A Nebraska family has plowed more than $1.6 million into the Lincoln mayor’s race, an unprecedented sum that represents the latest burst in a multi-year deluge that, at the federal level, rivals the political spending by a famed Las Vegas casino magnate and a titan of Silicon Valley.

It’s not the Nebraska family you think. 

It’s the Peed family and their business, Sandhills Global – not the Ricketts family – that have eclipsed all other donors in an attempt to help former State Sen. Suzanne Geist, a Republican, oust Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird, a Democrat.

The Peeds and their company have steered nearly $1.09 million in cash and in-kind contributions directly to Geist’s campaign and another $535,000 to a political action committee running attack ads against Gaylor Baird.  

As of April 17, the Peeds and Sandhills were responsible for nearly two-thirds of the total contributions Geist had received. 

It’s become an issue in the race, with the mayor and her supporters reacting with alarm, and insinuating that the Peed money must come with strings attached. Geist and her allies have dismissed those concerns as political posturing, noting it takes serious money to run a modern campaign. 

But there’s no debate that the Peeds are now political heavyweights  – an unusual position for a family that has largely shirked the limelight in Lincoln. 

Over nearly four decades, the Peeds built Sandhills from a small niche publishing business into one of Lincoln’s largest private-sector employers. Their assets – allegedly valued at more than $1 billion according to a court filing  – now include golf courses, restaurants and a cattle operation. They’re active in the Catholic Church and they’ve been longtime philanthropists, giving more than  $7 million to charities during the past two decades.

Their emergence as GOP megadonors, on the other hand, is new; so new that multiple former state party officials said they knew little about the family. 

That may soon change. 

Since 2020, the Peeds have unleashed a torrent of cash in Nebraska and beyond. In the 2022 federal election cycle, Sandhills-affiliated contributions totaled more than $14.7 million, putting the business in the same league as casino magnate Steve Wynn and LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman.

In Nebraska, contributions from the Peeds and Sandhills have shot them toward the top of the political donor list and drawn comparisons to the Ricketts family, the state’s most prominent megadonors.

The sudden surge in spending, particularly in Lincoln’s mayoral race, has led local political observers to ask: Why are the Peeds shoveling so much money into politics?

The family isn’t saying. 

Multiple emails sent to Tom Peed, the family patriarch, weren’t returned. Shawn Peed, the oldest son and now-CEO of Sandhills, didn’t respond to emails or return a voicemail left with his office assistant. Sandhills company outreach coordinator Jim Hansen did not respond to an email and a voicemail.

For two decades the Peeds pretty much stayed out of politics in their home state, with a few exceptions.

That changed after 2020. Following a year of upheaval – with a pandemic, police killings of unarmed Black Americans, destructive riots and a polarizing presidential election – the Peeds leapt off the sidelines, a Flatwater Free Press analysis of state and federal financial disclosure data found.

From 2000 through 2020, the Peeds and Sandhills spent about $140,800 on in-state races, or roughly $7,000 a year. 

In the past 28 months, just in Nebraska alone, they’ve spent nearly $2.7 million, or nearly $97,000 each month.

Historically, the Peeds and Sandhills have been more active at the federal level. They faithfully supported former Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, who worked for Sandhills prior to serving 17 years in the House. Fortenberry resigned in 2022 after he was convicted of three felonies stemming from an investigation into illegal campaign contributions. 

Even with their steady giving over the years, the 2020 election cycle marked the start of a dramatic spike in federal contributions.

Since 2000, the Peeds and Sandhills have contributed more than $21.9 million, according to Federal Election Commission records. Nearly $20.3 million, 93%, has come since 2020. 

During that period they’ve given to state GOP parties across the country, as well as individual congressional candidates in Nebraska and elsewhere. They gave nearly $1.2 million to committees affiliated with former President Donald Trump. But no recipient tops the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC that works to get Republicans elected to the U.S. House. The Peeds and Sandhills have given $17 million to it since 2020.

In the 2022 election cycle, Sandhills was the 42nd most generous donor of the 30,777 organizations that gave, according to OpenSecrets, a D.C.-based nonprofit that tracks and analyzes money in politics. 

That ranking puts Sandhills two spots behind the National Association of Realtors and just ahead of Alphabet, the parent company of Google, but still well behind the top donors. For example, the failed crypto currency firm FTX reported $75.2 million in contributions, good enough to rank No. 3. George Soros’ Soros Fund Management ranked No. 1 with $179.9 million.

