Nebraska state Sen. Bob Krist formally launched his independent campaign for governor on Wednesday and left the Republican Party, promising to bring a nonpartisan approach to state government.
Krist, who has described himself as a centrist Republican, switched his party affiliation to nonpartisan as part of a long-shot attempt to unseat incumbent Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts.
Krist, of Omaha, said his campaign was driven in part by his belief that the Legislature has become overly partisan and that Ricketts has exerted influence through tens of thousands of dollars in donations to Republican legislative candidates.
"Nebraskans are looking for independent and effective leadership," Krist said at a news conference with his family at the Capitol. "We believe I am the right person to answer the call and return us to the nonpartisan traditions that made Nebraska great."
Krist pledged to work with lawmakers from both parties to reduce property taxes and provide adequate funding for public education. He also vowed to fix problems in the Department of Correctional Services, an agency that has dealt with deadly riots, escapes and overcrowding in recent years.
Krist was appointed to the Legislature in 2009 by then-Gov. Dave Heineman and was elected to full terms in 2010 and 2014. If he qualifies for the ballot, he would face Ricketts in the 2018 general election. A Democratic candidate has yet to enter the race.
The Nebraska Republican Party criticized Krist as "party shopping for a higher office."
Kenny Zoeller, the party's executive director, noted that Krist ran for the Legislature as a Republican but considered challenging then-U.S. Rep. Lee Terry of Omaha as a Democrat in 2014. Krist chose to stay a Republican at the time, but he remained at odds with many activists and endorsed Democrat Brad Ashford for the seat.
"He has flip-flopped so often on what he believes, he hasn't even been able to choose a party for the ballot," Zoeller said.
Krist acknowledged he has had a "love-hate relationship" with the GOP, but he accused party activists of stifling debate in the Legislature.
"I've always believed the emphasis should be on working together and building consensus, not kowtowing to a party mandate," he said.
He said he's running as an independent and not a Democrat in part because he is anti-abortion. He said he didn't like the way national Democratic leaders attacked former Omaha mayoral candidate Heath Mello, a Democrat who opposes abortion rights.
Krist faces an uphill battle against Ricketts, a multimillionaire and well-known incumbent in a Republican-dominated state. Ricketts had nearly $557,000 in cash on-hand as of last year, according to the latest filings with the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission.
Krist said he has already received commitments from donors but has not yet reported his total receipts.
He also has to qualify for the ballot, which would require roughly 5,000 signatures if he forms his own party.
Ricketts' campaign manager, Jessica Flanagain, declined to comment.
In a statement, Nebraska Democratic Party chairwoman Jane Kleeb said Krist's run is "good for democracy.
"Nebraska has one-party rule right now," she said. "Democrats and independents are part of the fabric of our state and deserve a seat at the table for making decisions that impact our families."