Gov. Ricketts now says he’ll be an applicant for vacant U.S. Senate seat

Governor disputes that his appointment is a ‘done deal’ and pay-back from a political ally

By: - December 6, 2022 10:32 am
Republican gubernatorial candidate Jim Pillen

Nebraska Republican gubernatorial candidate Jim Pillen speaks in the Capitol Rotunda in January 2022 after receiving a public endorsement from former Nebraska Gov. Kay Orr, left, and current Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, right. (Rebecca S. Gratz for Nebraska Examiner)

Editor’s note: this story has been updated to add comments from Gov. Ricketts’ press conference Tuesday morning.

LINCOLN — After playing coy for more than two months, Gov. Pete Ricketts said Tuesday he will apply for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Ben Sasse.

“For me, it came down to a single question: How can I best serve the people of Nebraska and advance our conservative values?” Ricketts said in a statement.

Later in the morning, the 58-year-old Republican fended off questions about whether his appointment was a “done deal” — as many speculate — since it will be decided by Gov.-elect Jim Pillen. Ricketts endorsed Pillen and contributed $1.3 million to Pillen’s campaign victory during a highly contested GOP spring primary.

‘An applicant like everybody else’

“I’ll make my case on why I’m the best applicant when I have a chance to talk to Gov.-elect Pillen about it,” Ricketts said at a morning press conference on a different subject.

Jane Kleeb
Jane Kleeb, chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party (Courtesy of Nebraska Democratic Party)

Jane Kleeb, the chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party, called Ricketts’ pursuit “the state’s most obvious pay-to-play case,” in a tweet Tuesday morning.

Ricketts, whose family owns the Chicago Cubs and founded TD Ameritrade, rejected that when asked the same question by a reporter at the morning news conference. He said that he had been friends and a political ally with Pillen for two decades, didn’t know about the vacancy until shortly before Sasse’s announcement in October, and that he will be “an applicant like everybody else.”

 “I love this state and would love to look for additional ways to help the people of Nebraska. And this may be one of those opportunities,” the governor said.

Ricketts, who unsuccessfully ran for U.S. Senate in 2006, said in his press statement that the decision came after many hours of prayer and family discussion.

‘Delivering results’

“Over the last eight years, we’ve shown the world the real impact conservative leadership can have,” Ricketts said. “I want to continue delivering results for our state, fighting to reduce taxes, grow our economy, defend our liberties, and run government more like a business.”

It has been widely speculated that the Senate post is Ricketts’, if he wanted it.

Pillen announced Monday that he was seeking applicants and that he wanted to fill the vacancy quickly. He set a Dec. 23 deadline for applications.

When Sasse’s pending resignation became public in October, Ricketts said he would defer the appointment of a replacement to Pillen, who takes office Jan. 5, three days before Sasse’s resignation takes effect.

Deferred decision

Ricketts, in a statement then, said, “If I choose to pursue the appointment, I will leave the appointment decision to the next governor and will follow the process established for all interested candidates.”

Since then, the state’s top Republican has stuck to that script, saying he would defer to Pillen.

“I would love to remain involved in policy and politics,” Ricketts told a caller to his monthly call-in show two weeks ago.

Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., during a hearing in the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C. (Tom Williams-Pool/Getty Images)

Some Republicans have spoken out against Ricketts getting the appointment. In a recent submitted column in the Omaha World-Herald, Jeremy Aspen wrote that it looks “tawdry” and “inappropriate” that Ricketts would attain such a position via appointment rather than via an election.

Ricketts said that vacancies in the U.S. Senate are filled by appointment, unlike vacancies in the House of Representatives, which are filled via special election.

“This is the process,” he said.

But others, including State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn, a political ally, have said there is no one more qualified for the job than Ricketts.

One other candidate

Even before the ink dried Monday on Sasse’s official resignation letter, one candidate threw his hat into the ring — retired Lt. Col. John Weaver of Omaha. He was an unsuccessful candidate for U.S. Congress this year. Weaver wrote to Pillen that he would represent conservative values if selected.

Last month, the University of Florida Board of Governors voted to affirm Sasse’s appointment as the next president of the university in Gainesville, Florida.

Sasse, 50, had served as president of Midland University in Fremont before he was elected to the Senate in 2014. His first day at Florida will be Jan. 6.

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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska Legislature and Nebraska state government for decades. He started his career reporting for the Omaha Sun and later, editing the Papillion Times group in suburban Omaha. He joined the Lincoln Journal-Star as a sports enterprise reporter, and then a roving reporter covering southeast Nebraska. In 1990, he was hired by the Omaha World-Herald as a legislative reporter. Later, for 15 years, he roamed the state covering all kinds of news and feature stories. In the past decade, he served as chief of the Lincoln Bureau and enterprise reporter. Paul has won awards for reporting from Great Plains Journalism, the Associated Press, Nebraska Newspaper Association and Suburban Newspapers of America. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation, a member of the Nebraska Hop Growers and a volunteer caretaker of Irvingdale Park in Lincoln.

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