This story was co-published by USA Today.
The multimillionaire governor of Nebraska, Pete Ricketts, has poured more than $66,000 into his own re-election war chest, and political forecasters have declared the Republican “heavily favored” to win his red-state seat.
Even so, major corporations such as Union Pacific Railroad, beermaker Anheuser-Busch Inbev SA, Kiewit Infrastructure Co. and other groups have put at least $1.6 million combined into Ricketts’ campaign, according to data from the National Institute on Money in Politics.
Ricketts is one of eight governors whom experts consider likely to win re-election by comfortable margins, out of the 19 incumbents running. But though these safe governors — in Alabama, Arkansas, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New York, Texas and Vermont — may cruise easily to victory, together they have already amassed at least $135 million in donations, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis. Close to a third of it has come from groups such as trade associations, lobbying firms or corporations.
Why give to someone who isn’t in a desperate crunch to buy mailers and TV ads? Experts say the answer is likely an effort to court power. Donations can open the door to face time with state executives, which especially benefits regulated businesses and similar interest groups that are more likely to lobby about specific policies. And the safer the seat, the safer the bet.
Donors to safe governors are what political scientists call “access givers,” said Michael Kang, a professor of law at Emory University who studies campaign finance.
“They’re trying to curry favor with an incumbent governor,” he said. “Policy tends to conform to what donors prefer. … Voters’ views, at best, have kind of a mixed influence.”
For example, Kiewit, the Nebraska-based construction giant that gave $25,000 to Ricketts, is currently competing for a state Department of Transportation contract to complete an expressway project.
Ricketts and Kiewit did not respond to requests for comment.
The war chests that governors collect can be used to shore up power, as the state executives can give to legislative candidates on their side of an issue or save up funds for a future race.
And when they do spend, it’s on more than just yard signs. Incumbent governors have tapped their campaign funds for everything from a $25,000 payment to Bon Jovi’s tour company to a $2,080 golf outing. State laws generally allow such expenses if they are for campaign — and not personal — purposes.
Ricketts’ campaign has spent more than $7,500 on baseball tickets to see the Washington Nationals play and more than $1,500 for gift bags from the Chicago Cubs, a team Ricketts co-owns. Both expenses were linked to fundraisers, the campaign said in its state filings.
“That is a lot of money and pretty unprecedented for Nebraska fundraising,” said Gavin Geis, executive director of Common Cause Nebraska, a nonpartisan government accountability group. “That’s D.C.-level fundraising… It goes to show what a deep-pocketed candidate can do to buy influence.”
But there’s probably nothing illegal about this under Nebraska law, according to Geis, because of the broad definition of what counts as a campaign expense.
And Geis worries that while Ricketts has not spent any of his campaign funds on University of Nebraska Cornhusker tickets, he has paid campaign money to his own Illinois-based business, the Chicago Cubs. “That stinks,” Geis said. “If they spend it on Nebraska sports teams, well, that stays in Nebraska.”