Ricketts attracts attention in pack chasing Sen. Nelson

With the launch this week of a statewide ad blitz, the hiring last month of Sen. Chuck Hagel’s deputy chief of staff and $25 million to his name, Ameritrade executive-turned-Senate hopeful Pete Ricketts is attracting widespread interest in Nebraska.

With the launch this week of a statewide ad blitz, the hiring last month of Sen. Chuck Hagel’s deputy chief of staff and $25 million to his name, Ameritrade executive-turned-Senate hopeful Pete Ricketts is attracting widespread interest in Nebraska.

The winner of the May 9 three-way Republican primary, including former state party Chairman David Kramer and former state Attorney General Don Stenberg, will take on Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), one of the Republicans’ top targets in 2006.

“I think that people are attracted to the fact that this is a guy who has resources, but I think people think he needs to prove that he can get through a primary,” a Nebraska Republican aide said of Ricketts. “There are a lot of failed rich candidates.”

Still, money tops the list of concerns among Republicans in Washington, where GOP officials are quick to note that Nelson, in his first term, is a skilled campaigner who has spent the past five years building a base of support and a network of fundraisers, activists and volunteers.

Plus, these Republicans say, Nelson will be well-financed next year: The Democrat ended the third quarter with close to $2.7 million in the bank, having raised nearly $508,000. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), which has outraised its counterpart, the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), so far this cycle, has pledged to hold on to “red states” such as Nebraska, West Virginia, North Dakota and Florida.

Ricketts appears well positioned for the six-month race to the GOP nomination.

Members of Nebraska’s GOP central committee said Ricketts’s five-day, 18-city tour this week would generate significant crowds around the state, despite a snowstorm that has blanketed cities and cornfields.

Ricketts’s campaign manager, Pat Fiske, said the political neophyte would define himself instead of letting his rivals do that for him. Fiske, a veteran of campaigns in Colorado and Texas, characterized Ricketts as a results-oriented outsider who learned to make tough spending cuts from his days as Ameritrade’s chief operating officer, particularly after the 2000-2001 dot-com bust.

Fiske left open the possibility that Ricketts would spend whatever it takes of his own money to beat his Republican rivals and, ultimately, Nelson. While the candidate indicated on a federal election form that he would spend only $500,000 of his money, Fiske would not rule out future expenditures. “That’s the only information that’s public right now,” he said.

Fiske declined to say how much the Ricketts campaign had spent on its television and radio advertising, the first of any candidate in the race, which many Republicans noted for coming so early in the campaign.

Kramer is relying on a grass-roots strategy. He has traveled to 68 of Nebraska’s 93 counties, mingled with voters at high-school football games and tractor square-dances, and portrayed himself as a personable, populist budget-cutter in the mold of Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.). “I love this,” Kramer said of stumping. “I live for this. My strength is people.”

A former official with the taxpayer-funded International Republican Institute, which backs democracy movements around the world, Kramer also said he strongly supports President Bush’s policy of preemptive war. He added that recent developments in Ukraine, where he was once stationed, Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq are evidence that Bush’s policy is bearing fruit.

Kramer said he found it ironic that Ricketts enjoys so much support in Washington while trying to cast himself as a newcomer to the political arena.

Hagel’s communications director, Mike Buttry, said the senator supports a robust primary and would let voters make up their own minds about who should challenge Nelson.

The Nebraska Republican aide added that the Ricketts campaign approached Hagel’s deputy chief of staff, Nate Mick, about a job and that the senator did not simply donate one of his staffers.

Nebraska’s all-GOP House delegation has officially stayed neutral in the primary. Rep. Tom Osborne, running for governor, has been particularly careful to stay above the fray, Republicans said.

Republican officials privately say that Stenberg, who has run unsuccessfully statewide before, is a lackluster candidate. But Julie Schmit-Albin, the executive director of Nebraska Right to Life, countered that Stenberg retains the highest name ID among conservatives.

“Obviously, Don Stenberg has a natural constituency with pro-life Nebraskans, given that he took our partial-birth abortion case up to the Supreme Court,” Schmit-Albin said, referring to a case Stenberg argued before the court as Nebraska’s attorney general. “The other two candidates are going to have to get their names out there.”

While the Republicans battle it out, Nelson will spend the next several months pushing his legislative priorities, including a border-security bill to be introduced later this week, his communications director, David DiMartino, said.

Responding to GOP attacks that Nelson is a “wait-and-see politician” who puts politics ahead of principle, DiMartino called Nelson a problem-solver who has taken part in several key legislative debates, including those involving the creation of the Homeland Security Department, tax cuts, judicial nominees and others.