Brendan Glavin, senior data analyst with OpenSecrets, said Sandhills and the Peeds have largely flown under the radar of those who monitor money in politics.

“They really upped the ante on the money that … they put in in 2022. I think in this cycle people are going to be paying more attention to them,” he said.

It’s unclear how much money the Peeds have to spend. Since its founding in 1978, Sandhills has grown from seven employees to an international information and tech firm with nearly 1,200 workers. Tom Peed was among Lincoln’s likely millionaires as far back as 1998, according to a story in the Lincoln Journal Star. In 1997, the newspaper reported that construction of the Peed home set a new record as the most expensive house ever built in Lincoln. 

Their business empire has expanded beyond Sandhills. They own a cattle operation (Lone Creek Cattle Co.), a high-end beef brand (Certified Piedmontese Beef) and one of Lincoln’s most renowned upscale restaurants (Casa Bovina). They co-owned Smart Chicken before selling it in 2018 to Tyson, which paid $382 million for the company.  

The Peeds own the Dormie Network, a collection of six private golf clubs that includes the namesake Dormie Club in Pinehurst, North Carolina. Dormie is building a club near Maxwell, Nebraska, which would be its second club in the state after ArborLinks in Nebraska City. 

Last year the Peeds launched the 1890 Initiative, one of the primary name, image and likeness collectives working to help Husker student-athletes get compensated.

In addition to their properties in Nebraska, the Peeds own property in Hawaii, Arizona and Colorado, according to a court filing in a lawsuit involving one of the family’s companies. 

The Peed family also has spent large sums to support local charities. 

A Flatwater Free Press analysis of  publicly available IRS records found the Peed Family Foundation gave more than $7.4 million to charitable causes from 2001 through 2020, including $585,250 to the Food Bank of Lincoln, $106,500 to the Lincoln Parks Foundation and $171,888 to the University of Nebraska Foundation. 

The vast majority of their giving went to Catholic entities. The Diocese of Lincoln received more than $1.8 million during that time. Pius X High School, attended by all three Peed children, received at least $406,700. Family matriarch Rhonda Peed told the Journal Star’s L Magazine in 2018 that their charitable giving is driven by their faith. 

Their political giving is defined by conservatism. 

The Peeds lined up behind Jim Pillen in the GOP gubernatorial primary, contributing $300,000 to his successful campaign. They gave to Republicans in competitive races for the Nebraska Legislature, mostly in suburban Omaha and Lincoln districts. They gave a total of $65,000 to three conservative candidates for the State Board of Education. They dropped $200,000 into the campaign to pass voter ID requirements in the 2022 general election. 

But their recent willingness to pour large sums of money into local races is distinguishing them from other GOP donors. 

“It’s really unfortunate for candidates of both political parties that … want to serve their communities … but may not be best friends with the rich oligarchs that are funding the campaigns,” said Adam Morfeld, a former state lawmaker who represented a Lincoln district for eight years. 

Last year Morfeld ran for Lancaster County attorney against incumbent Pat Condon in a race that turned out to be a harbinger of the Lincoln mayoral race. 

Morfeld was significantly outraising Condon thanks largely to small donations and five-figure contributions from organizations such as Planned Parenthood and Bold Alliance. 

The Peeds and Sandhills had donated $60,000 directly to Condon. Then roughly one month before Election Day, they contributed $250,000 to a PAC called Together Nebraska. The PAC spent $276,520 opposing Morfeld in the final two weeks. Together Nebraska is now opposing  Gaylor Baird in the mayor’s race.

Morfeld said the last-minute spending made a difference in his race, which Condon won by fewer than 800 votes. After initially indicating that he would talk for this story, Condon stopped responding to text messages and phone calls.

“I don't know who the Peeds are. I've never met them. I don't know what their issues are. And I don't know what issues I advocated for that apparently upset them so much,” Morfeld said.

He is far from alone. 

“What family?” said Dan Welch, the former chairman of the Nebraska GOP, when asked about the Peeds. 

Welch, who served as chair for seven years before being ousted last summer, said the name Peed didn’t register in his mind as a consistent donor to the party. “I don’t recognize that name and that’s probably why,” he said. “If they were consistent donors, I’d probably recognize them.” Several other officials with ties to the state party said while they knew of the Peeds, they knew little about them.

