They’ve had a year of lawmaking experience and cast many votes.
And Nebraska state senators who received thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts say that money didn’t influence them. If they voted in sync with his views or in support of his vetoes, which they did many times, they said it was just that they happened to be like-minded.
“He and I both think alike. We’re both very conservative,” said Sen. John Lowe, who received $10,000 from Ricketts for his 2016 campaign for the District 37 seat.
In fact, he said, he’s given about as much money to the governor as Ricketts has given to him.
Ricketts gave financial contributions of varying amounts to at least 15 senators now serving in the Legislature, totaling slightly more than $80,000. He has endorsed candidates in the 2018 election, but the amounts he has contributed is unknown because Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure filings are not due until the end of January.
Ricketts’ spokesman Taylor Gage said Ricketts has been supporting candidates for elected office for more than a decade. He supports candidates that hold his principles and will continue to do so, he said.
Jane Kleeb, chairman of the Nebraska Democratic party, said even before she came to head the party she had criticized Ricketts’ move to “show so much blatant influence and, from our perspective, interference with a nonpartisan Legislature.”
Using his millions of dollars to buy state senators, and defeat senators who are in office, is a “real problem,” a liability for Ricketts and for the Republican Party, she said.
She has talked to Democrats and Independents across the state who say one-party rule is bad for new ideas, transparency and accountability, she said.
“And they think that Pete Ricketts is using his millions to buy a Legislature to get his way,” she said.
Gage said Ricketts’ “way,” as Kleeb calls it, or principles as Gage refers to it, is to build a better tax environment, cultivate a culture of life, uphold the rule of law and protect public safety.
But Ricketts has been openly critical of senators, including more moderate Republicans, who vote contrary to how he would like them to vote. At the Republican state convention in Omaha in 2016 Ricketts blasted more than a dozen state Republican senators for votes they cast, arguing for the need to elect “platform Republicans” to the nonpartisan Legislature.
It caused one senator, Laura Ebke, to leave the Republican Party and become a Libertarian. Now, Ebke’s re-election next year is opposed by the governor, who has endorsed a Republican challenger for her legislative seat. And at least a couple of incumbent senators who are Republicans may also join that 2018 hit list.
Kleeb said that to her knowledge it’s not common for governors across the country to spend their own money directly supporting candidates.
Ricketts gave $15,000 to candidate Suzanne Geist, a Republican, who defeated Democrat Jim Gordon in a tight race. She appreciated it, she said, because her opponent had a larger reservoir of money to go to than she did.
But once elected, his money didn’t influence her voting, she said.
During the session Geist frequently voted yes on bills the governor supported and no on those he didn’t, the same as a cadre of the most conservative senators. She voted to sustain all three of his vetoes — on Sen. Justin Wayne’s bill to allow felons to vote as soon as they completed their sentences and probation, and on his two line-item budget vetoes.
A number of senators believed the Legislature should cut money from the budget now rather than having to cut more later because of the way the agriculture economy was trending, she said.
“I’m pretty independent minded,” she said, “and I will say I believe the governor and I have a similar political philosophy. … I don’t want to say that that in any way reflects that we’ve had a conversation and he tells me how to vote. That has never happened. And I wouldn’t be receptive to that, actually from anyone.
“I ran on a platform of common sense and conservative values. And that’s what I intend to reflect.”
Sen. Bruce Bostelman, who received $13,000 from Ricketts during his election, said he makes decisions on voting based on his conservative philosophies and those of his constituents, not the governor.
Kenny Zoeller, executive director of the Nebraska Republican Party, didn’t see any evidence that Ricketts was trying to buy lawmakers, he said. Looking at Geist’s campaign, he said, the Nebraska State Education Association spent thousands more on her opponent and in trying to defeat her than Ricketts did to elect her.
To say that Ricketts bought candidates would also mean high-spending lobbying groups like the Nebraska State Education Association also bought candidates, Zoeller said.
Karen Kilgarin, NSEA’s director of government relations and public affairs, didn’t buy that comparison. The NSEA contributes money to campaigns of both Democrats and Republicans, she said, and has given money to both the Democratic and Republican parties.
“We give to candidates who support children and education,” she said.
Zoeller said the governor should have a collaborative relationship with senators, especially with the unique unicameral Legislature — and that’s the type he has right now.
“That relationship has to be a collaborative one because if any governor across the country wants to get anything done, they have to go through the Legislature to get his or her policies done,” he said.