Billionaire TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts built a $25 million political operation aimed at reducing the size of government.
Now his youngest son, Todd, is trying to expand that family business, Ending Spending, to include other wealthy donors.
Father and son are following the activist-investor method of political giving favored by billionaire energy executives Charles and David Koch, who created a network of Republican-leaning groups and convinced like-minded donors to help pay for them. The Ricketts have won one big-name donor: Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas casino owner who spent about $100 million in the 2012 presidential election, gave Ending Spending about $1 million in 2012, Federal Election Commission records show.
“Like a lot of conservatives, we’re really independent-minded, and that led us to want to have more of a say in how money is spent on particular candidates and campaigns and ad buys,” Todd Ricketts, 44, a co-owner of the Chicago Cubs, said in an interview. “It has become clear to me that policy is made by the people who show up. We’re showing up.”
Brian Baker, who handles the daily operations of Ending Spending as its president and general counsel, said Joe Ricketts thinks of the Koch brothers as “great heroes who stood up and wanted to make a difference.”
The 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision Citizens United and subsequent court cases, coupled with regulatory actions, have untethered individuals, companies and unions from campaign-contribution restrictions, clearing the way for unlimited donations to and spending by super political action committees and nonprofits. Ending Spending is part super-PAC and part nonprofit.
The freelancing billionaires could diminish the voice of the parties, which can’t coordinate with outside groups. So far for the 2014 election, Americans for Prosperity, a Koch-backed group, has aired more than 17,000 broadcast TV commercials, compared with 2,100 put up by Republican Party groups, according to New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG.
The emerging players also may tamp down on the influence of some groups that once counted such wealthy spenders as their own donors. Four of the top five contributors to 2014 super-PACs through the end of February are giving to groups they created, data from the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based campaign-finance tracker, show. The fifth, longtime Republican donor, Bob Perry, died last year.
Wine to Politics
Billionaire hedge-fund manager Paul Singer also has begun courting donors for a pro-business Republican group.
John Jordan, a California winery owner, spent about $1.5 million on his own super-PAC last year to help Republican Massachusetts Senate candidate and fellow Naval officer, Gabriel Gomez. Democrat Ed Markey prevailed.
“I just felt like I had been burned as a past major fundraiser and donor,” Jordan said. “This was a much better fit for me. I like being in the middle of everything. That’s how I am with my businesses. I have airplanes. I fly myself. I’m always in the captain’s seat.”
Jordan said he gave more than $1 million in 2012 to groups founded by allies of President George W. Bush adviser Karl Rove and won’t be doing that again. He prefers to either go it alone or join donor-run operations.
“To me, as a big donor, I take it more seriously than something led by some professional consultant,” he said. “I respect what they’ve done because they put their own money into it,” he said of the Koch brothers.
Democratic-leaning billionaires Tom Steyer, a former hedge-fund manager, and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg also have developed and funded political groups to advance candidates who back their favored causes, the environment and guns, respectively. Bloomberg is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.
Todd Ricketts, who took over Ending Spending after the 2012 presidential election, wants to add political activity that maximizes the impact of the Koch operation and others, Baker said.
“Our ethos is not to duplicate what they’ve done but to add to it,” he said.
James Davis, a spokesman for the Kochs through Freedom Partners -- the business league that oversees the brothers’ political and policy operations -- said politics is a marketplace with room for many different kinds of groups.
The Kochs have been interested in free-market issues since at least when David Koch was the Libertarian Party’s vice-presidential candidate in 1980, and they’ve been building operations ever since, Davis said.
“The overreach of the federal government has inspired a whole new class of business leaders to get involved in the fight,” he said. That explains the growth of Freedom Partners, which has more than 200 dues-paying members, he said.
The Ending Spending project shows the perils and benefits of this kind of direct political advocacy.
Joe Ricketts, 72, who founded what would become the Omaha, Nebraska-based online brokerage service TD Ameritrade, started the Ending Spending groups in 2010.
“I’m concerned about ending the wasteful spending in Washington, and so I’m putting my money where my mouth is,” Joe Ricketts said in a web video introducing the group.
The Ricketts family fortune is valued at more than $3 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. By the end of last year, Ending Spending’s nonprofit and super-PAC had raised about $25 million, FEC documents and tax records show. Joe Ricketts supplied most of that funding.
The elder Ricketts, who resigned from the Ameritrade board in 2011, “has an insatiable capacity for projects,” Todd Ricketts said. “He’s always looked at things and said, ‘Is this a market that can be disrupted?’”
The four Ricketts children are majority owners of the Cubs. Tom Ricketts serves as chairman of the baseball organization. Pete Ricketts is running as a Republican candidate for Nebraska governor, and Laura Ricketts, a donor to Democrats and President Barack Obama, helped start a super-PAC of her own, L-PAC, devoted to electing lesbian candidates.
Only Todd Ricketts, who resigned from the Ameritrade board last month, and his father are involved in Ending Spending. For the past year, Todd has traveled to Washington about twice a month to meet lawmakers, polling experts and admakers.
He picks the races to target after consulting with his father and Baker, who worked on Republican campaigns and Capitol Hill before becoming a commercial litigator.
North Carolina Primary
Ending Spending invested about $85,000 last week on TV ads against Republican Representative Walter Jones in North Carolina. Jones, who is facing a Republican primary challenge, voted with Obama more than any other Republican, Baker said.
Lately Baker and Todd Ricketts have been debating their next move in New Hampshire, where one of their favorite Republicans, former Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown, is taking steps to run for a U.S. Senate seat.
In December, Ending Spending paid for online ads to promote a Draft Scott Brown petition. The group also made a TV ad knocking Democratic New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen for her support of Obama’s health-care law.
“You can keep your insurance if you like it,” Shaheen says in footage played in the ad, a statement that echoed Obama’s unfulfilled promise. A narrator edges in, saying that more than 20,000 New Hampshire patients have had their policies canceled and that the state offers only one provider option on its individual market.
“So next November, if you like your senator, you can keep her,” the narrator says. “If you don’t, you know what to do.”
The 30-second spot was one of the first to deliver that message, and since then groups, including Americans for Prosperity, have echoed it in Senate races across the country.
Newspapers and billboards have been some of TD Ameritrade’s favorite places to advertise, Todd Ricketts said, and he’s carried the practice into politics.
“It’s about the idea of communicating a message and getting buy-in from people so that they hear what you have to say. Where are your touch points? In this case, how do you reach voters?” Ricketts said.
Putting the family name on a political project can attract negative publicity.
In 2012, Chicago newspaper editorial boards called the Ricketts family hypocrites because they were trying to secure taxpayer-financed loans for Wrigley Field renovations and at the same time running an anti-spending group. They didn’t receive the bonds and instead secured private funding.
The family also encountered turbulence in May 2012 when news spread that it had received an ad proposal to focus on Obama’s relationship with a Chicago preacher known for racially charged sermons. Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney rebuked that approach, and Baker said at the time that Joe Ricketts had immediately rejected the idea.