Chuck Hassebrook, Nebraska Democrats’ best chance in two decades for winning a governor’s race, stands at a hotel ballroom podium in an Omaha suburb and takes aim at his Republican opponent Pete Ricketts, the son of billionaire TD Ameritrade Holding Corp. founder Joe Ricketts.
“His job at the top of corporate America was given to him by his dad,” Hassebrook, 59, tells the crowd of about 500 Democratic activists. “His dad wants to buy him a new job at the top of his state.”
The crowd reacts to the trust-funder trashing with delight, though one supporter is absent: Hassebrook’s honorary campaign co-Chairman Susan Buffett, the daughter of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Warren Buffett.
Though Susan Buffett’s name is not on the Nebraska ballot, her leadership position with Hassebrook’s campaign puts the offspring of two of America’s wealthiest men on opposite sides of a race where four percentage points separate the candidates.
Her campaign role -- along with a $100,000 donation from her father -- has helped make Hassebrook the best-funded Democratic candidate for governor in more than a decade, cash he’ll need to counter the more than $10 million in Republican spending that he’s anticipating between now and November.
“It has the potential to be a big race,” said Mitchell West, a senior analyst with New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG, which tracks television advertising. “There’s a lot of money here, if they decide to battle it out.”
The contributions pouring into Nebraska, with its 1.2 million registered voters, is the latest example of how U.S. billionaires are engaging in elections. Their new roles result from regulatory inaction and 2010 court rulings that paved the way for unlimited spending on politics by individuals, corporations and labor unions.
Since then, Joe Ricketts created the Ending Spending Action Fund, which he runs with his youngest son Todd. The super- political action committee has become the third-largest spender on behalf of Republican candidates this cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington group that tracks political spending.
Ending Spending doesn’t plan to contribute in the Nebraska race, said Brian Baker, president of the super-PAC. Instead, Republican mega-donors, including energy executive David Koch, hedge fund manager Paul Singer, investor Foster Friess, and members of Ricketts’ clan have helped the family’s oldest son raise $4.3 million so far. The candidate’s parents alone have donated $600,000 to his cause.