LINCOLN, Neb. — Conservative Republicans who want to unseat Nebraska lawmakers are finding a new ally in Gov. Pete Ricketts, who is actively working to elect like-minded senators who promise to stay true to their word.
In an Associated Press interview, Ricketts said he’s endorsing legislative challengers who have pledged to govern as they campaigned and who reflect what he believes are their constituents’ wishes.
The Republican governor said he wants more conservative lawmakers who will deliver on promises to lower taxes and slow state spending growth. Critics say he’s trying to impose his will on the Legislature, which handed him a series of high-profile defeats during his first year in office in 2015.
Some of the candidates backed by Ricketts are challenging incumbents who voted against the governor on major proposals to repeal the death penalty, raise the state’s gas tax and allow professional and driver’s licenses for people brought as youths to the country illegally. Each of the bills passed when Republican and Democratic senators joined forces to override Ricketts’ veto.
Ricketts said many of the incumbents’ votes conflict with promises they made as candidates.
“As a voter, if you disagree with me and you’re up front about it, at least I know that when I vote for you,” he said. “I think what’s frustrating for voters is when a candidate says, ‘I’m in favor of this issue,’ and then they reverse themselves. I want candidates to live up to their campaign promises.”
Former Gov. Dave Heineman played a similar role in legislative contests, although prior governors traditionally steered clear. In 2012, he endorsed Republican Bill Kintner over incumbent state Sen. Paul Lambert, whom Heineman had appointed the previous year.
Lambert ran afoul of Heineman when he voted to override the governor’s veto of a bill that allowed cities to raise their sales tax by a half cent. Heineman said at the time that Lambert, who lost the election, promised during his vetting to oppose sales tax increases.
Ricketts said he may endorse in other legislative races, but declined to offer specifics. So far he has walked with candidates in parades, stood with them at town hall events, spoken at fundraisers and contributed to their campaigns.
Ricketts said he doesn’t mind policy disagreements but wants candidates who are willing to take a collaborative approach. He pointed to his work this year with senior lawmakers from both parties to pass a property tax package, school funding reforms and a major roads-funding bill.
“All of those things happened because the executive branch and the legislative branch worked together,” he said.
Two Republican incumbents facing challengers, Sens. Les Seiler of Hastings and Jerry Johnson of Wahoo, said they were disappointed but not surprised the governor backed their opponents.
Seiler said Ricketts is trying to exert control over a Legislature that acted independently after weighing issues based on their merit. Although he initially supported the death penalty, Seiler said he voted to abolish the punishment after becoming convinced that keeping it was impractical and a waste of tax dollars.
Ricketts “wants a bunch of Muppets who will dance to his tune while he pulls the strings,” Seiler said.
Seiler also serves as chairman of a legislative oversight committee that is investigating the state’s corrections department, a part of Ricketts’ administration. Last week, Ricketts criticized the committee for “grilling” the department’s director for half a day and not taking a more collaborative approach. Seiler said lawmakers have a duty to find out what resources the department needs.
Seiler’s challenger, retired farmer Steve Halloran, said he shares Ricketts’ beliefs on the death penalty, taxes and licenses for youths who entered the country illegally. Halloran said he believes Seiler’s votes run afoul of what most of his constituents want.
“My word is my bond,” Halloran said. “If you can’t keep your word, you don’t have anything.”
Johnson said he has worked with Ricketts on many issues related to agriculture but differed with him on the immigrant licensing bill, the gas tax increase and a “right to farm” measure opposed by the state’s leading farm and ranching groups.
His opponent, Brainard farmer Bruce Bostelman, has pitched himself as a “consistent conservative” who opposes tax increases and public benefits for people in the country illegally.
Johnson said his votes were based on what he considered his district’s best interests.
The licensing bill and gas tax increase were supported by agricultural groups, and Johnson said many of his constituents agreed with his position after hearing his rationale. Johnson opted to repeal the death penalty during an early vote in the Legislature, but decided to support it during a later vote after Ricketts asked him for more time to resolve problems acquiring lethal injection drugs.
“The votes I’ve made represent the interests of my district and agriculture, and it’s very frustrating that I get this for doing what I think is the right thing,” Johnson said. “The people the governor endorsed — he’s going to own them.”
Ricketts’ endorsements could backfire if the incumbents win re-election, but the governor said he’s happy to take the risk.
“The candidates I’ve backed are tremendous individuals,” he said. “I have no regrets, no matter how any of the races turn out.”