By GRANT SCHULTE
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) _ Nebraska's race for governor has been wildly unpredictable, and it hasn't even really started.
The abrupt resignation Saturday of Lt. Gov. Rick Sheehy, who quit after it was revealed he made thousands of phone calls to four women on his state-issued cellphone, was the latest turn in what's shaping up to be a turbulent 2014 race.
Sheehy, a Republican, had been considered the favorite, especially after former Speaker of the Legislature Mike Flood withdrew from the race in December after his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. Sheehy enjoyed the endorsement and fundraising muscle of Gov. Dave Heineman.
Heineman had once declared that Sheehy "could take over today and do a great job.'' Heineman distanced himself from his former lieutenant on Saturday, accusing Sheehy of betraying his trust after questions were raised about the cellphone calls with four women, none of whom were his wife, who filed for divorce last year.
State Republican Party Chairman Mark Fahleson said he expected an intense primary race before the loss of two well-known GOP candidates, and now others will step up.
"The Republican Party in Nebraska promotes competitive primaries,'' Fahleson said. "A primary that was already competitive is going to be super-competitive now.''
The Republican possibilities include University of Nebraska Regent Tim Clare, state Sen. Beau McCoy of Omaha, state Auditor Mike Foley, and former state Sen. Phil Erdman, who now works as agriculture director for U.S. Sen. Mike Johanns. Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning has previously said he didn't plan to jump into the race, but his comments came before Sheehy left office.
State Sen. Charlie Janssen of Fremont, a Republican, has also said he is leaning toward running and expects to decide sometime within the next few weeks.
Heineman's pick to fill the lieutenant governor position likely won't enter the race. The governor's spokeswoman, Jen Rae Hein, said Heineman wants to pick a lieutenant who has no intention of campaigning for the job.
The Nebraska constitution also prevents Heineman from appointing a state senator when the Legislature is in session, which would rule out several possible candidates.
It's not certain whether Sheehy will drop out of the governor's race. The lieutenant governor did not appear with Heineman at a Saturday news conference, and his state-issued cellphone has been disconnected.
The scandal aside, Sheehy would almost certainly lose several advantages he enjoyed as a candidate. The lieutenant governor traveled Nebraska regularly on what was billed as official state business, including a "State of the State'' publicity tour to promote Heineman's tax plan. Sheehy also had recruited Dean Dennhardt, who served as Heineman's campaign finance director.
Several Democrats have signaled an interest in running, including University of Nebraska Regent Chuck Hassebrook and Nebraska state Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha. In recent weeks, Democratic Party activists have also approached state Sen. Annette Dubas, of Fullerton. Dubas runs a farm with her husband and one of their sons, and is well-known among many opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline.
"We're going to have a very strong candidate in 2014,'' said Vince Powers, chairman of the Nebraska Democratic Party. "This doesn't change anything, other than it really demonstrates that when you have one party in power for too long, arrogance and corruption and scandal follow it. It doesn't matter if it's Democrats in power or Republicans in power.''
Hassebrook said he is "taking a hard look'' at running for governor in 2014.
"I recognize that no human is without failing. So I wish Rick Sheehy and his family the best as they seek to heal from this disappointing episode,'' he said.
Lathrop, who has previously signaled his interest in running for governor, said he will decide whether to enter the race sometime this spring.
"I have a number of people I want to get around to talk to, to find out what their concerns are and what their interests are,'' Lathrop said. "I want to see whether I can bring something to the table for Nebraskans in the next two years.''