The writer is issues chair for Common Cause Nebraska.
Money in politics is something all voters should be concerned about. Nebraska statistics show that those candidates with the most money have a greater chance of winning than those with less. Since candidates are not required to disclose donations under $250, it is difficult to measure the effect of small donors. It is safe, however, to estimate that 80% of all legislative contributions come from large donors such as wealthy individuals, corporations and political action committees.
A real difference maker in Nebraska state elections has been the campaign contributions of Gov. Ricketts and his parents, Joe and Marlene Ricketts.
Omaha World-Herald statistics show the governor contributing $1,824,520 between Oct. 31, 2001, and May 2, 2018, to state campaigns while Joe and Marlene Ricketts contributed $1,706,882 between June 10, 1999, and May 2, 2018.
During the same 10-year period, the governor has actually contributed more than $328,700 to Nebraska legislative races alone and $51,500 to candidates for the University of Nebraska Board of Regents. His contributions reach as far as county boards and city mayors. We will not get a complete accounting of the 2020 contributions until late ﬁlings are tabulated sometime after the election, but one can follow the contribution for all candidates at the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure website.
Another factor to watch is the role of “dark money” in the 2020 election. Organizations like Americans for Prosperity and Trees of Liberty have been active in Nebraska elections at least since 2016. These organizations are 501(c)(3)s which do not have to disclose their donors. As long as they avoid using the words “vote for” or “vote against,” they can say almost anything about a candidate. Often these kinds of organization run attack ads through mailings and robo calls using deceptive language and half-truths. Dark money organizations like to attack candidates when their campaign funds are running out and they can not respond to the attacks.
It should be noted that in 2010, Pete Ricketts was recognized as a “founder” of Americans for Prosperity. He has indicated that he was indeed a founder but he does not donate to the organization. Unfortunately we have no way of knowing who does. Dark money is not visible, but it can severely hurt a candidate.
In 2016, John Lowe defeated Bob Lammers for the Nebraska Legislature’s 37th District seat. Both men were registered Republicans. Lammers, however, came out in support of a gas tax to improve road construction and infrastructure while opposing charter schools. Both the governor and Lowe disagreed with Lammers on both issues. Gov. Ricketts then donated $10,000 to Lowe’s campaign, and Americans for Prosperity began attacking Lammers as “not being a team player” and distributed a cartoon-type ad with Lammers’ face superimposed on a frustrated basketball player.
In 2018, The World-Herald reported a “dark money” group called “The 10th Amendment Project” attacked Republicans Myron Dorn (District 30) and Tom Brandt (District 32) during their legislative campaigns. Dorn, a farmer, was accused of late payments of his property taxes. There was never a violation. Brant was accused of being a “millionaire farmer” who “selﬁshly beneﬁted himself” by supporting property tax reform.
Gov. Ricketts contributed $5,000 to each of their opponents, Joe Murray and Al Riskowski. Although the governor denied ever hearing of the 10th Amendment Project, it was funded by a political action committee called “Future 45.” Joe Ricketts contributed $1 million to Future 45 and the governor’s brother Todd was a fundraiser for Future 45. Dorn and Brandt were both elected, but both had to overcome the odds.
In 2020 an internal battle within the Republican Party has already broken out. Gov. Rickets’ appointee, State Sen. Julie Slama, is being challenged by longtime party worker Janet Palmtag. On Dec. 15, 2019, Gov. Ricketts contributed $5,000 to Sen. Slama. The questions remain, how much more will the governor contribute to Slama, and will Americans for Prosperity attack?
It is important for all voters to follow the money. It is easy to feel defeated when you see large amounts of money ﬂowing from all directions and dark money groups attacking without identifying their contributors. Always remember, it is your vote that counts and no one can buy that unless you let them.