Biden Allies Want Warren Buffett’s Support — and Omaha’s One Electoral Vote

(Bloomberg) -- The US presidential election may come down to a city in the Midwestern prairie that is home to Warren Buffett — a prospect that is raising hopes among some Democrats that the once-prolific political donor will come off the sidelines to try to power President Joe Biden to reelection.

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Back in 2016, the Berkshire Hathaway Inc. chairman wrote checks for Democrat Hillary Clinton’s White House bid, appearing onstage with her at a rally and scoffing at her rival, Donald Trump. For decades before that, he had sprinkled money on moderate Democrats in US Senate races all over the country. As recently as 2019, he lavished a six-figure check on the party’s committee that supports House candidates.

But since then, his money spigot has remained closed to federal political candidates up and down the ballot as he aimed to spare his companies and employees from any potential backlash. And that choice has become more conspicuous as his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska, has been thrust into the unusual position of potentially deciding this year’s presidential race.

The city, which is welcoming thousands of visitors this weekend for Berkshire’s carnival-like annual shareholders meeting, is situated in a congressional district that Biden won in 2020 and Trump won in 2016. The area gets a single Electoral College vote that could deliver the incumbent another term in a scenario where he wins a trio of northern battleground states, but none of the swing states in the South.

Plenty of Democrats think Biden is well-positioned to win in the city they’ve dubbed “Joemaha.” But others see flaws in the party’s approach.

Preston Love Jr., the Nebraska Democrat challenging Republican Senator Pete Ricketts in November, says the Buffett family declined his overtures for funding and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has rebuffed his call for cash.

Love is sounding the alarm that Black voter turnout will sag in Nebraska this campaign cycle unless there is greater investment in the state and his own bid. With Black voters heavily concentrated in the battleground district, a dip in participation from that key demographic could cost Biden a win and imperil Democrats’ chances of flipping Omaha’s House seat.

It’s a prospect that could spook Omaha’s richest resident, who has long supported Democratic priorities such as higher taxes on the wealthy. That leaves Buffett with the difficult decision of whether to plunge back into a political arena that is more partisan and awash in money than ever before.

“Anytime that the Buffetts get engaged, it signals to other donors that it’s more important to give,” says State Democratic Party Chair Jane Kleeb. “So obviously I do hope they get more involved in this cycle in a visible way, because Buffett brings all the good luck.”

Trump’s party has been unnerved enough by Omaha’s ability to tip the contest that there are calls for Nebraska’s Republican governor to hold a special legislative session to change the state’s rules for allocating its Electoral College votes. It has also sent both parties on a furious hunt for ways to galvanize voters in Omaha’s district, including with dueling abortion ballot measures.

Electoral Math

Nebraska is one of just two US states that doesn’t use a winner-take-all approach to Electoral College votes. It awards one vote for each congressional district, and two for the victor of the state overall.

The rural state is a GOP stronghold and hasn’t backed a Democrat for president since 1964. But the 2nd Congressional District, which local Democrats call “the blue dot,” has been more competitive because its largest population center, Omaha, is a liberal enclave.

Omaha’s lone vote would clinch the presidency for Biden if he wins Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, but none of the other battlegrounds, and holds all the reliable Democratic states. Recent polling suggests those three states are more fertile ground for him than Arizona, Georgia, Nevada and North Carolina.

This math is different than in 2020, because electoral vote apportionment has changed to reflect state population counts in the latest US Census.

Local party officials view the situation with a mix of pride and dread, because an election so closely fought that Omaha is the tipping point is one that could seriously inflame partisan grievances.

“If we end up being the one vote, you know, God help us,” said C.J. King, Democratic chair in Douglas County, which includes much of Omaha.

Republicans, meanwhile, are angling to make sure that doesn’t come to pass. Conservative activist Charlie Kirk has revived a push to change Nebraska back to a winner-take-all state, talking up the idea on his podcast and descending on Omaha for a rally to drum up enthusiasm for the idea.

While an effort in April to ram the law through in the waning days of the legislative session failed, Governor Jim Pillen has indicated he’s open to calling a special session to pass it if it appears the measure has enough support to succeed.

Trump may not need a rule change to carry the 2nd District. A poll for the campaign of Dan Osborn, an independent challenging Republican Senator Deb Fischer, shows Trump leading Biden by 3 percentage points there. The same poll shows Osborn's upstart campaign trailing Fischer by just 4 percentage points statewide, hinting that disarray among Nebraska Republicans is weakening GOP candidates.

Backing Away

Buffett has politics in his blood: His father represented Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District for several terms between 1943 and 1953. The Oracle of Omaha has appeared animated by elections at times, including in 2016, when he endorsed Clinton and held forth about her opponent in front of a crowd.

“I ask Donald Trump: have you no sense of decency, sir?” Buffett said, invoking a line that sunk Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin in the 1950s. He offered to release his own tax return if Trump did the same. “I’ve really never known another businessman that brags about his bankruptcies.”

