2016 Contenders Flock to Nebraska's Open Governor's Race

One candidate's father is one of the biggest Republican donors in the country.

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 10: Joe Ricketts speaks during the premiere of 'The Conspirator' presented by The American Film Company, Ford's Theatre and Roadside Attractions at Ford's Theatre on April 10, 2011 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Kris Connor/Getty Images for Roadside Attractions) (National Journal)

One small governor's race has turned into a cattle call for potential 2016 presidential candidates: Nebraska.

Specifically, one candidate in the Cornhusker State is getting outsized attention from talked-about Republican presidential contenders. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, 2012 vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas have all endorsed Omaha businessman Pete Ricketts ahead of Tuesday's primary.

As potential candidates work to woo Republican mega-donors, the contest offers presidential contenders entrée with a billionaire sugar daddy of the most literal variety: Joe Ricketts, the TD Ameritrade-founding, Chicago Cubs-owning billionaire who also happens to be the candidate's father, has spent tens of millions of dollars supporting Republicans across the country, and his support in 2016 is already much-sought.

Cruz, Walker and Ryan are among those who have met with Joe Ricketts over the past year, National Journal reported in February, and Ricketts has also been courted by Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

The endorsements also connect to the Rickettses' past political beneficence. The family's super PAC, the Ending Spending Action Fund, spent over $160,000 in support of Cruz during his contested 2012 U.S. Senate primary, and the group put $245,000 toward Walker's recall election the same year. Joe Ricketts personally donated an additional $100,000 to Walker, and Pete Ricketts and his brother Todd Ricketts, who now runs Ending Spending, gave an additional $75,000 to pro-Walker efforts.

Filings with the Indiana Secretary of State's Office and the Federal Elections Commission show the elder Ricketts also made personal contributions to both Pence's and Ryan's political campaigns in 2012. All told, the Ending Spending PAC has raised and spent roughly $25 million since it was first launched in 2010, a big slice of which went to pro-Mitt Romney activities in 2012, and the family has given millions more on candidates and PACs across the country.

Pete Ricketts has also received backing from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Nebraska native and former vice president Dick Cheney.

"There's no doubt there's a correlation between national figures and the Ricketts family's help and the endorsements that he's received," said Sam Fischer, a longtime Nebraska political consultant who's currently working for one of Ricketts's primary opponents, state Sen. Beau McCoy.

Money may not be the only motivating factor. Former Nebraska Republican Party director Phil Young thinks the endorsements are just as much about wanting to be on the right side of a race whose winner could offer early political support during presidential primary season. The race is, after all one of few gubernatorial contests with an open GOP primary in 2014. "It probably doesn't hurt down the road to make friends with people who have a decent amount of wealth, but I don't know if that's their only political, self-serving reason. Getting a critical mass of support is actually just as important in those presidential races," said Young.

Ultimately, the endorsements may be more about 2016 and the people giving them than about 2014 and the person receiving them. Pete Ricketts's camp is certainly happy to have support, but it focuses more on the locals: One of Ricketts's final TV ads features a pitch from former Nebraska Gov. Kay Orr. "While Pete appreciates the support of Govs. Palin, Walker, and Pence, and Sen. Cruz and Rep. Ryan "“ his Nebraska endorsements are prominent in his campaign," said spokesman Josh Moenning.

Ricketts and Attorney General Jon Bruning are the leading Republicans in the gubernatorial primary, and Bruning nabbed the biggest name for his side: Term-limited Gov. Dave Heineman pledged his support to the A.G. in the last days before the primary. Those involved in the campaigns saying internal polls show the two running neck-and-neck with many voters still undecided. That could potentially open the door for McCoy or state Auditor Mike Foley, especially since few issues separate the field. "Ted Cruz and Paul Ryan and Mike Pence, they don't know the difference between Pete Ricketts and Jon Bruning or any of the other candidates in this race," said Bruning campaign manager Jordan McGrain. "They know his last name is Ricketts."

This isn't the first time Bruning and the Ricketts clan have tangled. In 2012, Bruning was the front-runner for Nebraska's open U.S. Senate seat, but he lost a bitter primary involving multiple outside groups "“ including Ending Spending, which lined up against him. Bruning has repeatedly accused Ricketts of funneling money to groups running outside TV ads against him in this year's race. If Bruning wins on Tuesday, it would be a coup against a family that has twice attempted to defeat him.

And if Ricketts wins? No candidate forgets who stood with them.