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.
Mike Johanns profile
Family: Wife Stephanie, two children, five grandchildren
Education: Bachelor's degree, St. Mary's College in Winona, Minn., 1971; law degree, Creighton University, 1974
June 18, 1950: Born, Osage, Iowa
1968: Graduated Osage Community High School
1971: Bachelor's degree, communications, St. Mary's College, Winona, Minn.
1972: Married first wife, Connie
1974: Law degree, Creighton University
1974-75: Law clerk, Judge Hale McCown, Nebraska Supreme Court
1975-76: Cronin and Hannon law firm, O'Neill
1976-91: Partner, Nelson Johanns Morris Holdeman and Titus
1983: Elected Lancaster County Commissioner
1985: Divorced Connie Johanns
1986: Married Stephanie Armitage
1989: Elected Lincoln City Council
1991: Elected mayor of Lincoln
1995: Re-elected mayor
1998: Elected governor
2002: Re-elected governor
2005: Appointed U.S. Agriculture Secretary
2008: Elected to U.S. Senate