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Primary Election Clouded by Dark Money

By J.L. Schmidt
Statehouse Correspondent


Just when you thought you were starting to understand how the long-celebrated nonpartisan Nebraska Legislature has survived as an independent body for years, somebody throws a new wrench in the works.
The wheels started coming off that wagon in 2016 when Governor Pete Ricketts gave more than $116,000 to candidates and political pundits gave him credit for defeating three incumbent Republican senators who disagreed with him on key issues. The election was followed by a meeting of the “Gang of 29” state senators who got together before the 2017 session convened and decided who was going to run which legislative committees.
Remember, the officially nonpartisan Nebraska Legislature has 32 Republicans, 15 Democrats, one Independent and one Libertarian. You’d think 32 Republicans would be enough of a cushion for the Republicans who run the Executive and Judicial branches of government. Apparently not.
So, as the recent primary election loomed, Nebraskans got a taste of a new political piranha called “dark money.” The Center for Responsive Politics says dark money has been recognized since 1976 when the U.S. Supreme Court laid out eight words that define the difference between electioneering and issue advocacy.
Dark money is funds given to certain nonprofit organizations that can receive unlimited donations from corporations, individuals and unions and spend it to influence elections without being required to disclose their donors. The Center says such spending has increased from less than $5.2 million in 2006 to well over $300 million in the 2012 presidential election and more than $174 million in the 2014 national midterms.
This so-called dark money was identified as a factor in the primary when several organizations publicly disclosed that some Nebraska legislative races were targeted. A Virginia-based political committee called the 10th Amendment Project was singled out by representatives of the Nebraska Farmers Union and the Nebraska State Education Association as the culprit. The Virginia group paid for thousands of dollars of negative radio advertising in the Districts 30 and 32 legislative races.
The ads attacked candidate Myron Dorn of Adams in the District 30 race and Tom Brandt of Plymouth in District 32. Ricketts had given his public (and likely financial) support to challengers Joe Murray in District 30 and Al Riskowski in District 32. Both finished third out of three in polling that advances the top two to the November election. The targeted Dorn was the top vote getter in District 30 and Brandt was on top in District 32.
So, it appears the plan backfired. And that’s refreshing to know that Nebraskans have seen through the dark money subterfuge and taken their stand at the ballot box. But the general election is coming and who knows if dark money will again rear its ugly head.
The Farmers Union and NSEA both say that Ricketts played a part in the dark money plan. His campaign spokesman, Matthew Trail, said, “this is nothing more than an inaccurate conspiracy from a group that has long opposed Governor Ricketts.” Ricketts said he never heard of the group until reporters asked him questions about it.
Sorry, Mr. Trail, I don’t buy the conspiracy theory. What I do know is that the Ricketts family is very wealthy and very politically active. The Governor’s dad, Joe Ricketts, was the founder of TD Ameritrade and has given millions to political campaigns, and no doubt dark money groups, in recent years. The Governor’s brother Todd was a fundraiser for a dark money organization. This according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a campaign watchdog group.
John Hansen of the Nebraska Farmers Union, which endorsed both Dorn and Brandt, speculated that there is coordination between the Virginia group and the governor because the ads were aimed at defeating two “moderate Republicans” who opposed the Ricketts’ favored conservative candidates. The Governor has publicly called out other moderate members of his own party several times.
Congratulations Nebraska on your rejection of governor deep pockets and the dark money. Keep up the good work. Let’s keep the legislature nonpartisan.
J.L. Schmidt has been covering Nebraska government and politics since 1979. He has been a registered Independent for 19 years.