U.S. Sen. Pete Ricketts, R-Neb., speaks at the grand opening of his Omaha Senate office. Ricketts plans to keep the Senate offices former Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., operated in Omaha, Kearney and Scottsbluff. He’s looking for a different office in Lincoln. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)
OMAHA — U.S. Sen. Pete Ricketts, R-Neb., says he has not yet taken sides in the 2024 Republican primary race for president.
Ricketts, during an event Friday to open his Omaha Senate office, said he is focused on his new job and his own 2024 contest. He is running to serve out the final two years of former U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse’s term.
While Ricketts is keeping his options open, his parents, major conservative donors Joe and Marlene Ricketts, appear to have a favorite in the presidential primary. They donated recently to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Ricketts’ mother, Marlene, donated $50,000 to DeSantis’ state political committee in October, two weeks after Sasse announced plans to vacate his Senate seat. Gov. Jim Pillen picked Ricketts to fill the vacancy in January.
Then, in mid-February, the senator’s father, Joe, gave $1 million to DeSantis’ committee, which could be transferred to a presidential campaign.
DeSantis appointees hired Sasse
Sen. Ricketts’ critics have questioned the donations, because DeSantis appointees run the board of governors that selected Sasse to become the next president of the University of Florida.
Nebraska Democratic Party chair Jane Kleeb described Ricketts’ January elevation to the Senate as “very convenient for DeSantis,” who had “this opening at the university” for Sasse.
“You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to look at the facts in front of us,” she said. “Ricketts has always wanted to be a senator. He couldn’t get elected, so he found a way to get appointed.”
Pete Ricketts has faced similar criticism from supporters of multi-state agribusinessman Charles Herbster, who finished second to Pillen in Nebraska’s 2022 GOP primary for governor.
Some of those Herbster supporters and some fervent supporters of former President Donald Trump helped wrest the Nebraska Republican Party leadership team from a group Ricketts backed, shifting it to a new, more populist one.
Herbster backers have pointed out the $1.3 million that then-Gov. Pete Ricketts spent in 2022 to help elect Pillen, including spending on outside groups that bashed Pillen’s opponents. His parents donated as well.
Family history with Trump
The relationship between Trump and the Ricketts family hasn’t been smooth. Pete Ricketts had asked Trump personally to stay out of the 2022 Nebraska governor’s race. Instead, Trump endorsed Herbster, who spent much of the primary campaign as a frontrunner.
In 2016, after learning about donations members of the Ricketts family had made opposing him during the GOP presidential primary, Trump tweeted: “They better be careful, they have a lot to hide!”
Joe and Marlene Ricketts gave millions to groups aligned with other candidates that year before it became clear that Trump would not be defeated.
Marlene Ricketts, for instance, gave about $3 million during the GOP primary to a Super PAC opposing Trump. The group ran ads and sent political mailers.
In the 2016 general election and the 2020 race, however, Joe and Marlene Ricketts gave groups supporting Trump seven-figure donations, including $1 million for his inaugural celebration.
Sen. Ricketts backed Trump against Democrats Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Joe Biden in 2020. He spoke at Trump’s 2020 rally in Nebraska, and he has defended Trump’s tax cuts as a model for GOP governance.
Politically active family
Pete Ricketts stressed the diversity of his family’s political beliefs. His wife, Susanne, and sister, Laura, have given to Democrats, and his brother Todd raised funds for Trump.
The family owns the Chicago Cubs MLB team. His father, Joe, founded the financial services company that became TD Ameritrade.
“My mom, my dad, my siblings, all of them … follow politics,” Pete Ricketts said. “We’re all very interesting, and not always on the same side.”
He said Friday that he’s heard that Herbster might run against him in the 2024 GOP Senate primary, along with former 1st District congressional candidate John Glen Weaver.
Ricketts says he didn’t know Sasse was leaving
The senator also said he had no advance knowledge that Sasse intended to leave the Senate. He said Sasse called him the same day the resignation leaked, Oct. 6, while Ricketts was hunting near Chadron.
Sasse and Pillen, too, have denied any coordination.
Different people may have different perspectives on what happened before he became a senator, Pete Ricketts said, but he didn’t know until that day that Sasse was resigning.
“Most Nebraskans really aren’t concerned about this,” he said. “They want to know who’s serving them in Washington, D.C., and are you representing their views there well.”
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