Nebraska Senate: Is Deficit Issue a Winner for Ricketts?
After moving the Nebraska Senate race into The Fix's Friday Line last week, we got a chance this week to meet Pete Ricketts, the former Ameritrade executive who is favored to win the Republican nomination and challenge Sen. Ben Nelson (D) in the fall.
Ricketts, whose parents founded the Omaha-based Ameritrade, has already sunk roughly $2 million of his own money into his primary campaign against former state Attorney General Don Stenberg and former state party chairman David Kramer. (He estimated his personal wealth at between $45 million and $50 million during our interview in Washington). Most of Ricketts's contributions to date have gone to television ads designed to introduce him to voters as a successful businessman running as an outsider to the political process. (You can see the ads on Ricketts's Web site.)
"I'm not a politician, I'm a businessman who knows Nebraska values make a difference," Ricketts says in one of his commercials. At the center of this "un-politician" campaign is Ricketts's emphasis on reducing spending in Washington, D.C. -- an issue that may be a tough sell given that his party has overseen the massive increase in spending over the last few years.
The first hurdle for Ricketts is the May 9 primary where he must find a way to overcome the name identification advantage of Stenberg, who ran for the Senate against Nelson in 2000 and previously served for 12 years as the state's attorney general. Stenberg is no match for Ricketts financially (he had just $35,000 in the bank at the end of 2005), and so must depend on the grassroots following he has built up over the past 15 years in and out of public office.
Paul Johnson, Nelson's campaign manager, said he is paying little attention to the Republican primary. "We are going about our own business and worrying about running our own campaign," said Johnson.
A recent ad aired by the Nelson campaign would seem to cast doubt on that idea, however. "I didn't grow up with a silver spoon in my mouth," Nelson says in the commercial. " I grew up in a rich atmosphere, not money, richness in values, richness in quality of living." What candidate -- other than Ricketts -- could Nelson be seeking to contrast himself with?
A second Nelson ads illustrates the difficulty of defeating the Democratic incumbent despite the fact that President Bush carried the state by 33 points in 2004. In the spot, a narrator says Nelson "stood with the president when America was attacked and has always backed our troops"; several images of Nelson and Bush are shown in the ad. Don't forget that during a February 2005 event on Social Security, Bush praised Nelson as "a man with whom I can work, a person who is willing to put partisanship aside to focus on what's right for America." Expect to see that quote used relentlessly by the Nelson campaign in the coming months. (To see Nelson's campaign ads, go to this page on his Web site.)
Johnson said Nebraska has a history of electing Democrats to the Senate, sending James Exon to Washington for three terms and Bob Kerrey for two. "There are enough swing voters in the state that we can get elected," he said.
While Nelson has been careful to maintain a largely conservative voting record, Ricketts cast him as a "go along, get along" senator who is comfortable pushing for pork-barrel projects for the state, thus driving the federal deficit ever higher. "I am not a career politician," Ricketts said. "I am not doing this because I need a job."
Both men have hired top-notch political teams. Nelson is using Harrison Hickman as his pollster and Karl Struble as his media consultant -- the same group that directed his 2000 race. Ricketts has Jan van Lohuizen handling his survey research and Doug McAuliffe as his media consultant. McAuliffe ran the television campaign for Chuck Hagel (R) in his come-from-behind victory over then Gov. Ben Nelson in their 1996 Senate race.
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