But if that antipathy for Trump persists, it hasn’t propelled him to open his checkbook to Biden.

“I’ve been told that he’s not involved and he’s not going to be involved,” said Paul Landow, a retired University of Nebraska at Omaha professor who has been affiliated with Democratic campaigns in the state.

Buffett has signaled his reasons for backing away. “I’ve also learned that you can make a whole lot more people sustainably mad than you can make temporarily happy by speaking out on any subject,” he said in 2022, asked about executives and companies engaging with politics. People will take it out on Buffett’s companies, hurting employees and shareholders, he said.

“I’ve just decided I’m not going to be doing that. And if I want to do that, I should quit my job,” he said, later adding: “That is a good question. And I probably thought more about that question than I think about whether this stock or that stock is cheap.”

Democrats say the Buffetts are generous supporters of charitable causes across Nebraska, but not steady funders of their party.

“Some state party chairs are like, ‘Oh you have it easy, you have Buffett in your state,’” Kleeb says with a laugh. “And I’m like, ‘Um, he does not give to the party.’”

Precious McKesson, executive director of the Nebraska Democratic Party, says her group is confident in its fundraising — and its ability to win both the presidential and House races in the 2nd District — but noted Buffett isn’t a backer. “I wish!” she said, cautioning she’s never personally approached him.

Buffett declined an interview request for this story ahead of his company’s annual meeting, which takes place Saturday, but said in a statement that either Trump or Biden could win the district.

“I think Warren Buffett is being very wise, very cautious, to duck out of the way” of the political fray, said David Kass, a University of Maryland professor and longtime Buffett watcher who will attend Saturday’s meeting. The stakes are high, including with many of his businesses affected by federal regulation. “As a responsible CEO at Berkshire, he may not want to expose Berkshire and any of its businesses to any political risk.”

Abortion Efforts

Others in Buffett’s orbit have thrown their dollars into Nebraska politics this year. An effort by Democrats to get a measure on the state’s ballot that would change the state constitution to allow for abortions until fetal viability, with some exceptions, has raised over $750,000 as of March, including $200,000 from Barbara Weitz and $10,000 from Katie Weitz. They’re the spouse and daughter, respectively, of Wally Weitz, who serves on the Berkshire Hathaway board.

A counter-effort to get an anti-abortion measure on the ballot is also taking shape. It had reported a single donor as of March: Ricketts, the Republican senator seeking reelection. The deep-pocketed candidate, son of Joe Ricketts, the founder of TD Ameritrade, gave $500,000 to the cause.

Love, the Democrat challenging Ricketts, says the DSCC hasn’t funded his longshot bid to unseat the incumbent. And while that likely reflects a strategic decision to conserve dollars for more competitive races, he worries it could have consequences for his party up and down the ballot.

The DSCC didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Love reasons more money for his candidacy could help with Black turnout — and in turn, bolster Biden and US House candidate Tony Vargas.

“I’m challenging them to widen the lens," said Love, who is Black. “They’re missing this thing. They can’t count on the Black vote."

One of his surrogates, he says, approached Buffett’s daughter, Susie, for funding.

“And she said, ‘Well, I’m not doing much local politics.’ You know, it broke my heart,” he said.

Along with Love’s warnings, there are other headwinds that could affect Black voter turnout that would buoy Biden.

Ashlei Spivey, a Democrat running for the state legislature in a North Omaha district, said she thinks turnout will be higher than 2020 but that the conflict in Gaza may affect things.

“Especially people who’ve been traditionally marginalized — they see themselves in Palestinians, right?” Spivey said.

Latino Voters

Latino voters, too, who are heavily concentrated in South Omaha, are poised to play an important role in deciding the district’s key races — including a competitive House contest that could be pivotal in determining which party controls that chamber.

Vargas, the Democratic state senator running for the seat, aims to portray his potential rival, incumbent Republican Don Bacon, as disconnected from their priorities.

“They care about cost of living, they care about whether or not their wages are keeping up, they care about whether or not they can save money, whether or not they have good education,” Vargas said. “On all these issues, they are out of line with the Republican party — and out of line with Bacon and Trump.”

But first, Bacon — who has a tumultuous relationship with Trump and whose campaign declined an interview request — has to secure the nomination. He is getting a primary challenge from Dan Frei, who bills himself as an “America first” candidate and has slammed Congress for doing little to rein in the US deficit or take action on the border.

Bacon has “done nothing to stem the tide of everything that is destroying the lives of the voters of this district,” Frei said.

In a clear signal that the Biden campaign is keyed in on Omaha’s importance, it dispatched Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff there in March, where he held a roundtable with Vargas on reproductive rights. In an interview, Emhoff expressed optimism about Biden repeating his 2020 victory in Nebraska’s 2nd District, but cautioned, “we can’t take any chances. It’s too important.”

--With assistance from Bill Allison.

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