Can Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump be stopped? An asymmetric candidate who said in Thursday’s debate, “I guarantee you there is no problem” with the size of his hands — or any other body part?
Todd Ricketts is in the game to derail his candidacy, with not many innings left.
Ricketts, the Cubs board member and Wilmette businessman who oversees the Ending Spending conservative super PAC, has emerged as a major force trying to keep both Trump and Hillary Clinton out of the White House.
Ricketts, 46, is the key player in the Our Principles PAC — the biggest anti-Trump group and the first out of the gate. It was jumpstarted with a $3 million contribution in January from his mother, Marlene Ricketts.
Future 45, a super PAC dedicated to attacking Hillary Clinton that was formed last year, counts among its donors the political fund Ricketts runs.
And before the Feb. 1 Iowa caucus vote, Rickett’s ESA Fund launched an ad blitz to oppose Bernie Sanders — a move Clinton slammed from a bowling alley in the town of Adel as a clever maneuver really intended to drain votes from her.
The window is closing on sidelining Trump’s bid, which Our Principles has been trying to do since it was created last January.
“People thought Trump would have his moment” and then “start to fade,” Ricketts says in an interview.
Obviously, that didn’t happen. And Republicans — including Mitt Romney, who delivered a powerful indictment of Trump in a Thursday speech — are stepping up efforts to deprive Trump from effectively clinching the GOP nomination after delegate-rich Illinois, Florida, Ohio and other states vote on March 15.
What happens on March 16 and after isn’t exactly clear to Ricketts — who, like Romney, isn’t endorsing anyone in the presidential race.
His immediate priority, though, is to prevent Trump, the billionaire and reality TV star, from locking up most of the 1,237 delegates needed to become the Republican nominee.
March 15 votes will help determine whether the Republican field consolidates sooner rather than later — and whether the party heads to a brokered national convention July 18-21 in Cleveland.
It’s hard to see how U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Ohio Gov. John Kasich could survive if they don’t win their home states on March 15.
It’s been three years since Ricketts took the baton from his father, Joe Ricketts, and became chief executive officer of Ending Spending’s SuperPAC and the advocacy arm the elder Ricketts founded — one of the largest conservative political action committees in the nation.
Now, Ricketts finds himself on the front lines of the 2016 presidential election. He’s stepping out from the shadow of his father as he dives deeper into the world of policy and politics.
Ricketts is far more of a known quantity now than he was in March 2013, when he took over Ending Spending.
The Loyola University graduate and his wife, Sylvie, are the parents of two girls and a boy. His father, the Cubs patriarch, is the founder of TD Ameritrade, the source of the family wealth.
Todd Ricketts has a seat on the TD Ameritrade Holding Corp. board and is co-owner of a bike store and swim school in Wilmette and a data management company in Wisconsin.
Ricketts knows that his political activities get more attention because he is a Cubs board member. His other siblings also are on the board: Pete Ricketts, elected the Republican governor of Nebraska in November 2014; Laura Ricketts, a major Democratic campaign contributor and fund-raiser who chairs the lesbian LPAC; and Tom Ricketts, who is the chairman of the ball club.
Tom Ricketts recently upped his own political profile. Last month, he was a co-host of a fund-raiser for Wyoming Republican U.S. House hopeful Liz Cheney at The Racquet Club, 1365 N. Dearborn Pkwy., who appeared with her father, former Vice President Dick Cheney.
When the presidential cycle started, Ricketts and the Republican wing of his family — among the biggest donors in the nation — were backing Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
Ricketts saw Walker as a solid Washington outsider with seemingly enormous potential, became his national co-finance chair and led a family effort to donate almost $5 million to the super PAC bolstering him. In September, though, Walker became the first Republican in the large field to drop his bid for president.
After giving his all to Walker, Ricketts decided not to jump to another candidate.
“I took the time to evaluate the other candidates,” he says. “During that process, I realized I could not support the campaign of Donald Trump.”
After finding success in increasing the number of Republicans in Congress, governorships, state houses and other state offices, Ricketts says he grew more concerned as it became clearer Trump was catching on.
The problem, he says, is that “Trump is not a consistent conservative,” someone not to be trusted on issues like taxes and ditching Obamacare. He calls Trump the “antithesis of fiscal conservatism,” which is a core issue for Ricketts.
“I have no idea where he stands,” Ricketts says. “I have no idea what a Trump presidency looks like.”
Our Principles PAC was launched because “somebody needed to get out there and define Trump while the other candidates sorted themselves out,” Ricketts says.
I asked how his mom, Marlene, decided to put in the $3 million.
“We sit down periodically and talk budget and where we want to spend money and where we can be most effective,” Ricketts says.
As polls were closing on Super Tuesday — the day last week when Trump’s victories pushed him closer to the number of delegates he’d need to clinch the nomination — Ricketts was on a conference call with Meg Whitman, the Hewlett Packard president and CEO; New York hedge fund manager Paul Singer; and Brian Baker, the president and general counsel of Ending Spending.
Singer, a mega-donor, gave Rickett’s ESA Fund $1 million in 2015.
The people who took part in the conference call — business people and potential contributors — were briefed on the “delegate math” and how spending money can help define Trump.
For most of the primary season, Trump was left alone while his rivals sliced into each other.
In Iowa, in advance of the Feb. 1 vote, Our Principles PAC spent about $2.5 million ripping Trump and
questioning his commitment to conservatism. After ads starting running against Trump, he lost. The Iowa caucus was won by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.
A few hours earlier on Super Tuesday, Our Principles PAC had announced what the group called “a seven-figure ad buy,” with anti-Trump spots to run in Illinois, Florida and Michigan — which holds its primary on Tuesday. Most of the anti-Trump action is focused on winner-take-all Florida, which has 99 delegates up for grabs.
Indeed, on Friday, Our Principles PAC reported to the Federal Election Commission spending $3 million to oppose Trump, with most of it in Florida for media and on-line advertising.
When Marlene Ricketts name surfaced as the Our Principles major donor, Trump, misspelling the family name, said in a Tweet, “I hear the Rickets family, who own the Chicago Cubs, are secretly spending $’s against me. They better be careful, they have a lot to hide!”
The spending wasn’t secret, though. Marlene Ricketts’ contribution was reported, as required, to the Federal Election Commission.
The larger maneuver — going after the Rickettses the way Trump did — struck Ricketts as not a sound long-term strategy.
While Trump makes much of his claim that his primary run is being self-funded — though he does take money from contributors — the Sun-Times reported last week that he has not pledged to bankroll his own general election campaign.
Running a national campaign is an expensive, massive, sprawling enterprise, and Trump just might need help. Declaring war on everyone who opposes him might be shortsighted.
“I don’t think there is a path to the presidency without the support of the party for either side,” Ricketts says.
If Trump is the nominee, is he electable?
“I don’t know,” Ricketts says. “Things change so quickly.”
Would he vote for him? “It remains to be seen.
“I understand people are looking for something different,” Ricketts says. “It’s just that Trump is not the difference we are looking for.”
MONEY TRAIL: In January, the Our Principles fund took in $7,500 from Lake Forest mega-donor Richard Uihlein, who runs Uline, a product distribution company. Chicago hedge fund honcho Ken Griffin, another mega-giver, is also a Future 45 contributor, giving $250,000 last year. Griffin is also a major contributor to the ESA Fund, giving $500,000 in 2015, as well as a big supporter of the super PAC that’s helping Rubio.