Oct 23, 2:18 PM EDT

Ricketts gives $44,500 to Nebraska GOP legislative hopefuls

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) -- With little more than two weeks until the election, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts is pouring big money into this year's legislative races on top of his contributions to the campaign seeking to preserve the death penalty.

Ricketts, a multimillionaire and longtime Republican activist, has given at least $44,500 of his own money to GOP legislative candidates and state senators to pad their campaign funds. The governor has taken an active role even in some races pitting conservatives against moderate Republicans who clashed with him during his first two years in office.

He also has donated $300,000 over two years to Nebraskans for the Death Penalty, a ballot campaign that is urging voters to restore capital punishment after lawmakers abolished it over Ricketts' veto.

Ricketts spokesman Taylor Gage said the governor has endorsed and contributed to candidates for years.

"When Gov. Ricketts throws his support behind a candidate he attends events for them, walks in parades, and financially contributes to their efforts," Gage said in a statement.

Ricketts has contributed to nine legislative campaigns, according to filings with the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission. Several of those candidates publicly supported his 2014 run for governor, and Ricketts has identified some of the candidates as personal friends.

Ricketts has said some current senators didn't receive his endorsement because they failed to reflect their constituents' wishes on major issues, such as raising the state's fuel tax, which Ricketts opposed. During the state GOP convention in May, he called on voters to elect "platform Republicans" who adhere to the party's official stances.

Ricketts isn't the only big donor helping to bankroll campaigns. The Nebraska State Education Association's political action committee spent at least $108,000 on lawmakers and legislative candidates between Jan. 1 and Oct. 4, mostly favoring Democrats and moderate Republicans, according to state disclosure records.

The Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry PAC spent roughly $89,000 during the same period. A PAC representing general contractors poured $126,000 into legislative races, following two years in which lawmakers raised the state's fuel tax and approved a $450 million infrastructure package.

Still, critics say the governor's donations are an attempt to influence a separate branch of government in a way that's out-of-reach to most of the public.

"It's a question of fairness, really," said Jack Gould, issues chairman of Common Cause Nebraska, a group that promotes government accountability. "When you have a man with that kind of wealth, he can make or break people. That's what's wrong with the system. Campaigns shouldn't be determined by money."

Legislative candidate Karl Elmshaeuser, who received a $5,000 donation from Ricketts, said he appreciated the governor's support but stressed that his campaign's contributions came from a variety of individuals and groups. Elmshaeuser said he has campaigned heavily on taxes, jobs and the economy, issues the governor has identified as priorities.

"I don't take money from people I can't say no to," said Elmshaeuser, an Ogallala City Council member. Supporters who donate "are investing in my character and what I believe in."

Nebraska Republican Party Executive Director Bud Synhorst said the state's GOP governors have a long history of helping the party and its candidates. Even before he was governor, Ricketts gave tens of thousands of dollars to conservative legislative candidates, according to the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission. The state GOP doesn't usually endorse in races pitting Republican against Republican, but governors are free to do so.

"Gov. Ricketts has always been a strong supporter of the party," Synhorst said.

Former Gov. Dave Heineman gave to the state GOP and its legislative candidates through his official campaign committee, although in smaller amounts than Ricketts. Heineman donated a total of $7,750 to six legislative candidates in 2014, with mixed results: only three won their races.

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