The Republican U.S. Senate race in Nebraska promises to end on a fast and furious note as the two primary challengers seeking to zip past front-runner Jon Bruning got some help in the home stretch from a former Omaha businessman.
Joe Ricketts, who owns the Chicago Cubs with his family and founder of now-TD Ameritrade, poured $200,000 into the race with a tough television advertisement Saturday that questioned Bruning's character and business deals, and another ad that praised Deb Fischer.
It was the latest money funneled into Nebraska from outside interest groups supporting either Fischer or Don Stenberg, all in an effort to deny Bruning the nomination.
Bruning may still be the front-runner, but all signs are pointing to a wild finish Tuesday when voters go to the polls and choose the Republican candidate to face likely Democratic nominee Bob Kerrey in the fall election.
The entry of Ricketts into the race came as a surprise to most. For months, Bruning has led in the polls and was seen as nearly unstoppable. However, recent surveys have shown that Bruning was still in the lead but that Fischer, who picked up endorsements last week from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, was gaining ground.
Ricketts clearly believes the race isn't over.
The former Omahan who now lives in Little Jackson Hole, Wyo., unleashed an anti-Bruning ad through his super PAC known as the Ending Spending Fund.
The ad lambastes Bruning for purchasing a lake house with two top executives of Nelnet, a Lincoln-based school loan company. He bought the property a year after he, as attorney general, attempted to waive a $1 million penalty imposed on the company.
It also was critical of Bruning for “making millions” while serving in public office, saying it was a “conflict of interest” for the attorney general to be heavily involved in businesses heavily regulated by the state. Bruning has invested in more than a dozen companies while serving as attorney general, including banks, a Botox center and retirement homes.
Bruning has said he is a “passive investor” in the businesses and has had no day-to-day involvement with any of the companies.
The Ricketts ad was quickly condemned by Bruning's people, who called it “illegal.”
They alleged that both Fischer and Ricketts violated federal election law, which prohibits super PACs from coordinating and working with a candidate's campaign. The pro-Fischer ad run by Ricketts' group clearly contained video that also was used in a Fischer advertisement.
“It's pretty sad when politicians have to resort to illegal activity and last-minute attacks to try to win the race,” said Brooks Kochvar, Bruning's campaign consultant.
Bruning's campaign filed a complaint late Saturday with the Federal Election Commission.
Aaron Trost, Fischer's campaign manager, denied that the campaign had any involvement in the advertisement. He acknowledged the footage appeared to come from a Fischer video posted on YouTube, but, he said, the campaign had no contact with Ending Spending.
“Our campaign is not responsible for the actions of any third-party committee,” Trost said.
Brian Baker, president of Ricketts' committee, also denied that any campaign finance laws were violated. Baker said the ads were created by third-party vendors, and neither the vendors nor Ending Spending had any contact with the Fischer campaign.
Ending Spending is based in Washington, D.C., and was created to battle “out of control government spending.”
It is the latest third-party group to get involved in the Nebraska race. In fact, several groups have been targeting Bruning for months.
Stenberg has benefited the most from third-party spending.
Three groups — all supporting Stenberg and opposing Bruning — have spent $2.1 million in Nebraska on Stenberg's behalf. The anti-tax group Club for Growth has spent $722,000, the Senate Conservatives Fund has spent $1.4 million and FreedomWorks for America has spent $70,000.
Though Bruning may have blown away his competitors in fundraising, he has been significantly outspent on advertising when the third-party groups are included in the tally.
As of this weekend, Bruning has spent $1.3 million on media buys — about half of what the third-party groups have spent in Nebraska on behalf of his challengers.
Neither Stenberg nor Fischer would have had much advertising firepower without the support of the outside groups.
Stenberg has spent $195,000 on media and Fischer has spent about $150,000.
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