2016 Contenders Flock to Nebraska’s Open Governor’s Race

One candidate’s father is one of the biggest Republican donors in the country.

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 10: Joe Ricketts speaks during the premiere of 'The Conspirator' presented by The American Film Company, Ford's Theatre and Roadside Attractions at Ford's Theatre on April 10, 2011 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Kris Connor/Getty Images for Roadside Attractions)
National Journal
Karyn Bruggeman
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Karyn Bruggeman
May 11, 2014, 6:45 a.m.

One small gov­ernor’s race has turned in­to a cattle call for po­ten­tial 2016 pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates: Neb­raska.

Spe­cific­ally, one can­did­ate in the Cornhusk­er State is get­ting out­sized at­ten­tion from talked-about Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial con­tenders. Wis­con­sin Gov. Scott Walk­er, In­di­ana Gov. Mike Pence, 2012 vice pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee Paul Ry­an, and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas have all en­dorsed Omaha busi­ness­man Pete Rick­etts ahead of Tues­day’s primary.

As po­ten­tial can­did­ates work to woo Re­pub­lic­an mega-donors, the con­test of­fers pres­id­en­tial con­tenders en­trée with a bil­lion­aire sug­ar daddy of the most lit­er­al vari­ety: Joe Rick­etts, the TD Amer­it­rade-found­ing, Chica­go Cubs-own­ing bil­lion­aire who also hap­pens to be the can­did­ate’s fath­er, has spent tens of mil­lions of dol­lars sup­port­ing Re­pub­lic­ans across the coun­try, and his sup­port in 2016 is already much-sought.

Cruz, Walk­er and Ry­an are among those who have met with Joe Rick­etts over the past year, Na­tion­al Journ­al re­por­ted in Feb­ru­ary, and Rick­etts has also been cour­ted by Sen. Rand Paul of Ken­tucky, former Flor­ida Gov. Jeb Bush, and New Jer­sey Gov. Chris Christie.

The en­dorse­ments also con­nect to the Rick­ett­ses’ past polit­ic­al be­ne­fi­cence. The fam­ily’s su­per PAC, the End­ing Spend­ing Ac­tion Fund, spent over $160,000 in sup­port of Cruz dur­ing his con­tested 2012 U.S. Sen­ate primary, and the group put $245,000 to­ward Walk­er’s re­call elec­tion the same year. Joe Rick­etts per­son­ally donated an ad­di­tion­al $100,000 to Walk­er, and Pete Rick­etts and his broth­er Todd Rick­etts, who now runs End­ing Spend­ing, gave an ad­di­tion­al $75,000 to pro-Walk­er ef­forts.

Fil­ings with the In­di­ana Sec­ret­ary of State’s Of­fice and the Fed­er­al Elec­tions Com­mis­sion show the eld­er Rick­etts also made per­son­al con­tri­bu­tions to both Pence’s and Ry­an’s polit­ic­al cam­paigns in 2012. All told, the End­ing Spend­ing PAC has raised and spent roughly $25 mil­lion since it was first launched in 2010, a big slice of which went to pro-Mitt Rom­ney activ­it­ies in 2012, and the fam­ily has giv­en mil­lions more on can­did­ates and PACs across the coun­try.

Pete Rick­etts has also re­ceived back­ing from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Pal­in and Neb­raska nat­ive and former vice pres­id­ent Dick Cheney.

“There’s no doubt there’s a cor­rel­a­tion between na­tion­al fig­ures and the Rick­etts fam­ily’s help and the en­dorse­ments that he’s re­ceived,” said Sam Fisc­her, a long­time Neb­raska polit­ic­al con­sult­ant who’s cur­rently work­ing for one of Rick­etts’s primary op­pon­ents, state Sen. Beau Mc­Coy.

Money may not be the only mo­tiv­at­ing factor. Former Neb­raska Re­pub­lic­an Party dir­ect­or Phil Young thinks the en­dorse­ments are just as much about want­ing to be on the right side of a race whose win­ner could of­fer early polit­ic­al sup­port dur­ing pres­id­en­tial primary sea­son. The race is, after all one of few gubernat­ori­al con­tests with an open GOP primary in 2014. “It prob­ably doesn’t hurt down the road to make friends with people who have a de­cent amount of wealth, but I don’t know if that’s their only polit­ic­al, self-serving reas­on. Get­ting a crit­ic­al mass of sup­port is ac­tu­ally just as im­port­ant in those pres­id­en­tial races,” said Young.

Ul­ti­mately, the en­dorse­ments may be more about 2016 and the people giv­ing them than about 2014 and the per­son re­ceiv­ing them. Pete Rick­etts’s camp is cer­tainly happy to have sup­port, but it fo­cuses more on the loc­als: One of Rick­etts’s fi­nal TV ads fea­tures a pitch from former Neb­raska Gov. Kay Orr. “While Pete ap­pre­ci­ates the sup­port of Govs. Pal­in, Walk­er, and Pence, and Sen. Cruz and Rep. Ry­an ““ his Neb­raska en­dorse­ments are prom­in­ent in his cam­paign,” said spokes­man Josh Moen­ning.

Rick­etts and At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Jon Brun­ing are the lead­ing Re­pub­lic­ans in the gubernat­ori­al primary, and Brun­ing nabbed the biggest name for his side: Term-lim­ited Gov. Dave Heine­man pledged his sup­port to the A.G. in the last days be­fore the primary. Those in­volved in the cam­paigns say­ing in­tern­al polls show the two run­ning neck-and-neck with many voters still un­de­cided. That could po­ten­tially open the door for Mc­Coy or state Aud­it­or Mike Fo­ley, es­pe­cially since few is­sues sep­ar­ate the field. “Ted Cruz and Paul Ry­an and Mike Pence, they don’t know the dif­fer­ence between Pete Rick­etts and Jon Brun­ing or any of the oth­er can­did­ates in this race,” said Brun­ing cam­paign man­ager Jordan Mc­Grain. “They know his last name is Rick­etts.”

This isn’t the first time Brun­ing and the Rick­etts clan have tangled. In 2012, Brun­ing was the front-run­ner for Neb­raska’s open U.S. Sen­ate seat, but he lost a bit­ter primary in­volving mul­tiple out­side groups ““ in­clud­ing End­ing Spend­ing, which lined up against him. Brun­ing has re­peatedly ac­cused Rick­etts of fun­nel­ing money to groups run­ning out­side TV ads against him in this year’s race. If Brun­ing wins on Tues­day, it would be a coup against a fam­ily that has twice at­temp­ted to de­feat him.

And if Rick­etts wins? No can­did­ate for­gets who stood with them.

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