Latest GOP Ad Player: A Lover of Bison, a Hater of Earmarks

PHOTO: Joe Ricketts speaks during the premiere of "The Conspirator" presented by The American Film Company, Fords Theatre and Roadside Attractions at Fords Theatre on April 10, 2011 in Washington, DC.Kris Connor/Getty Images
Joe Ricketts speaks during the premiere of "The Conspirator" presented by The American Film Company, Ford's Theatre and Roadside Attractions at Ford's Theatre on April 10, 2011 in Washington, DC.

Add Joe Ricketts to the list of rich conservatives Democrats might have to track closely during the general election.

Ricketts is a lot of things: founder of TD Ameritrade, crusader against earmarks, bison meat tycoon, owner of the Chicago Cubs, hyper-local news dabbler and conservative political player, among other things.

On Thursday, Ricketts was thrust into the national spotlight after a plan for an expensive ad buy that tied President Obama to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright was leaked to the New York Times. Through his own super PAC, Ricketts disapproved of the tactic and disowned responsibility for the plan.

Ricketts is a libertarian, according to his brother, Jim Ricketts, who runs a group that teaches poor students in troubled areas around the world. Much of the money for the group, Opportunity Education, comes from Joe Ricketts, who gives $5 million every year, his brother said.

The GOP idea to revive Wright included this line, next to a picture of the inflammatory pastor: "Joe Ricketts said it himself ... 'If the nation had seen that ad, they'd never have elected Barack Obama.'"

That Ricketts said he disapproved of the plan wasn't surprising, his brother said.

"Joe has never been about the person," Jim Ricketts said. "It's always about the policy."

Politics runs in the Ricketts family, though not in the same direction. His son Peter ran for Senate and works for the Republican National Committee. His daughter supports the Obama campaign.

Ricketts's grandfather was the mayor of a small town in Nebraska. His brother ran for office in Colorado, and his brother's son is on a school board.

His kids now run the Chicago Cubs, and as the Wright plan gained attention, so did the pushback from his son, Tom.

"As chairman of the Chicago Cubs, I repudiate any return to racially divisive issues in this year's presidential campaign or in any setting — like my father has," Tom Ricketts said in a statement. "I shall have no further comment on this or any other election year political issue."

Ricketts's daughter Laura had this to add: "All of my family members and I love this country and are passionate about doing what is right for the country. That love of country was instilled in us by my father. We have different political views on how to achieve what is best for the future of America, but we agree that each of us is entitled to our own views and our right to voice those views."

Even Rahm Emanuel, Obama's first White House chief of staff who is now the mayor of Chicago, was drawn into the fray. He said the Wright proposal wasn't "fitting in a campaign of any nature."

Many Democrats are probably already familiar with Ricketts' fingerprint on campaigns. The Ending Spending Fund super PAC spent more than $250,000 in the recent Senate primary in Nebraska, supporting the eventual surprise winner, Deb Fischer.

Before that, he donated more than $1 million to the fund in the 2010 midterm elections.

In his charge against congressional spending, Ricketts said in a video that lawmakers who get earmarks for their districts are "hooligans."

Jamal Simmons, a Democratic strategist, dismissed concerns that ads resembling the Wright proposal could flood the airwaves because Republicans are likely to win the outside-group fundraising battle. But he conceded that ads reminding voters of Wright's comments could work.

"People will talk about it," he said. "Will it influence their vote, though? In an election where something like the economy and global affairs are so important, these issues will have marginal impact."

Ricketts has yet to make a public comment on the Wright proposal, and much like Sheldon Adelson, a lot of copy has already been written about him while he watches from behind closed doors.

Not all of his time is spent on politics, though.

Below a video on the website for his brother's education group, Ricketts writes: "I have traveled to many countries in Africa and Asia and have come to love them. I love the beauty of the landscape. I love the wild animals. I love the people."

And here's what Ricketts says in a video on the website for his bison meat company: "Not only is it lower in fat and cholesterol than beef — many people are surprised to learn that it's even lower in fat and cholesterol than chicken. Plus, it has a great taste."