look to continue its strong conservative tradition by electing an equally dedicated Republican leader in 2014."
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