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The ‘bring your own billionaire’ election

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The 2016 presidential candidates are competing for the support of very rich donors.  Some of these donors have become household names, but others are relatively unknown — billionaires like Joe Ricketts and his family, who’ve become quite active political donors over the past few election cycles.

Ricketts made his fortune as founder of what’s now TD Ameritrade, the discount brokerage. He’s very media shy – my interview request was denied.  But you can build a political profile of him by looking at campaign finance records. For example, Ricketts and his wife, Marlene, gave $5 million to Republican Scott Walker’s super PAC. 

“He has apparently committed in a big way to Scott Walker,” says Viveca Novak, spokeswoman at the Center for Responsive Politics, a campaign finance watchdog.

Novak says, for the Rickettses, politics is a family affair.  One of Ricketts’ sons is co-chairman of Walker’s national fundraising.  Another son is the Republican governor of Nebraska. But Novak says Ricketts daughter, Laura, is a big donor to Democrats.

“Since 2006 or so she’s given a lot of money to the state Democratic parties, as well as the main Democratic National Committee,” Novak says.

But Joe Ricketts is a much bigger spender.  The issues that motivate him, analysts say? The federal budget and taxes.

“Generally he’s been concerned about fiscal issues, taxation, spending,” says Lee Drutman a senior fellow at New America. “He seems to want government to be much smaller and spend a lot less.”

Drutman says Ricketts is just one of a stable of billionaires who are starting to line up behind their favorite presidential candidate in the 2016 race.

The presidential contenders are spending lots of time courting them.  Because, in this election, you’ve got to have a sugar daddy, say analysts.

“This is a BYOB election – bring your own billionaire,” says Chris Gates, president of the Sunlight Foundation, another campaign watchdog. “And if you don’t have at least a few of them in your pocket you’re probably not going to be taken very seriously as a political candidate.”

So, the Joe Ricketts of this world have suddenly become very popular, and powerful, playing a major role in the selection of our next president. 


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