LINCOLN, Nebraska — With just three months until the primary, the Nebraska attorney general's race is filling up fast with candidates who want to replace Republican Jon Bruning while he campaigns for governor.
Bruning's announcement set the stage for a rare competitive Republican primary, and gave Democrats hope that they might snatch the seat in a race with no incumbent.
Republicans were guaranteed a race on Friday when Nebraska state Sen. Pete Pirsch announced he would seek the office. Lincoln attorney Doug Peterson has already declared that he will run, and Omaha attorney Brian Buescher and Lincoln lawyer Mike Hilgers are both looking seriously at the job.
The potential candidates emerged after Bruning declared this month that he would run for governor, instead of seeking a fourth term to the office that he has held since 2003. His departure gives Republicans their first contested primary since 1990, when Don Stenberg defeated then-Lancaster County Attorney Mike Heavican and Lincoln attorney John DeCamp to become attorney general.
"What's interesting about this primary is that it's truly competitive, which doesn't happen very often," said Nebraska Republican Party Chairman J.L. Spray. "We'll have several very good candidates, but it will be a very short primary for folks to get their message out and campaign."
Fremont attorney Janet Stewart is running unopposed in the Democratic primary, and without Bruning, she no longer faces an incumbent in the general election. Stewart, who previously ran for Congress and Nebraska secretary of state, said she plans to file papers for the May 13 primary this week.
Peterson became the first GOP candidate to join the race when he announced earlier this month. The 53-year-old said he would bring experience from his 28-year private practice in Lincoln and his time as an assistant attorney under former Attorney General Robert Spire. Peterson is the nephew of former Nebraska Gov. Val Peterson, who served from 1947 to 1953, and his father was a state railway commissioner.
"I've seen that public service model, and for me, with the skills I've developed, I want to be an advocate for the state," Peterson said. "But I don't want to be a career politician. I really see this as a job interview, and the voters are the hiring managers. I want to show them my qualifications, my conservative values, and how important it is ... to be a workhorse, not a show horse."
In his announcement Friday, Pirsch pointed to his background as a former criminal prosecutor and a state crime commission member. The 44-year-old is serving his eighth year in the Legislature but can't seek re-election because of term limits. As a lawmaker, he has focused on bills to clamp down on sexual offenders and habitual drunken drivers.
"This is a position where I'll be able to use my experience, my training, and my passion to make a real difference for the people of Nebraska," Pirsch said.
In 2012, Pirsch introduced a ballot measure to enshrine hunting, fishing and trapping rights into the state constitution. The measure passed in the Legislature despite a filibuster, and was approved by voters with 76 percent support.
Buescher, 39, said Friday that he was strongly considering the race. He pointed to his experience in Nebraska agribusiness cases, representing farmers and ranchers for Kutak Rock, a national law firm with offices in Omaha.
Buescher worked with the attorney general's office in the early 2000s on Nebraska's court battle with Kansas over the Republican River. His private-practice experience includes litigation with the federal government related to soil erosion, agricultural waste and the Endangered Species Act.
"I believe the attorney general can do a lot, and has done a lot, to make sure the federal government does not exceed its authority in regulating Nebraska," Buescher said.
Lincoln attorney Hilgers said he was also looking hard at the race and planned to decide by this week. He pointed to his management experience as a founding partner of Gober Hilgers, a firm that bills itself as a lower-cost option for clients with complex legal cases. Hilgers, who ran unsuccessfully for the Legislature in 2012, said he hoped to continue Bruning's focus on lawsuits challenging the federal government's environmental and health care regulations.
"I think my background is uniquely situated to both take on the federal government and to reduce the cost of the agency," said Hilgers, 35. "A year ago, I wouldn't have told you that I was running for attorney general. But it's a unique time in Nebraska."
Stewart, 64, said she had planned to run even if Bruning had sought re-election. She spent 24 years as an attorney with Mutual of Omaha and two with Ceres Group, a health and life insurance company, before joining her husband in a Fremont law office. Stewart said her unsuccessful, 2010 run for Nebraska secretary of state gave her experience in mounting a statewide campaign.
"It's really important that voters get a choice," Stewart said. "I've supervised attorneys throughout the nation in litigation, and I think I can bring a solid foundation to the legal matters that come before the state of Nebraska. I want to represent the state and its citizens, as their lawyer."