Nebraska's hereditary billionaire GOP governor Pete Ricketts is furious that the state legislature keeps overriding his vetos -- that is, the elected lawmakers pass laws, he tries to block them, and they overturn him -- so he's made an election issue of the state's dormant death penalty, spending $400K to put it on the state ballot next week.
Nebraska has a single-house, nonpartisan legislature called the Senate, and the senators who received support from the Republican party have refused to toe Ricketts' line. Ricketts and his father, Republican megadonor Joe Ricketts, are spending big to discredit these GOP lawmakers so they can be replaced with more pliant ones who'll only vote for laws that the Rickettses support.
Ricketts apparently sees the senate reversals as a blot on his political record, and thus an impediment to his national ambitions -- to become a federal Senator and then run for president.
Nebraska hasn't executed a prisoner in decades, but still spends $14.6M/year on its death rows. Lawmakers very reasonably decided that this money could be better spent elsewhere and so introduced legislation to formalize the state's de facto abandonment of the death penalty. Ricketts seized on this as a good hearts-and-mind issue for the GOP base in the state, and vetoed the law.
If the death penalty referendum is carried, it will consolidate Ricketts' power. If it fails, it will be a serious blow to his political future -- especially if Trump loses as well, as Ricketts has broken with his family to endorse Trump's campaign.
The second big question is turnout. Nebraska does not have a governor's race or a US Senate race this year, leaving the presidential race as the main draw for voters to get to the polls. But Nebraska, though deeply conservative, is not exactly Trump territory. Ricketts endorsed Trump after his first choice, Ted Cruz, dropped out of the primary, but he has not donated to Trump's campaign; his wife, meanwhile, registered as a Democrat and is supporting Hillary Clinton. Both of the state's Republican US senators have spoken out against Trump: Ben Sasse is perhaps the most prominent Never Trump Republican in the country, while Deb Fischer unendorsed him after the infamous 2005 Access Hollywood video was leaked in early October. (She later re-endorsed him.) "I think there's a legitimate chance that the Legislature will be held up," Coash says hopefully. "It all comes down to turnout."
Most politicians and analysts predict the repeal will be overturned because Nebraska is such a conservative state. "I would be absolutely shocked if the voters basically supported to keep the repeal of the death penalty," says Aaron Trost, a Republican operative who ran Fischer's campaign in 2012. In August, the pro-death-penalty group released a poll showing that 2 out of 3 Nebraskans support the death penalty. Dan Parsons, the spokesman for the anti-death-penalty group, has argued that the poll was "flawed." Unlike the poll, the referendum states that if the death penalty repeal stands, defendants who would otherwise have received a death sentence would instead get life in prison. Previous polling has shown that when life without parole is mentioned as the alternative to the death penalty, some Americans switch from death penalty support to opposition.
A Republican Governor Is Using His Own Money to Reinstate the Death Penalty
[Pema Levy/Mother Jones]
(via Super Punch)