The two candidates for Lincoln mayor in the nonpartisan 2023 city general election race are State Sen. Suzanne Geist, left, and Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird. (Courtesy of candidates’ campaigns)
LINCOLN — This spring’s pricey primary race for Lincoln mayor hints that last year’s record spending on state and local races might mark a new normal for Nebraska politics, one in which a handful of big-dollar donors drives up the cost of running for even local offices.
Two of three mayoral candidates competing in the April 4 nonpartisan primary race have already obliterated Lincoln records for raising campaign cash, led by State Sen. Suzanne Geist, a Republican, and incumbent Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird, the state’s top elected Democrat.
Geist and Gaylor Baird each appear poised to raise more than $1 million. Geist has already eclipsed that mark, raising more than $1.25 million, according to the latest reports from the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission. Gaylor Baird has raised about $950,000.
Both are doing so in a city where being able to raise more than $100,000 by May has, for decades, signaled a credible mayoral candidate, years of state campaign finance records show. Lincoln’s new $1 million mark is closer to what top Omaha mayoral candidates raise in competitive years.
The third candidate in the race, Stan Parker, a conservative nonprofit executive and Christian broadcaster, told the Nebraska Examiner he did not tap big donors to avoid seeming beholden to them. He said he knows his decision makes him “a long shot.” He has reported raising $65,000.
Fundraising double the 2019 tally
Until this spring, the most expensive Lincoln mayor’s race was in 2019. The top three candidates that year — Gaylord Baird, Cyndi Lamm and Jeff Kirkpatrick — combined to raise a total of about $1 million for the open-seat race. Gaylor Baird won after raising $435,000, the most of any Lincoln mayoral candidate.
This spring, Geist alone has raised more than the three 2019 candidates combined. Tom Peed, his family and Sandhills Global, his Lincoln business, along with U.S. Sen. Pete Ricketts, R-Neb., have given a total of $1.54 million to Geist and Together Nebraska, an outside group backing her bid.
Ricketts has given $100,000 to Geist’s campaign and $100,000 to Together Nebraska, one of the outside groups Republicans, including Ricketts, used to advertise against Democrats running for Legislature and Lancaster County Attorney. He declined through a spokeswoman Monday to comment about his reasons for giving.
The Peed family, based in Lincoln, gave $100,000 to Geist and $535,000 to Together Nebraska. Sandhills Global gave Geist $250,000, plus $453,000 in digital and billboard advertising. Neither Tom Peed nor Sandhills Global returned a call Monday seeking comment.
Together Nebraska has already purchased at least $157,000 in negative ads against Gaylor Baird during the primary. Many ads have mirrored Geist’s criticisms of the mayor, including issues such as crime and policing. The Lincoln Police Union backs Geist.
Gaylor Baird said she wonders what Geist’s top donors will expect for their money. She said she is trying to raise funds from a broader base of Lincoln residents with different interests so that no one voice dominates her political ear.
Gaylor Baird’s top donors include the Lincoln Fire Fighters Association, which gave her $50,000, and developer Philip Perry, who gave her $35,500. She also received $20,000 from her mother-in-law, Joyce Baird; $10,000 from Rhonda Seacrest of Lincoln; and $5,000 from Barbara Weitz of Omaha.
“They can’t win on the issues,” Gaylor Baird said. “They can’t talk about my record and suggest that I haven’t delivered. They’re trying to scare people into voting for them. People see what they’re trying to do. They’re rejecting that false narrative.”
Geist said her top donors don’t expect anything in return, other than a mayor who will listen to and consider their concerns. She said she had given donors no special treatment during her seven years in the Nebraska Legislature.
“The reality is there are no strings attached to that money,” Geist said. “They (the Peeds) are a family that is interested in just being heard. … But I can tell you that whether you’ve given no money to my race or a lot of money to my race, you’re going to have a seat at the table.”
Jack Gould of Common Cause Nebraska, which advocates limits on campaign donations and more disclosure of dark money donations, said continued growth in large campaign donations places a higher cost on running for office and puts it out of reach for most Nebraskans.
“Statistically, the (people) with the most money and who spend the most money win,” Gould said. “We’re becoming a plutocracy. The money is determining more about who is going to become our leaders than their policies.”
Gap challenges lesser-known candidates
Money isn’t always decisive, however, said University of Nebraska-Lincoln political scientist John Hibbing. He pointed to presidential politics, including the failed campaigns by well-funded GOP candidates Michael Bloomberg and Jeb Bush. Neither, he said, became president.
Hibbing said the fundraising gap between major, well-known candidates such as Geist and Gaylor Baird matters less than the gap between them and lesser-known candidates such as Parker. This is because money and the need to raise it can keep new candidates from introducing themselves.
“They need to have people get to know them somehow,” Hibbing said. “If they’re not the incumbent and they don’t have megabucks, doing that is really hard.”
Parker has run some TV ads on cable, but said he encourages his team to be creative with social media to help keep campaign costs low. One example: Voters can attend a weekly Zoom meeting with Parker, a practice he said he would continue if he wins. His campaign seeks to build name ID with word of mouth and yard signs.
“If people allow their vote to just be impressions, I don’t know that I have a phenomenal shot,” Parker said. “If it’s about inspections, and people do their work and take a look at the three candidates, I think I have a great shot.”
Hibbing said one area where money can make a difference is with late-hit advertising by outside groups such as Together Nebraska. Major donors use such ads to influence races late enough that it’s hard to fight back.
“If you don’t have the money to fight back, you can’t do anything,” he said. “They’ve already lined up the TV stations, radio stations and direct mail.”
That’s what outside groups did during the 2022 gubernatorial primary. But can an outside group fight city hall? Political observers say Lincoln voters are about to find out.
CORRECTION: This article has been revised to correct the races that Together Nebraska spent money on in 2022.
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