Not since retiring Republican Governor Dan Heineman narrowly defeated former Nebraska Cornhusker football coach Tom Osborne in the 2006 primary have Nebraska Republicans faced a more hotly contested battle to determine the party’s gubernatorial nominee than they are about to experience between now and election day in May 2014.
Until last week, State Senator Charlie Janssen, who announced his candidacy back in February, was considered the front runner among the three announced candidates. State Senators Tom Carlson and Beau McCoy were the other announced candidates.
But on Thursday State Auditor Mike Foley tossed his hat in the ring. Two days later, on Saturday, Pete Ricketts, the party’s unsuccesful 2006 challenger to former Senator Ben Nelson (D-NE) also announced his candidacy. The field of five now has three frontrunners–Janssen, Ricketts, and Foley–all of whom have conservative credentials, each of whom have weaknesses which their opponents may be able to exploit.
Ricketts, the son of the billionaire co-founder of Ameritrade and current Chicago Cubs owner Joe Ricketts, is a successfull businessman in his own right, having served as Ameritrade’s Chief Operating Officer for several years. Politically, however, he is known as the man who spent $13 million, most of it his own money, for the privilege of losing the 2006 Senate race in Nebraska to incumbent Democratic Senator Ben Nelson by a resounding 64% to 36% margin.
Unlike many wealthy businessmen who flee their state’s political scene after a loss, however, Ricketts stayed around Nebraska and has spent the ensuing seven years building his political capital. From 2007 to 2012 he served as one of Nebraska’s three members of the Republican National Committee. Even more tellingly, however, Ricketts has the distinction of being one of the first Republican candidates to address a Tea Party rally.
On February 27, 2009, the day the Tea Party movement began with small rallies in fifty cities across the country, Ricketts was the featured speaker at a rally in Omaha organized by David Douglas West which was attended by a crowd of 60. Six weeks later, the 2009 Tax Day Tea Party rallies were held on April 15 in more than 900 cities around the country, with one million people attending.
Ricketts acknowledged on Saturday in an interview with Nebraska television station KETV that he made mistakes in the 2006 campaign, and vowed to correct them in 2014. “We’re going to run a very different race this time than what I did in 2006.” he said. “Some of the things that I learned were around tone. The tone of the last campaign kind of really went off the rails and that’s not who I am or what I want to be about. You know, people want to know who you are, that they can trust you and what your vision for the future is.”
A two minute YouTube released by when he announced on Saturday indicated that Ricketts’ 2014 campaign would follow his plan for explaining his vision of the future to Nebraska voters. The video focused on his personal connection to the voters of the state, and three key themes: education, jobs, and developing the states rural economy.
The Omaha World-Herald, which the original populist, Nebraskan William Jennings Bryant served as editor of in the early 1890s before he won the 1896 Democratic Presidential nomination (and was soundly defeated by Republican William McKinley), reported that “State Auditor Mike Foley sounded like a populist Thursday as he launched his campaign for governor with a promise to respect taxpayers and to hold state employees responsible.”
The World-Herald noted that Foley “made his mark in politics as an ardent social conservative and an aggressive government watchdog who has rankled people on both sides of the aisle.”
Like Ricketts, Foley emphasized the themes of education and jobs. Unlike Ricketts, Foley, a lifelong Catholic, highlighted his socially conservative positions, and in particular his pro-life agenda.
Foley, however, has offended Governor Heineman with his constant criticisms of wasteful spending in the state’s Department of Human and Health Services. In addition, his strong support for state funded provision of neo-natal services to illegal alien mothers have drawn criticisms from many in the state concerned about the increase in the state’s illegal alien population, many of whom are employed in the local meat packing industry.
Both Ricketts and Foley were considered potential Republican Senate primary candidates who might compete for the seat being vacated by retiring Republican Senator Mike Johanns, but a poll conducted by Harper Polling in June showed both of them trailing Jon Bruning and Shane Osborne in that race, though Ricketts polled at a respectable 12% and Foley polled at 9%.
Of the three front-runners, Janssen has probably maintained the closest connection to Tea Party activists. In August, he conducted a series of nine town halls across the state on the issue of tax reform. The town halls were co-sponsored by a Nebraska non-profit with strong limited government sympathies, Nebraskans for a Tax Free Economy, a group run by Doug Kagan that has been in existence since 1978.
But Ricketts, who has been less engaged with the local Tea Parties since his 2009 speech that helped launch the movement in February, 2009, remains personally popular among many Tea Party activists, who respect his support for free market, limited government policies. One non-profit which he helps fund, the Platte Institute, has established a strong reputation as the state’s leading free market tank.
Foley has not been particularly active with Nebraska’s Tea Party groups, which have a decidedly Libertarian bent to them. The Lincoln Tea Party, for instance, is essentially an arm of the Campaign for Liberty, and is less than enamored with Foley’s strong social conservative positions.
The winner of May’s Republican primary for Governor will likely be the candidate best able to connect personally with the estimated 200,000 Republican voters who are expected to turn out on election day. With so few voters, the impersonal campaign techniques of massive television ad buys relied upon by Republican consultants who work in states dominated by large metropolitan areas are likely to be less effective this time around in Nebraska.
If he is able to take the lessons learned in his 2006 Senate campaign and apply them to his 2013-2014 campaign for Governor, Pete Ricketts’ built in financial advantage may propel him to front runner status in this race that is now clearly anyone’s to win.