Jon Bruning wants to replace Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) (Bill Wolf/AP Photo)

He formed a Senate exploratory committee to take on Sen. Ben Nelson (D) three days after he was re-elected Nebraska Attorney General in 2010.

“I’m like a horse in the barn, I’ve been ready to run for a long time,” the 42-year-old Republican state official said. We interviewed Bruning for our ‘Rising’ series on up-and-coming politicians.

If Bruning stays on top, he has a good chance of beating Nelson, one of the most vulnerable senators in the country. Bruning was unopposed in his past two elections. Now he’s facing the fight of his career.

Nebraskans confirm that Bruning has really been running against Nelson since 2008, when he planned a primary run against Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) until Hagel decided to retire. Bruning tried to stay in against now-Sen. Mike Johanns (R), a former governor and agriculture secretary, but the support wasn’t there.

“If I do my job, political opportunities will come,” Bruning said then. “The timing wasn’t with me this time, but I’m confident the time will come someday.”

It seems that time is now. Polls show him far ahead in the primary; he dominates in fundraising. He got Tea Party Express’s first endorsement of the cycle. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee is backing him too. Mike Flood, the Nebraska legislature speaker and himself a rising star, supports Bruning.


But until last month, Bruning basically had the primary field to himself. The only other candidates were State Treasurer Don Stenberg, who has run unsuccessfully for Senate three times before, and little-known businessman Pat Flynn.

Now the race is complicated by the entrance of state Sen. Deb Fischer, a popular politician and rancher who is close to Gov. Dave Heineman (R). (Bruning endorsed Heineman’s primary opponent in 2006.) Whether Bruning can keep the lead in the face of a strong primary opponent is an open question. Even some supporters say they now feel torn.

The easiest attack on Bruning, one Hagel used in 2007 and Stenberg brought back this year, is that the staunch conservative was once an outspoken liberal. As a law student at University of Nebraska, Bruning wrote op-eds in which he advocated for gun control, gays in the military, affirmative action, and abortion rights. He disparaged Ronald Reagan and called Hillary Clinton an “amazing woman.”

It’s likely not a deadly blow. Sen. Johanns was a moderate Democrat until 1988; he even flirted with a bid for state party chairman. Reagan himself was famously a Democrat until his 50s.

“It’s just one more thing that contributes to a sense that people get when they meet him, there’s a doubt sometimes about the genuineness,”said David Kramer, former state party chairman.

Bruning has a simple explanation. “As I started to pay taxes and fell in love with my wife and thought about starting a family, it became pretty clear that I didn’t want the government to factor into those decisions,” he said.

The transformation “was genuine,” says Andrew Loudon, a Republican lawyer from Lincoln who has known Bruning since high school. “Part of it was paying taxes, part of it was growing up.”

Since then, Bruning has rarely strayed from the conservative line — although he did once suggest that he was sometimes too harsh on criminals, saying at a 2005 hearing that “I'm so tough it makes me want to throw up sometimes.”

More relevant is Bruning’s relationship with David Sokol. Once Warren Buffett’s heir apparent, Sokol was forced out of Berkshire Hathaway in late March for allegedly misleading the firm about his stake in a chemical manufacturer. (The Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating.) Yet Bruning defended Sokol and kept him on as his campaign finance chair until early May. 

Even now, Bruning is loathe to criticize his old friend. “I hope Nebraskans don’t forget all the good things David Sokol has done for this state,” he told me. “I think there’s often a rush to judgement by the public and the media. I’m not one who abandons his friends.”

Bruning’s office has also been criticized for pushing for a death-row inmate’s execution despite knowing about the state could not use a lethal injection drug bought from India.

This primary is almost certain to get ugly. Bruning is known for his bomb-throwing — last year he faced a grievance complaint after calling a judge “out of control” and an attorney “an apologist for sex offenders.” In 2007, he went after Hagel hard. He already has a tracker with a videocamera out to tape Fischer.

“People who know me know that I’m not going to be a shrinking violet,” Bruning said. “I’m not going to go along to get along.” The next round of fundraising reports will give some sign of whether that’s what Nebraskans want.