LINCOLN — Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts notched a re-election victory Tuesday night, earning another four years to continue his work on slowing the growth of state government while seeing if he can deliver a big fix on property taxes.
Ricketts never trailed in early returns Tuesday to State Sen. Bob Krist, the Democratic challenger who billed himself as a bipartisan leader best positioned to solve prison overcrowding and high property taxes. Krist served 10 years in the Nebraska Legislature as a moderate Republican before switching affiliation to take on Ricketts.
Ricketts said in an interview Tuesday night that he’s been focused on getting his message out.
“You never want to take anything for granted,” he said.
He said the biggest issue he’s heard from voters is property taxes.
“We’re going to look at what is the solution to get a bill to my desk,” he said.
Krist hoped he could attract sizable support from from political independents while peeling off Republicans dissatisfied with the governor’s first term. But Republicans, who enjoy a sizable registration advantage in Nebraska, once again delivered victory to the man with the distinctive bald head and firmly conservative track record.
The 54-year-old governor said recently he intends to serve all four years of his second term in response to speculation that he might run for Senate in 2020. Others have theorized he might go to Washington, D.C., to serve in a cabinet position because the governor’s family has been a major financial supporter of President Donald Trump.
On the campaign trail, the governor rarely even mentioned his opponent, instead sticking to a well-honed message that highlighted his first-term achievements. They included his success in requiring state agencies to improve customer service, cutting the growth of state spending and government regulations, and helping Nebraska climb national rankings in economic development, fiscal strength and low unemployment.
The state also carried out its first execution in 21 years, in part because of the $300,000 the governor gave to a referendum that allowed voters to overturn a 2015 legislative repeal of the death penalty. Ricketts derived his wealth while an executive at TD Ameritrade, the Omaha brokerage founded by his father, and through his family’s ownership of the Chicago Cubs major league baseball team.
Not surprisingly, campaign funding weighed heavily in the governor’s favor as well. Ricketts has spent about $2.4 million compared to Krist’s $567,000, based on recent campaign filings.
Krist, a retired Air Force colonel, earned a reputation during a decade in the Legislature as a Republican an unpredictable, independent streak who frequently aggravated GOP leaders. During his campaign, he launched broadsides at Ricketts, particularly for using his wealth to help fund more conservative candidates to knock out sitting Republicans who voted against the governor.
The senator also promised to rework the state’s tax system, ending some sales tax exemptions and generating new revenues by legalizing industrial hemp and casino gambling as a way to reduce property taxes. His plan contrasted with the governor’s rigid opposition to raising one type of tax to lower another.
The two also differed sharply on the Medicaid expansion ballot issue, with Ricketts opposing it and Kirst supporting the measure.
A strong supporter of President Donald Trump, the governor followed the president’s lead on immigration in the closing days of the campaign. At a GOP rally last week, Ricketts called attention to Nebraska National Guard troops who are serving at the border with Mexico and praised Trump for confronting “thousands of gate-crashers that are coming toward our southern border right now.”
Ricketts is now 2-1 in statewide political races, with his lone loss in 2006 when he challenged former U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson. Ricketts got buried in that election despite spending $12 million of his own money.
After that defeat, Ricketts took a methodical approach to rebuilding his political brand, winning a highly coveted position of national committeeman for the Nebraska Republican Party. He traveled the state, developed relationships and built a network that still serves him today.
His groundwork paid off in 2014 when he emerged atop a crowded GOP primary field that included Jon Bruning, a former Attorney General and political veteran. Ricketts then went on the easily defeat former University of Nebraska Regent Chuck Hassebrook, a Democrat, in the general election.