Agriculture secretary weighs bid for Senate seat

Mike Johanns would need to resign before he enters the election; Democrats say he has a history of resigning public office to pursue the next job.

Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, the former Republican governor of Nebraska, intends to resign and enter the competitive race to succeed retiring GOP Sen. Chuck Hagel.

Two Nebraska Republican sources close to Johanns said he plans to make his resignation formal in the coming days, and one source with firsthand knowledge of the decision said Johanns has shared his plans with President Bush. Another Johanns adviser told CongressDaily a resignation is expected soon and will be followed by a Senate candidacy announcement.

"It's not official yet, but it is looking that way," the adviser said. "It's the direction he is headed."

Terri Teuber, a longtime Johanns spokeswoman, declined to comment on the reports, but she did signal Johanns would reveal his plans soon.

"Secretary Johanns understands that this is a decision he needs to make in the immediate future and he intends to do so," she said. Johanns, elected twice as governor, resigned that post to join Bush's Cabinet in January 2005.

Former state Republican Party Chairman David Kramer, who has talked up a Johanns candidacy in recent weeks, said the former governor would give Republicans the best chance to hold onto the seat, particularly as former Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey considers the race.

Kramer acknowledged state Attorney General Jon Bruning and former Omaha Mayor Hal Daub, both declared candidates, would be "strong competition" in the GOP primary. "But I believe based on the breadth of his experience ... that [Johanns] is by far the best candidate to serve in the Senate and the best person to put on the ballot," he said.

Kramer also noted that however dominant Republicans are in the state, Democrats have won nine of the last 11 Senate contests.

Daub, who launched his Senate bid Monday, said in a telephone interview this afternoon that his team has already drawn up plans to compete in a multiple-candidate GOP primary.

"We're well organized. We're going to be well financed. We've got a great grassroots campaign," Daub said.

Bruning campaign manager Jordan McGrain said Johanns will have to defend himself on issues such as his support for Bush's controversial immigration proposals. "He's not the Goliath that's going to walk in here and walk away with the hearts and minds of Republican primary voters," McGrain said.

Fleshing out a likely campaign theme against Johanns, Democrats on Wednesday said Johanns -- from local offices to governor to Cabinet secretary -- has a history of resigning public office to pursue the next job.

"I thought he wanted to come here and finish the farm bill," Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., said this afternoon. "The farm bill isn't done."

Despite the criticism, Republicans have succeeded in recruiting their best-known candidate, shifting the focus to Kerrey. Paul Johnson, a top former Kerrey aide, said Kerrey would not let Johanns' likely candidacy affect his own decision or timing.

"First of all, you're going to face someone, whether it's Johanns or Bruning or Daub," Johnson said. "I don't think it matters."

Democrats on Wednesday said Kerrey's family, including his 6-year-old son, are among the considerations Kerrey is weighing. Since leaving the Senate in 2001, Kerrey has been president of the New School University in New York City.