The shootout between Pete Ricketts and Jon Bruning for the GOP gubernatorial nomination turned into the signature race of the Nebraska Primary Tuesday. The candidates watched neck-and-neck numbers measure their campaigns all night long. Jon Bruning conceded shortly before 11:30 p.m.
An upbeat Ricketts spoke briefly with supporters shortly after 10 o’clock but the counting continued.
Bruning spoke with WOWT 6 News around 10:30 and remained hopeful. Less than a half percentage point separated the two contenders.
The lead slowly began to move in favor of Ricketts and shortly before 11:30 Jon Bruning took to the stage in front of supporters to step aside and pledge his support to Pete Ricketts.
Ricketts emerges as a heavy favorite in the November general election. The path for both candidates had turned rocky in recent weeks, with Bruning and former TD Ameritrade executive Ricketts sparring over their experience and accusing each other of running negative campaigns.
Both were seeking the governor's office after previous unsuccessful bids for U.S. Senate - Ricketts in the 2006 general election, and Bruning in the 2012 primary. Ricketts, whose previous Senate run was the most expensive in Nebraska history, raised less money this time around but still led the field with $3.7 million as of last month.
Bruning joined the race in February shortly after he was treated for colon cancer. He initially said he would seek re-election as attorney general, but has since run a competitive race, raising $2.1 million in campaign funds.
Republicans said once the nominee is chosen, the party will unite and work to extend its 15-year hold on the governor's office.
"We'll have had a hard-fought primary, but once it's over, it'll be time to focus on winning the general," said Bud Synhorst, executive director of the Nebraska Republican Party.
Despite minor differences over roads funding, prison reform and prenatal care for people in the United States illegally, the six GOP candidates march together on most issues. In addition to Bruning and Ricketts, the field included state Senators Beau McCoy of Omaha and Tom Carlson of Holdrege, Omaha tax attorney Bryan Slone and State Auditor Mike Foley of Lincoln.
Ricketts will face Democrat Chuck Hassebrook, a former University of Nebraska regent who led the Center for Rural Affairs. While the Republican race has drawn the most attention, Hassebrook has spent the last several months building a campaign network, fundraising and presenting himself to voters as a champion of rural Nebraska.
"For a Democrat, an open seat is clearly easier to win than a challenged race against an incumbent," said Paul Landow, a University of Nebraska at Omaha political science professor. "A win is always possible. But it's a long, uphill climb."
The latest turn in the GOP race came last week, when Governor Heineman endorsed Bruning in the primary. Heineman, the state's longest-serving governor and a popular Republican figure, said Bruning had the experience needed for the job. He also said he believed Bruning would focus on economic development and education.
Ricketts won endorsements from former Nebraska Governors Charles Thone and Kay Orr, as well as from national political figures embraced by the Tea Party. The list includes former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, Indiana Governor Mike Pence, and U.S. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas.