Skip to content

Ricketts Is GOP Favorite in Nebraska

National Republicans got the candidate they wanted to challenge Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson (D) in 2006 — now all Pete Ricketts has to do is win the Republican primary.

The 41-year-old Ameritrade executive, an Omaha resident who has never run for political office, must first defeat 2000 Republican Senate nominee Don Stenberg and former state Republican Party Chairman David Kramer. But if the multimillionaire is successful, the National Republican Senatorial Committee is prepared to play ball on the Plains.

“We will do whatever we can [for Ricketts] behind the scenes,” one Washington, D.C.-based Republican official said. “We have been talking to him for quite a while.”

Nelson, a moderate, has been friendly to President Bush on several key issues, including tax cuts and judicial nominations. The president recently appeared with Nelson in Omaha, telling a crowd of 11,000 that the Senator “is a man with whom I can work, a person who is willing to put partisanship aside to focus on what’s right for America.”

But that hasn’t stopped the NRSC from lumping him in with prime takeover targets like Democratic Sens. Robert Byrd (W.Va.), Bill Nelson (Fla.) and Debbie Stabenow (Mich.).

The political dynamics of Nebraska, where Republicans enjoy a 10 percent edge in voter registration and Bush won every county with at least 55 percent in 2004, is simply too attractive to ignore.

“There’s just too many votes there,” said Republican consultant Doug McAuliffe, who worked for Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) in the 1996 Senate race when he defeated then-Gov. Nelson.

The NRSC nevertheless has struggled to recruit a top-tier candidate. The first choice of national Republicans was then-Gov. Mike Johanns (R) — until Bush tapped him to be secretary of Agriculture late last year. Johanns’ replacement, acting Gov. Dave Heineman (R), and Rep. Tm Osborne (R-Neb.) also turned down NRSC entreaties to run for Senate and are now headed to a showdown in next year’s gubernatorial primary.

But given the dynamics of the state, many Republicans still remain optimistic.

“Against a good candidate and a good campaign, [Nelson] can be defeated,” said McAuliffe, who currently is working for Ricketts and last year ran the Republican National Committee’s independent expenditure media campaign on behalf of the president’s re-election.

Ricketts believes he is that candidate.

He said he shares the conservative social values of his fellow Nebraskans, supports Bush on Iraq, and believes his lack of political experience is a plus.

“I believe it’s a benefit that I haven’t served before,” Ricketts said in a telephone interview. “I’m bringing [private-sector] skills to the table.”

Ricketts intends to raise money the old-fashioned way: by soliciting it from others. But he also plans on investing some of his own wealth, though he declined to disclose how much.

Nebraska Democrats recognize the challenge they have in winning statewide races in the staunchly Republican state — even when their candidate is the incumbent.

But they are confident that Nelson will retain his seat, regardless of which candidate wins the Republican primary next May.

“The GOP’s recruiting failures have left them to choose from a local party hack, a recycled loser and a virtual unknown whose only qualification seems to be his deep pockets,” said Barry Rubin, executive director of the Nebraska Democratic Party. “I think if you line the GOP candidates up next to each other, it looks like they’re posing for a carving of Mt. Lose-More.”

Nelson, who is highly unlikely to face a challenger in the Democratic primary, has little to say about his potential opponents at present.

“We’re planning an aggressive and spirited campaign,” said David DiMartino, communications director in Nelson’s Senate office. “Ben Nelson has a record to promote, which reflects Nebraska values, and we’re going to do that no matter who our opponent is.”

In Stenberg, Nelson would face the state’s former attorney general who is making his third Senate bid, while in Kramer he would be pitted against a GOP insider and practicing business attorney.

Stenberg dismissed the tacit support Ricketts has received from the NRSC, touting himself as the only candidate with known positions on all major issues and a record of winning statewide races.

“We’ve had a lot of wealthy candidates run for office here in Nebraska with limited success,” Stenberg said. “I think Nebraskans recognize when a rich person is trying to buy an election, and I think they don’t like that.”

The Kramer campaign believes its key to victory could be a grass-roots effort that is reminiscent of Bush’s 2004 re-election strategy. The president’s campaign relied on a ground game that included a physical presence in almost every county in America.

Kramer campaign manager Sam Fischer, a Bush-Cheney 2004 veteran, said his candidate plans to visit all 93 Nebraska counties, having spent time in 48 of them since June.

“David still believes you meet every voter, one by one, and that’s what we intend to do,” Fischer said. “We believe we are going to be the candidate that brings positive solutions to energy, the war in Iraq and securing our borders.”

A Victory Enterprises poll of 305 likely Republican voters shows Stenberg heading the pack, with 36 percent support, compared to Kramer’s 3 percent and Ricketts’ 2 percent.

But the poll, conducted Aug. 31 to Sept. 2, had a wide error margin — 5.6 percent — and included former U.S. Navy pilot David Osborn, who has not declared for the race.

Osborn shares the same sounding last name with Congressman Tom Osborne (R), who is probably the most popular politician in the state. He piloted the Navy reconnaissance plane that crash-landed in China early in Bush’s first term.

Victory Enterprises Nebraska Director Jordan McGrain said what Republicans in that state want is someone who they perceive as most able to beat Nelson.

Despite Stenberg’s strong showing in his poll, McGrain said Ricketts has a good opportunity to win the primary — if for no other reason than his personal wealth. The fact that Stenberg lost the 2000 general election weighs heavily on voters’ minds, but for now name recognition and public familiarity have propelled him to the top.

The Ricketts family is well known in Omaha and his candidacy has created some excitement there, said McGrain, who is based in the city. But the key to victory is how much support he garners in Osborne’s 3rd district, which does not include Omaha but does contain up to 45 percent of the state’s population.

Phil Singer, communications director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said Democrats are committed to doing whatever is necessary to protect Nelson.

“He is a great Senator, and we stand ready to assist him in any way we can,” Singer said.