On January 3, the first day of Nebraska’s 2018 legislative session, State Senator Laura Ebke stood up and reminded her colleagues about the state’s proud tradition of nonpartisanship. Quoting from a 1937 speech by George Norris—the legendary Nebraska politician behind the state’s unique nonpartisan, single-house Legislature—Ebke urged her fellow lawmakers to hold positions “without any partisan political obligation to any machine, to any boss, or to any alleged political leader.”
Her speech was met with applause, but since Governor Pete Ricketts came into office in 2015, Ebke hasn’t seen the independence or political civility she was advocating. Ebke—an adjunct political-science professor who represents a district 30 miles southwest of Lincoln—has been battling the state’s deep-pocketed governor and the Republican Party, with which she had been affiliated for most of her life.
Ebke is a conservative who isn’t conservative enough for Ricketts. She grew up in a “Goldwater house” and cast her first presidential vote for Ronald Reagan, but the party’s embrace of Donald Trump, combined with Ricketts’s decision to target fellow Republicans, appalled her. In June 2016, she switched parties and became the only registered Libertarian in the 49-person Legislature. “It seemed to me I was no longer welcome,” she told me.
Ricketts targeted Ebke and several other senators after they voted against him on a few key items during his first year in office in 2015. To the governor’s dismay, the Legislature—known to locals as the “unicam,” or unicameral—repealed the death penalty, allowed certain undocumented youth to obtain driver’s licenses, and raised the state’s gas tax to fund bridge and road repairs. At the Nebraska Republican Party convention in May 2016, Ricketts denounced those legislators by name and insisted that party officials elect “platform Republicans,” meaning politicians who would vote exactly as the state’s GOP wanted.
Ricketts then donated to opponents of those who voted against his wishes. Sometimes it came in the form of $10,000 or $5,000 contributions to specific candidates. Other times he poured money into groups like Nebraskans for the Death Penalty or the Nebraska Republican Party. According to data collected by the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission, Ricketts spent about $360,000 of his own money to support political causes in Nebraska during the 2016 election cycle. It’ll be another month until the accountability commission receives the data to compile a report on campaign spending during this year’s primaries. But estimates from the Omaha World-Herald show that by the end of April (the latest data available as of this writing), Ricketts had spent $27,500 on races in Nebraska that excluded his own gubernatorial campaign. In 2016, he spent $13,500 on local races by the end of April, as most of the spending came after the May primaries. Eight of the 14 candidates he supported in 2016 won their races, according to the World-Herald. In three instances, ultra-conservative newcomers ousted Republican incumbents.