The anonymity extends beyond politics and is one major factor that separates the Peeds from other megadonors, such as Sen. Pete Ricketts and businessman Charles W. Herbster. 

The Peeds have largely refrained from the spotlight in Lincoln, which has been Sandhills’ homebase since 1986.

“They've been a well-known entity and a distinguished employer in Lincoln for quite some time, but quietly doing their business,” Wendy Birdsall, the former president of the Lincoln Chamber of Commerce, said of Sandhills. 

The company struck a sort of middle ground, she added, falling between the extremes of businesses that have zero involvement in the community and those that are hyper involved. 

In the past year, Sandhills has announced a $5 million contribution to a $32.4 million tech center at Southeast Community College and a $4 million donation to the Lincoln Youth Complex, which when built will include baseball and softball fields, including one for children with disabilities. 

Despite Sandhills’ community engagement efforts, the Peeds remain a relatively unknown presence in Lincoln, including at City Hall, where they now hope to shake up the top leadership. 

“I don't remember ever having an issue brought to me from the Peeds,” said Don Wesely, who served as Lincoln mayor for four years in the early 2000s after serving 20 years in the Nebraska Legislature.

“I mean, I was going to a lot of events and involved with a lot of organizations and what have you, but never ran across them that I can remember,” Wesely added, echoing the recollection of multiple former city officials.

Gaylor Baird said she can recall just one instance when she heard from the Peeds, and it concerned the city’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In December 2021, Shawn Peed sent a letter to Gaylor Baird and others that included his company’s own analysis of publicly available COVID-19 data from Lancaster, Douglas and Sarpy counties.

The Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department had extended a mask mandate several times in 2021, and it was unclear if the department would do so again in late December.

“As part of our company’s ongoing concern with the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve utilized our resources to conduct an extensive analysis of … reported COVID-19 cases and deaths in correlation with vaccination percentages and mask mandates,” Peed wrote. “We … hope it will assist with your ongoing review and management of the COVID-19 situation.”

The analysis concluded that “the data suggests that mask mandates did not have a measurable direct effect on improving COVID-19 case rates and death rates.”

If mask mandates spurred Sandhills’ involvement in the mayoral race, it’s not reflected in its messaging. On the Sandhills Facebook page, which has dedicated nearly two dozen posts to the race, the company presents statements of support for Geist such as: “Imagine a safe, growing Lincoln community. Vote Suzanne Geist for Lincoln City Mayor in 2023.” 

Campaign mailers paid for by Together Nebraska focus on crime and Gaylor Baird’s residency.

Geist said she actually asked the Peeds if there was a specific issue or cause motivating their giving. 

“And they just said they want their city back. They want a voice at the table. They want to be heard,” Geist said. “And my response is whether you give to my campaign or not, I'm committed to listening to every citizen who wants to speak.”

Gaylor Baird and her supporters, however, have wondered aloud if the Peeds expect something in return. 

“It raises all kinds of questions about the agenda that those donors have, how beholden (Geist) will be to that agenda,” Gaylor Baird said. 

Geist said there is nothing nefarious about the donations, which are transparent for the public to see. She said she has no pre-existing relationship with the Peeds, aside from occasionally running into them at a south Lincoln restaurant that she frequents. 

“One of the things I can tell you is that no one's ever bought my vote or anything, any decision I've ever made,” she said. 

Both Lincoln’s mayor and her challenger bemoaned the role of money in running for local office,  though Gaylor Baird pointed out that there was far less money in her first race. 

In that election, the Peeds gave $5,000 to Cyndi Lamm, a Republican who lost to Gaylor Baird. Ricketts gave $10,000 to Lamm. He’s given $150,000 to Geist.

“Four years ago felt kind of like it built on the previous mayor's races. It was sort of similar size, similar price points,” Gaylor Baird said. “This race …  feels like a D.C. congressional race or something.” 

Geist said she would rather it not require as much money, but being an off-election year only adds to the challenges.

“To get people to even understand that there's an election going on, is it just hard to get a message out,” she said. “So we're trying to use every platform available to us and it ends up that that's just an expensive thing to do.”

The Flatwater Free Press is Nebraska’s first independent, nonprofit newsroom focused on investigations and feature stories that matter.