Conservative donor Joe Ricketts achieved a low level of notoriety in 2012 when the New York Times reported that he was considering a proposal for a series of ads that would link President Obama to the controversial preaching of Rev. Jeremiah Wright, a tenuous line of attack that flared up in 2008 but was disavowed by influential members of the Republican establishment, including GOP nominee Sen. John McCain. According to the Times, Ricketts commissioned the proposal (tellingly, its subtitle christens it “The Ricketts Plan”) but distanced himself after backlash against its racially fraught suggestions, which included hiring an “extremely literate conservative African-American” to sell the idea that the president has falsely painted himself as a “metrosexual, black Abe Lincoln.”
The proposal was one of several submitted to Ricketts’ super PAC, the Ending Spending Action Fund, of which he was the sole identified donor as of summer 2012, but also received $1 million from conservative mega-donor Sheldon Adelson and his wife in October. Briefly called Taxpayers Against Earmarks, the Ending Spending Action Fund was founded in 2010, and Ricketts doled out over $1.3 million for its operations. During the 2010 elections, the group spent over $860,000 in an unsuccessful attempt to oust Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and install Tea Party candidate Sharron Angle. More recently, in addition to planning to target President Obama, the group spent at least $245,000 on ads supporting Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in his recall election campaign. The group also funded a $75,000 ad campaign in Alabama helping Republican establishment candidate Bradley Byrne win a close primary election against tea party candidate Dean Young.
Although he claims to be an independent, Ricketts has given generously of his $1.23 billion net worth (and nearly exclusively) to Republican candidates across the conservative spectrum. Early in the 2012 cycle, Ricketts gave the maximum personal donation — $2,500 – to each of the candidates seeking the GOP nomination. That included not only Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, Jon Huntsman, and Ron Paul, but also Tim Pawlenty (who got Ricketts’ first 2012 presidential donation), Michele Bachmann, and even Gary Johnson. In 2008, he and his wife gave $120,000 to John McCain’s Victory fund. Ricketts and his wife have also donated heavily to the Republican National Committee and Nebraska’s Republican Party. In addition, they’ve given $500,000 dollars to the Campaign for Primary Accountability, an anti-incumbent effort that has supported primary challenges against members of both parties.
Ricketts founded the company that is now TD Ameritrade, where he served as CEO until 2001 and Chairman until 2008. Together, he and his wife still own just over a tenth of the company, and two of their sons are on its board. Since retiring from Ameritrade, Ricketts has launched a handful of new business ventures: a bison meat supplier, an educational organization focused on developing countries, a New York City news website, and a film company that produces movies about American history. The Ricketts family owns 95 percent of the Chicago Cubs, which son Tom Ricketts controls, and Wrigley Field, along with a fifth of Comcast’s Chicago sports TV station. Ricketts’ son Peter unsuccessfully challenged Democrat Ben Nelson in Nebraska’s 2006 Senate race. Peter then served on the board of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, a position his father also once held, before being successfully elected as Governor of Nebraska. Ricketts’ daughter, Laura, however, is a bundler for President Obama. His third son, Todd, is the director & CEO of Ending Spending and another major conservative donor.