Republican Jon Bruning sees an opening.
The longtime Nebraska attorney general acknowledged Saturday that he will run for governor, effectively reshuffling the GOP primary race as it enters the 94-day countdown to the May 13 primary.
Bruning said he's the only candidate in the field who has directly challenged President Barack Obama and the federal government, noting he was one of the original attorneys general who filed a lawsuit against Obama's signature health care law.
“I realized at some point here, in the last week or two, that I have the experience to get things done. I've had a front row seat to 15 years of great leadership by (Gov.) Mike Johanns and (Gov.) Dave Heineman. I know what it takes,” said Bruning, who has served for 12 years as attorney general and, before that, six years in the Nebraska Legislature.
Despite his late entry, Bruning, 44, becomes the instant front-runner.
He enters with high name recognition and at a time when the other candidates have struggled to gain momentum or break out of the pack despite being on the campaign trail for months.
Bruning also is arguably the most battle-tested candidate, after losing a bruising U.S. Senate primary in 2012, when he was on the defensive answering questions about his business dealings and a controversial lake house purchase.
Bruning said that this time around he will be a different candidate. His experience losing to Republican Deb Fischer taught him “humility,” he said.
He said his recent bout with colon cancer — he is cancer-free today — taught him that there are far worse things in life than taking barbs and arrows on the campaign trail.
“I learned that political campaigns are not for the faint of heart. When you go through a health scare like I did, you start to realize that what's important is your family and friends.
And suddenly political attacks are a lot less important and a little less jarring,” he said.
Bruning's stiffest competition may come from those already experienced in politics — Omaha businessman Pete Ricketts is making his second bid for a major office, while Mike Foley has won two statewide campaigns for his current office, auditor.
The other Republicans rounding out the GOP field include Omaha tax attorney Bryan Slone and State Sens. Beau McCoy of Omaha and Tom Carlson of Holdrege.
Bruning's eleventh-hour bid is unusual, especially in an era when most politicians take a year or more to raise money and build a campaign organization. Most notably, Sen. Mike Johanns spent two years on the campaign trail when he successfully ran for Nebraska governor in 1998.
“This is unique and somewhat unprecedented,” said Heineman, “where you have someone enter the race this late and become the initial front-runner.”
It's a high-risk gamble for Bruning, who is trading an easy path to re-election as attorney general to run for governor.
The stage is now set for a potential political slugfest between Bruning and Ricketts, whose family owns the Chicago Cubs baseball team and whose father, Joe, founded TD Ameritrade.
There is no love lost between Bruning and Pete Ricketts. Bruning and his supporters have attributed his 2012 loss to a last-minute advertising blitz paid for by a political group founded by Joe Ricketts.
The ads took Bruning to task for purchasing a lake house with two business executives whose company had been fined $1 million by the attorney general. It was a fine that Bruning had once attempted to waive, before backing down amid a public outcry. Bruning purchased the cabin a year after he tried to waive the fine.
There is little doubt that Bruning's decision to run makes it tougher for Ricketts.
Ricketts was the perceived front-runner before Bruning's entry, and he led all the other candidates in fundraising. Last year Ricketts raised more than $1.3 million without investing any of his personal wealth.
In his U.S. Senate bid in 2006 Ricketts spent more than $12 million of his own money in a failed race against Democrat Ben Nelson. Ricketts has said that, this time around, he would not spend as much of his own money, but he has not put a limit on the amount.
“Ricketts' campaign starts now, because he has another big dog in the race,” said Randy Adkins, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Adkins said that over the next few weeks the race will narrow, with three candidates emerging as clear front-runners. Ricketts and Bruning will likely remain in the top three, but a big question becomes who will emerge as the alternative to the top two.
Typically, in races where there are multiple candidates, voters begin to concentrate on those who are perceived to have a chance to win. Often that comes down to three candidates, Adkins said.
“By the time we get to Election Day, some of these other candidates will be effectively out of the race,” he predicted. “We'll end up with three camps. The question is 'Who is going to be the third person?' ”
Another big question for Republicans is “Who will run for attorney general?”
Lincoln attorney Doug Peterson, a Republican, has entered the race, but others are expected to follow, including Omaha attorney Brian Buescher.
Bruning said that on Monday he will embark on a statewide tour, spending considerable time in western Nebraska, where there is a heavy concentration of Republican voters.
“I'm at my happiest when I'm in small-town Nebraska. I want to get into the 3rd (Congressional) District and stay there. I can't wait. People who know me best know I'm at my happiest when I'm in jeans and boots, listening to country music in the 3rd District,” he said.