Nebraska Gov. Jim Pillen announces former Gov. Pete Ricketts as his choice to fill U.S. Senate vacancy on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2023, in an announcement at the State Capitol. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner.)
Editor’s note: This story has been updated with live comments from Thursday’s announcement and interviews with supporters and critics.
LINCOLN — Nebraska Gov. Jim Pillen made the expected choice Thursday, appointing his predecessor and political benefactor, Pete Ricketts, to the U.S. Senate.
Ricketts, who finished his second term as governor last week, fills the seat that Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., vacated Sunday to lead the University of Florida.
“My job … was to find the best person to represent us, and the process for me has been really, really important,” Pillen said in making the announcement in the Governor’s Hearing Room.
Ricketts thanked Pillen and said he was grateful for the “unexpected opportunity. … I am humbled and grateful for the opportunity that Governor Pillen has given me.”
He told those gathered in the room, including state senators and U.S. Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., “I often say Nebraska is what America is supposed to be, and it’s never been truer at any point in our history.”
Ricketts was the most experienced applicant for the job, based on reporting by the Nebraska Examiner in recent weeks, and Pillen said experience mattered. But the list of 111 applicants also included other well-known names.
Among them: former State Sen. Brett Lindstrom, Pinnacle Bank Chairman Sid Dinsdale, Nebraska Chamber of Commerce President Bryan Slone and lawyer Ann Ashford.
Pillen said he interviewed nine candidates during the selection process, none of them Democrats. He has said he wanted to appoint someone who reflects the state’s conservative mindset.
“We took this process incredibly seriously,” Pillen said. “The criteria for me were really, really simple. The appointee needs to represent us as a people.”
He said the person selected needs to have a “servant heart,” to be there for future generations and to push for accountability and less government.
Pillen has praised Ricketts’ record of cutting taxes and controlling spending. Ricketts weighed in more often on national issues during his second term, including on immigration enforcement and conservation easements.
Ricketts faced troubles with crowding and staffing at state prisons and had to pull child welfare services in the Omaha area back under state control after a contractor chosen by his administration flopped.
Governors as senators
He becomes the latest Nebraskan to serve in the Senate after being governor, most recently including Republican Mike Johanns and Democrats Ben Nelson, Bob Kerrey and J.J. Exon.
Ricketts on Thursday thanked Sasse for his service, including his efforts to help to get conservative judges confirmed. He said he looks forward to working with and learning from Fischer.
“We all know that Pete is a quick learner,” Fischer said Thursday at the State Capitol announcement. “He will work hard for this state, so I look forward to partnering with him in the future … to build a stronger Nebraska and to build a stronger and more secure nation.”
Political consultants considered Ricketts the odds-on favorite to get the job. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina both backed him.
McConnell issued a statement Thursday praising Pillen for the pick, saying he “could not have found a more capable leader” and that he was “thrilled” with the selection.
“Senator-designate Ricketts has a proven record,” McConnell said. “He pairs sharp business savvy with a deep commitment to public service. That’s why the people of Nebraska elected and reelected him.”
Republicans in Washington, D.C., have said they wanted someone who can run and win a statewide special election in 2024 to finish the final two years of Sasse’s term, and again in 2026, for the seat’s regular election. They like that Ricketts has the political infrastructure and funds to win.
Pillen said Thursday that Ricketts committed to him to run in 2024 and 2026 and not seek or take another job, including vice president or a cabinet post, should a Republican win the presidency in 2024.
Reaction from Nebraskans
U.S. Reps. Don Bacon, Mike Flood and Adrian Smith have all said Ricketts would make a strong senator. Each welcomed the choice Thursday.
“Pete is eminently qualified,” Bacon said. “He knows this state as well as anyone, and he’ll use his 8 years of experience as governor and be a great senator. I congratulate my friend.”
Many state legislators backed by Ricketts over the years also have voiced support, including State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Omaha. She served as chief of staff for former Nebraska U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel.
