By Peter Savodnik - 02/07/06 12:00 AM EST
Former Ameritrade executive Pete Ricketts, running in a GOP primary to challenge Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), has seen his name identification rise after blitzing the state with campaign ads.
Ricketts’s increased visibility saps former three-term Attorney General Don Stenberg of his greatest advantage in the Republican primary, Republican officials who have been watching the race said.
Stenberg ran unsuccessfully in a 1996 Republican Senate primary against Chuck Hagel. In 2000, he won the GOP Senate nomination but lost to Nelson in the general election.
Republicans say Stenberg is relying on his name recognition to win the May 9 primary. He ended 2005 with $34,000 in his campaign coffers, compared to $142,000 for former state GOP chairman David Kramer and nearly $211,000 for Ricketts. Ricketts has contributed almost $1.5 million of his own money to the campaign.
Stenberg, one Republican official said, “is just hoping that he doesn’t have to do anything and he’ll just win the primary alone because people remember him from his past elections.”
The Republican compared Stenberg to Richard Vinroot, the Charlotte, N.C., mayor who repeatedly ran unsuccessfully for governor and suffered from “voter fatigue.”
The Ricketts campaign had been reluctant to discuss the poll, conducted by Voter/Consumer Research Inc. in Washington, for fear of revealing its campaign strategy, Nebraska GOP officials said.
Asked last week about rumors of a poll, spokeswoman Tricia Meuret would only say, “We’re not commenting on any polls that we may or may not have taken.”
Since then, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) has posted Ricketts’s fourth-quarter fundraising report on its website. The report shows the campaign paid Voter/Consumer Research $20,500 in mid-December for the poll.
Yesterday, Meuret said: “We did some polling. We are pleased with the results. … It was just to gauge where we are. Pete’s a businessman, so he likes to run things like a business.”
Meuret would not say where Ricketts’s numbers stand, but she did note that an October poll showed that 3 percent of Nebraska voters knew of Ricketts and that the candidate is “on the right track.”
The Ricketts campaign began running statewide television and radio ads in mid-November. It also bought newspaper ads.
According to the FEC report, the campaign paid more than $617,000 for airtime in November and December. It also paid Dirt Road Productions in Stowe, Vt., just shy of $115,000 to film the ads. And it paid McAuliffe Message Media in Great Falls, Va., $25,000 to produce them.
Dan Parsons, communications director for the Stenberg campaign, said his candidate was not running simply on his name but on the trust that he had developed with conservative voters across Nebraska.
Stenberg has said he will debate Ricketts and Kramer only if they agree not to mention their opponents in paid campaign ads, among other caveats. So far, neither Ricketts nor Kramer has agreed to that provision.
Kramer’s campaign manager, Sam Fischer, said Kramer, who has neither the high profile of Stenberg nor the personal fortune of Ricketts, is aggressively building a network of grassroots supporters.
“Nebraska has a long history of looking past who raises the most money,” Fischer said. “The last six self-funders have failed. … Nebraska is not New York or California, where the average voter has no expectation of meeting the candidate.”
So far, Fischer said, Kramer has visited 87 of the state’s 93 counties. Fischer added that, excluding personal loans, Kramer had actually raised the most money in the fourth quarter of any of the Republicans in the race.
Kramer speculated that the Ricketts campaign is reticent about releasing its survey numbers because the candidate may not have gained much ground.
There have been rumors in Nebraska political circles that Nelson conducted a poll showing Kramer coming in third in the GOP primary. Nelson’s spokesman said last week that the senator had conducted no polls of the GOP primary.
Many Republicans in Washington say Ricketts’s wealth is not only critical to winning the primary but, even more, to beating Nelson in November.
The senator, in his first term, raised close to $709,000 in the fourth quarter of the year. He ended 2005 with nearly $3.2 million in the bank. Nelson was previously governor of Nebraska.
While Republicans have sought to tie Nelson to more liberal members of his party, the senator has trod a careful, middle-of-the-road path to the right of most Democrats. Most recently, he was one of only four Democratic senators to vote to vote for the Supreme Court nomination of Samuel Alito.