When Republican Jim Pillen becomes governor of Nebraska next month, one of his first acts will likely be to nominate his predecessor and biggest supporter to fill a vacant seat in the United States Senate.
Pillen was elected in November largely thanks to the endorsement of incumbent Gov. Pete Ricketts, and now he can return the favor by nominating him to the Senate, more than 15 years after Ricketts spent $12 million of his own money in a failed bid for the office. .
While they acknowledge that Ricketts is deeply conservative and qualified to replacesome Republicans aren’t sure such an appointment is a good idea.
“It looks bad. It smells bad. What it looks like is two rich guys using their money and power to win a seat in the Senate,” said Jeremy Aspen, an Omaha Republican and former state party delegate. “This is how authoritarian countries operate, where a powerful few trample to get what they want. Things like this stay on the minds of voters.”
It’s hard to overstate how much Ricketts helped Pillen, a veterinarian and pig farmer,after a contentious primary race with several candidates, including one endorsed by former President Donald Trump.
Ricketts donated more than $100,000 of his own money directly to Pillen’s campaign. Ricketts also gave nearly $1.3 million this year to the Conservative Nebraska political action committee, which ran a series of attack ads targeting Pillen’s main opponents, including Trump-backed candidate Charles Herbster.
Whoever is appointed to replace Sasse will serve two years before a special election is held in 2024 to finish out the last two years of the term. The person would have to seek re-election in 2026 for another six-year term.
“For the sake of the fledgling Pillen administration, Ricketts’ reputation and the well-being of the state, you should consider not doing this,” Aspen said. “Pillen could name someone who isn’t as attached to him. There are plenty of conservative Republicans in the state who could hold that position for two years. Then Ricketts could run in 2024. Let the voters decide.”
Sasse, who has a new job as president of the University of Florida, will leave the Senate just two years into his second term. He has had a complicated relationship with Republicans in Nebraska after. He was one of seven Republican senators who voted to convict the former president of “incitement to insurrection” after the .
Ricketts did not respond to requests for comment about the criticism surrounding his possible appointment. Pillen issued a statement saying only that he will carry out a thorough process to select the best candidate. He has given a December 23 deadline for those interested in the seat to apply for him. Ricketts announced his request last week.
“I will seek to appoint someone who embodies Nebraska’s common sense and conservative values,” Pillen said.
If appointed, Ricketts would become one of the wealthiest senators in the house with a reputation for using that wealth to back conservative causes and candidates. Ricketts put his net worth at around $50 million when he ran for a second term as governor in 2018.
Ricketts has freely used his money both to further his political agenda and to get allies elected to key political posts. In 2016, he spent $300,000 on a successful ballot measure that reinstated the death penalty after lawmakers voted to override his veto and abolish capital punishment. He also made large donations to conservative legislative candidates, including some who challenged more moderate Republicans who challenged Ricketts’ push to keep the death penalty in the state.
In addition to their own wealth, even the wealthiest members of the family have often contributed to their cause and other conservative causes. While Ricketts donated $100,000 to the ballot effort to require Nebraska voters to show photo ID to vote, Ricketts’ mother invested $1.5 million in the ballot initiative, which voters approved in November. Ricketts’ father, TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts, is worth an estimated $4 billion. This year, according to open secretsRicketts senior donated nearly $5.5 million, all to Republican candidates and causes, placing him in the top 50 political donors for the year.
All that money, especially the money spent by the Ricketts family to elect Pillen as Nebraska’s newest governor, has the appearance of buying a Senate seat, said Ryan Horn, an Omaha Republican political consultant. Ricketts’ ambition to serve in the United States Senate is no secret. In 2006, he challenged then-US Sen. Ben Nelson, a Democrat, but lost resoundingly.
Ricketts would probably make a good senator from Nebraska, Horn said. He would probably vote the way most Republicans in Nebraska would want. But he shouldn’t be depending on the new governor, who owes his political success to Ricketts, to rush Ricketts to Congress, he said.
“This gives the feeling that the solution is ready so they don’t really have to face the voters. It seems that they are avoiding, as much as possible, a fair fight,” Horn said. “The way this is being done is cynical, and cynicism is a deadly threat to democracy.”
Other Republicans don’t share that sentiment. Several even championed the idea that Ricketts would nominate himself for the Senate seat if Sasse had resigned before Ricketts finished his term early next month.
One of them is Mark Fahleson, former chairman of the Nebraska Republican Party, who stands by his comments that Ricketts should have nominated himself if given the chance because “he’s the obvious candidate for the job.”
“Pete could spend his money on expensive cars and fancy excursions. Instead, he uses his personal money to promote public policies that he believes will help Nebraska and our country,” Fahleson said. “You can disagree with those policies, but I don’t think it’s arguable that it’s a more considerate and gracious use of his personal resources.”
Pillen’s office has not disclosed who applied for the soon-to-be-vacant Senate seat, but at least one Democrat applied: Ann Ashford, the Omaha widow of former congressman Brad Ashford. Ann Ashford ran unsuccessfully for the Omaha Nebraska-based 2nd Congressional District House seat in 2020.