She said Thursday that she sees Ricketts as one of the best-prepared and best-positioned rookie senators Nebraska could have had. Her reasons: He has governed. He knows the state. He knows its issues. And he reads a lot.
“Most importantly, you know Ricketts can win statewide,” Linehan said. “He’s done so twice. … You’ve got to be able to raise money. You got to have people in every county. You’ve got to have people on the ground.”
Ricketts critics, including Nebraska Democratic Party chair Jane Kleeb, said this week it was clear Pillen would pick Ricketts because he was Pillen’s top political patron.
Kleeb said Pillen would be paying back Ricketts for his help in the governor’s race. She said Nebraskans “deserve a senator who will work for them, not someone who buys elections as a hobby.”
Ricketts spent more than $1.3 million during the 2022 election to help elect Pillen, including contributions to outside groups that bashed Pillen’s top opponents during the pivotal GOP primary.
Some of the Republicans who wrested control of the state party away from Ricketts last summer said anger from rank-and-file activists stemmed from Ricketts taking sides in primaries.
Several privately backed the application of Republican John Glen Weaver, who lost a primary bid last year for the 1st Congressional District.
Officially, the new leadership team of the Nebraska Republican Party congratulated Ricketts on Thursday, saying he “served Nebraska well for eight years as a conservative-minded leader.”
Matt Innis, a delegate who was among those who voted for a GOP leadership change, said Thursday’s announcement is evidence that the state’s power brokers still want to decide who gets power and who gets a seat at the table.
Innis said voters will get to weigh in on Ricketts soon but said Ricketts will now enjoy the support of McConnell and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which will make defeating him more difficult.
“Now what you’re looking at is you’re seeing the reason why we did that,” Innis said of the party leadership change. “What (Pillen) did (with the appointment) didn’t shock anybody. I think it was kind of silly. You’re basically trying to make Nebraskans chumps by going through the process.”
Ricketts will run in 2024, 2026
When Ricketts announced his interest in the Senate post in December, he dismissed conspiracy talk as misguided. He said that in applying for the job he worked to make the case that he was the best person for the job.
Pillen agreed. He said Thursday that he and Ricketts share a conservative vision for the state, built on lower taxes, less regulation and making government work better for the people who pay for it.
Ricketts said he was proud of his administration’s work to improve customer service and service delivery by state government.
“In all those ways, we showed how government can work. I want to bring that to Washington, D.C.,” he said. “We need to hold Washington, D.C., accountable.”
Ricketts repeated his often-stated philosophy that government needs to run more like a business and stressed the need for a strong national defense.
Ricketts’ seat faces voters next in 2024, the same year Fischer is up for re-election. It would be Ricketts’ second run for the Senate. He lost his first bid in 2006, when he was a political novice, running against Nelson, an incumbent.
That was the last time a Republican has lost a statewide race in Nebraska.
Possible primary challenge
Political consultants in the Midwest are already gearing up for the possibility of a primary challenger to either Ricketts or Fischer, who has confirmed she is running for a third term.
The new leaders of the state GOP have expressed more openness to the idea of primary challengers to Republican incumbents than previous leadership. The Ricketts-led GOP team, in contrast, got involved more often in open-seat primaries.
Among those rumored as interested in a possible Senate bid is agribusinessman Charles Herbster, who finished second to Pillen in the 2022 GOP primary for governor.
Herbster issued a statement Thursday criticizing Pillen and Ricketts. In it, he said the Senate appointment made clear “why it was so important” for Ricketts to “fight my candidacy” for governor.
Ricketts and Pillen said Thursday that there was no arrangement involving the Senate seat. Pillen said he wouldn’t disrespect Nebraskans that way. Ricketts said he would keep reaching out to voters with doubts.
“I’ve worked for 20 years to elect conservatives,” Ricketts said. “I will work hard to earn their vote.”
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