Nebraska Republican gubernatorial candidates, from left, Charles Herbster, Brett Lindstrom and Jim Pillen, at a candidate forum in Lincoln. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)
OMAHA — The first dark money dropped into Nebraska’s governor’s race Friday, with a pair of TV ads attacking two of the contest’s top three Republican candidates.
Dark money group Conservative Nebraska funded a TV ad calling Conklin Co. CEO Charles Herbster a “Missouri millionaire” who does business out of state and pays his property taxes late.
A similar group, Restore the Good Life, backed a TV ad calling State Sen. Brett Lindstrom of Omaha “a liberal tax and spender,” citing a vote supporting a gas tax increase to fund roads.
Dark money is money spent to achieve a political or educational purpose without having to report, in a timely manner or at all, who is donating for a campaign-season ad. Traditional campaign spending becomes public, so voters know who’s paying.
The attack on Herbster mirrored Gov. Pete Ricketts’ criticisms Tuesday to the Nebraska Examiner after learning that Lt. Gov. Mike Foley was endorsing Herbster.
Ricketts, reached Friday, acknowledged that he was helping fund the group running ads against Herbster, saying he would be “a horrible governor.”
“Me and my dad (Joe) gave a combined $600,000 to Conservative Nebraska,” Ricketts said. “I want Nebraska Republicans to have the facts when they head to the polls.”
The governor’s father, Joe Ricketts, founded TD Ameritrade. The Ricketts family has spent millions of dollars, in dark money and in donations given publicly, on Nebraska races and ballot initiatives.
Ricketts backing Pillen
Pete Ricketts backs University of Nebraska Regent Jim Pillen in the governor’s race. Pillen has not directly attacked Herbster in campaign ads. Herbster ads have attacked Pillen, however, including a new ad Friday on immigration.
Ricketts did not say how much he might spend opposing Herbster, nor did he say why he used the dark money group instead of funding the ads through the campaign he supports.
Herbster campaign manager Ellen Keast called the dark money ad attacking Herbster “a total joke.” She said it criticized Herbster for growing his businesses in several states.
Herbster owns a home in Kansas City, Mo., and Conklin bases most of its business in Missouri and Minnesota. He is registered to vote in Falls City, Nebraska, where he also has a home.
“I’d like to thank whoever made the ad for telling Republican voters just what a great business person he is,” Keast said.
‘Baseless, anonymous smears’
Lindstrom campaign spokesman Pat Trueman called the ads against Lindstrom “baseless, anonymous smears.”
“With nothing to offer but more mudslinging, it’s understandable but disappointing that some of Brett’s opponents have decided to hide their attacks behind a third party,” Trueman said.
Trueman said the decision to attack Lindstrom confirms what recent polling has shown, that his positive message has made him one of three candidates who can win the primary.
“Brett Lindstrom is the only candidate in this race to have ever cut a tax,” Trueman said. “Next week Brett will be going back to Lincoln to continue his conservative tax slashing record.”
Pillen was not targeted by the dark money ads.
“The Pillens have not contributed to Conservative Nebraska or any other independent expenditure in the gubernatorial race,” said Matthew Trail, a Pillen campaign spokesman.
Restore the Good Life murkier
The group attacking Herbster, Conservative Nebraska, involves familiar names in the Nebraska Republican Party, including former state GOP chair Mark Fahleson, documents show.
The group attacking Lindstrom is less clear. Restore the Good Life was incorporated Jan. 12 by Lincoln banker Tanner Lockhorn. He did not immediately return calls or texts seeking comment.
Ricketts appointed Lockhorn to the Judicial Nominating Commission for the Lincoln area in January 2021. Lockhorn has been active in GOP causes, including school choice.
On Jan. 21, roughly a week after Restore the Good Life was incorporated, Lockhorn was in Washington, D.C., for the annual March for Life. Ricketts stayed home but spoke to about 200 Nebraska students by phone. Lockhorn held a cell phone to the microphone so the crowd could hear Ricketts’ remarks, GOP sources told the Examiner.
Lockhorn also is Facebook friends with Lt. Gov. Foley, who backs Herbster.
The governor denied spending any money on ads against Lindstrom.
“I have not donated to that group,” Ricketts said in a statement. “I don’t typically criticize Republican senators during the session as I always want to give them the chance to do the right thing.”
The campaigns for Herbster, Pillen and former State Sen. Theresa Thibodeau told the Examiner their candidates weren’t funding the ads.
The anti-Lindstrom group shares a name with a website run by GOP governor candidate Michael Connely, who also denied involvement.
Connely said somebody might be pointing people toward his insurgent campaign. Political groups trying to hide their backers will sometimes use names that hint at someone else’s involvement. Connely said that his campaign doesn’t use Twitter and that he doesn’t know who made the account that tweeted the anti-Lindstrom ad Friday.
“Nope, not making any dark money ads against Lindstrom,” Connely wrote on Friday by email. “I do not care for organizations that contribute to him, but we do not run mudslinging ads.”
Ad buys made Friday
Conservative Nebraska reserved $187,000 in television ad time in Omaha and Lincoln. It also bought TV ad time in Scottsbluff and Hastings. Restore the Good Life reserved $150,000 in TV ads in Omaha.
The ad buys showed up Friday within an hour of one another. That left local political consultants questioning whether the purchases were coordinated or connected.
Answers won’t be easy to come by, said Paul Landow, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha who has worked on political campaigns.
“It’s not clearly reported and easy to trace, and that’s a problem,” he said. “Political money needs to be reported, and people need to know where it came from.”
Studies show dark money ads can be effective, particularly against candidates who can’t afford to push back, Landow said. They’re “powerful, bare-knuckled and usually work.”
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