Democrats will get a non-Republican choice in the Nebraska U.S. Senate race, but it won't be a Democrat.
Jim Jenkins, a Callaway rancher-farmer, will run as an independent candidate, without either an “R” or a “D” behind his name.
Jenkins, 56, is the fifth candidate to run for the seat currently held by outgoing U.S. Sen. Mike Johanns, a Republican. The other four candidates are all Republicans. So far, no Democrat has expressed interest in the race.
Jenkins says he believes a majority of Nebraskans are tired of the bitter partisan battles that grip Washington, D.C., especially in the wake of the recent partial federal shutdown. And he said he believes a majority of Nebraskans are “moderates,” who would be willing to give an independent-minded candidate a chance.
“Americans are not nearly as divided as cable TV and the political class would have us believe,” Jenkins said. “The vast majority of us are somewhere in the sensible center.”
Jenkins was considered a top-tier Democratic prospect until two years ago, when he officially switched his party affiliation to independent. Shortly after his party switch, Jenkins considered running for the U.S. Senate. But he was forced to abandon the idea after he learned about a state law that prohibited candidates from running for office in the same year in which they changed their party affiliation.
Jenkins said that throughout his adult life, he has always voted for both Democratic and Republican candidates.
In 2008, he said, he voted for Barack Obama for president because he believed that the Democrat would “govern more from the center” and would work to find bipartisan solutions to the nation's rising debt.
Four years later, he said he cast a vote for Republican Mitt Romney because he had “lost confidence” in Obama's commitment to tackling fiscal issues. He said his turning point with Obama came when the president backed away from a bipartisan plan to address the nation's fiscal problems put forth by the so-called Simpson-Bowles Commission.
The commission was named after its co-chairmen: Democrat Erskine Bowles and former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson, a Republican from Wyoming.
“My number one priority is fixing the debt,” said Jenkins. “When he (Obama) backed away from it, I decided I would vote for a business person who seemed to have more skills for negotiation.”
Jenkins said he realizes he will face an uphill battle, but he said he wouldn't run if he didn't think he had a shot. He noted that 20 percent of Nebraskans identify themselves as independent.
“I welcome Republicans, Democrats and independents, everyone who is fed up with the broken system in Washington, to join my campaign,” Jenkins said.
Currently, only two independents serve in the U.S. Senate and both come from Democratic-leaning states: Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine.
Jenkins' first hurdle will be getting on the ballot.
Under state law, his name will not appear on the May primary ballot. That election is reserved for candidates seeking a specific party's nomination.
In order to get on the November ballot, Jenkins will have to collect more than 4,000 signatures.
Jenkins was raised in Custer County, but left Nebraska for about 20 years to attend school and work in the restaurant and business world in Boston, Chicago and Columbus, Ohio.
He returned to Nebraska in 1996, developing a steakhouse chain known as Whiskey Creek. He sold that company a decade ago.
He also helped to found Skeeter Barnes restaurants, and currently serves on the company's board of directors.
Jenkins is part owner of a ranch and farm operation near Callaway.
Jenkins said he would use some of his own money to finance his race, but he would not rely solely on his personal checkbook to pay for his campaign.
“This has really got to be a campaign that's about a concept and that's much bigger than me,” Jenkins said.