The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Meet the multi-millionaire GOP governor using his fortune to push his agenda — and punish his foes

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, center, greets state senators as he arrives at the Legislative Chamber to deliver the annual State of the State address in January. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

Governors, even those in states with weak executive power, have some big tools at their disposal to help advance their agenda. They can use their words, presence and political leverage to try to advance their agenda.

But one of the nation's governors has another potent weapon in his arsenal: a multi-million dollar fortune he's using to promote his political agenda, and take on his enemies — including members of his own party.

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts (R), son of the multi-billionaire TD Ameritrade founder and part owner of the Chicago Cubs Joe Ricketts, has dumped hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own personal money on a pro-death penalty referendum — a referendum that directly reverses the legislature’s historic repeal of the death penalty last year, something they did over his veto.

Nebraska and the conservative case for opposing the death penalty

All told, Ricketts has donated more than $400,000 to the referendum and campaigns that will reverse decisions — and, in at least one case, oust someone who opposed him in his tumultuous first year as governor.

What he’s doing is legal. If you’ve got the money, you can spend it, especially in a state like Nebraska with very few campaign finance laws.

“The idea that money is speech, he doesn't lose that right when he becomes governor,” said Kytja Weir with the nonpartisan, investigative news organization Center for Public Integrity.

But it is rare. And Ricketts has his allies and opponents in Nebraska on edge because — well, it just feels weird.

“It’s like he's single-handedly trying to get rid of those who opposed him,” said GOP state Sen. Colby Coash, who voted to repeal the death penalty last year. (Coash is not on the ballot because of term limits.) “Those of us who care about process and separation of powers, it makes us nervous that that line is getting blurrier.”

The Republican speaker of the legislature, Galen Hadley, told the Omaha-World Herald the governor is sending a “chilling” message to lawmakers: “I’m concerned about the independence of the legislature as a third branch of government.”

Ricketts’ spokesperson did not return repeated calls for comment.

Of course, Ricketts isn't the first really rich governor to use his own bank account to give his agenda a boost. Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner (R) has donated millions to various groups and campaigns inside Illinois and outside, Weir noted. And former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg has spent millions and millions across the country on his pet issues like gun control and the soda tax ($19 million on a soda tax ballot initiative in San Francisco this year alone).

But Ricketts is the first governor Weir can think of to use his money to try to reverse decisions the legislature made over his objection. And the direct money trail is unusually clear: from Ricketts’ bank account straight to the pro-death-penalty campaign, or Ricketts’ bank account to a challenger of one of his Republican opponents (he’s endorsed two other challengers of sitting Republicans).

There are also several national, conservative dark money groups, like Citizens for Sound Government and the Judicial Crisis Network, that have given to the pro-death penalty side.

Polling is scant on the death penalty referendum, but those who want to keep it repealed are readjusting their expectations. Even though Americans are moving away from the death penalty, Nebraska remains a deep-red state, and its residents have traditionally favored it. One August poll by supporters of the death penalty suggested Nebraskans favored reinstating it by a margin of 2-to-1, although opponents quickly contested the methodology.

Death penalty support is no longer a given in red states

The battle over the death penalty is may seem like an odd issue to grab center stage in a state that hasn’t executed anyone in nearly two decades. The last time Nebraska carried out a death penalty sentence as back in 1997, and the governor has struggled to procure the drugs to do it at all.

Ricketts is putting his reputation on the line in a way most governors don’t. And there are three likely reasons he’s willing to take that bet, says Paul Landow, a political science expert with the University of Nebraska-Omaha.

1) He’s got the money, so why not? Ricketts has proven he’s willing to spend cash to advance his political agenda and career. When he ran for U.S. Senate in 2006, he contributed more than $14 million to his own campaign. (Despite having more than three times the money, Ricketts lost to incumbent Sen. Ben Nelson (D) by almost 30 points.)

2) If things work out the way Ricketts wants, his job could get a whole lot easier. Ricketts had a very tough first year as governor. The nonpartisan-but-conservative legislature overrode his vetoes on four different issues, the most high-profile being the death penalty (they repealed it, he wanted to keep it). Next year might go more smoothly with more friendly faces.

3) If Ricketts has a better gubernatorial term, it could be a launching pad for other jobs. “He’s got a national future if he wants one — and he wants one,” Landow said. “So I think he sees some of this as making him a stronger, better governor, and thereby giving him greater standing in the national political community.”

On the other hand, presiding over the first deep-red state to repeal the death penalty in 40 years — and repeatedly having showdowns with the Republican legislature — isn’t really the best way to launch your career in conservative politics. If money could minimize or eliminate those issues, the investment could pay big career dividends beyond Nebraska’s borders.