LINCOLN, Nebraska — A central Nebraska cattle rancher cast himself as a nonpartisan bridge-builder on Wednesday as he announced that he has gathered enough signatures to run as an independent for an open U.S. Senate seat.
Jim Jenkins submitted roughly 5,800 signatures to the Nebraska secretary of state's office.
The Custer County rancher and restaurant chain owner is running for the seat being vacated by Republican Sen. Mike Johanns, who is not seeking a second term. Nebraska law requires independent candidates to gather 4,000 signatures from registered voters by Sept. 1 to qualify for the ballot.
Jenkins is competing against Republican Ben Sasse, a former president at Midland University in Fremont, and Democrat Dave Domina, an Omaha attorney.
In a speech to about 35 people in Lincoln, Jenkins said both parties wield too much influence over Congress. He pointed to Nebraska's history of shunning party labels, as the state did in 1934 when voters approved a nonpartisan, one-house Legislature.
"Politics is tough regardless, no matter how you're running," Jenkins said. "But I think we have a lot better chance than many people give us ... I think there's a great opportunity in this state because of our independent culture."
If elected, Jenkins said, he would focus on reducing the nation's debt and changing the two-party grip on Congress. Jenkins also said he wants to see legislation that would open all primary elections to any registered voter who wants to run, allowing the top two with the most votes to advance to the general election.
Jenkins was previously a Democrat but changed parties two years ago. The U.S. Senate currently has two independents: Angus King of Maine and Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
Jenkins runs a family cattle ranch near Callaway and is a former chairman of the Nebraska Ethanol Board. He also founded the Whiskey Creek Steakhouse restaurant chain and co-founded the Skeeter Barnes restaurant chain.
Without a party's financial backing and institutional support, Jenkins faces long odds, said John Hibbing, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln political science professor. Hibbing said independent candidates usually struggle to gain traction in Nebraska, which has become increasingly conservative.
An independent such as Jenkins could pull votes away from Sasse, Hibbing said, but probably not enough to swing the election's outcome.
"Traditionally, their impact has been fairly minimal," Hibbing said. "We have a fairly entrenched two-party system. You certainly don't want to just write off a valiant effort, but traditionally these things don't work out very well."