Ben Sasse’s exit from the Senate prompts GOP concerns over his replacement

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 US Senate seat.

Pillen was elected in November thanks in large part to the support of current 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 to a failed bid for the office.

Although they recognize that Ricketts is deeply conservative and qualified to replace outgoing senator Ben Sassesome Republicans aren’t sure such a nomination is a good idea.

“It looks bad. It smells bad. It looks like two rich people are using their money and power to grab a Senate seat,” said Jeremy Aspen, a Republican from Omaha and former party delegate of state. “That’s how authoritarian countries work, where a powerful few walk hard to get what they want. Things like that stick in the minds of voters.”

It’s hard to overstate how much Ricketts helped Pillen, veterinarian and pig farmer, win his party’s nomination after a contentious primary race featuring multiple 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 Nebraska’s conservative Political Action Committee, which aired a series of attack ads against Pillen’s main opponents, including the Trump-backed nominee, Charles Herbster.

Whoever is named to replace Sasse will serve two years before a special election is held in 2024 to complete the final two years of the term. The person is expected 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, they should consider not doing so,” Aspen said. “Pillen could nominate someone who isn’t so related to him. There are plenty of conservative Republicans in the state who could fill that seat for two years. Then Ricketts could run in 2024. Let the voters decide .”

Sasse, who has a new position as president of the University of Florida, is leaving the Senate just two years into his second term. He had a complicated relationship with Nebraska Republicans after his open criticism of Trump. He was one of seven Republican senators to vote to convict the former president of ‘inciting insurrection’ after the January 6, 2021, Attack on the Capitol.

Ricketts did not respond to requests for comment on criticism surrounding his likely nomination. Pillen released a statement saying only that he would conduct a thorough process to select the best candidate. He gave a December 23 deadline for those interested in the seat to apply. Ricketts announced his candidacy last week.

“I will seek to appoint someone who embodies common sense and conservative Nebraska values,” Pillen said.

If nominated, Ricketts would become one of the wealthiest senators in the chamber, known for using that wealth to support conservative causes and candidates. Ricketts estimated his net worth at around $50 million when he ran for a second term as governor in 2018.

Ricketts freely used his money both to advance his political agenda and to elect allies to key political seats. 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’ efforts to keep the death penalty in the state.

In addition to his own wealth, even the wealthiest family members often contributed to his cause and other conservative causes. While Ricketts donated $100,000 to the ballot effort to force Nebraska voters to show photo ID to vote, Ricketts’ mother donated $1.5 million to the initiative voting system, which voters passed in November. Ricketts’ father, TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts, is worth around $4 billion. This year, according to Open Secrets, the senior Ricketts gave nearly $5.5 million — all to Republican candidates and causes — putting 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 new governor — looks like it’s buying a Senate seat, said Ryan Horn, a Republican political consultant from Omaha. Ricketts’ ambition to serve in the US Senate is no secret. In 2006, he challenged then-US Senator Ben Nelson, a Democrat, but lost hard.

Ricketts would likely be a good senator for Nebraska, Horn said. He would probably vote as most Republicans in Nebraska would want. But it shouldn’t be up to the new governor who owes his political success to Ricketts to fast track Ricketts to Congress, he said.

“It feels like the solution is there so they don’t really have to face voters. It seems like they’re avoiding a fair fight as much as possible,” Horn said. “The way it’s done is cynical, and cynicism is a deadly threat to democracy.”

Other Republicans do not share this sentiment. Several have even advocated the idea of ​​Ricketts running for the Senate seat if Sasse had resigned before Ricketts completes his term early next month.

One is Mark Fahleson, former Nebraska Republican Party Chairman, who stands by his comments that Ricketts should have nominated himself had he had the opportunity because “he is the obvious candidate for the job.” .

“Pete could spend his money on expensive cars and extravagant excursions. Instead, he uses his personal money to promote public policies that he believes will help Nebraska and our country,” Fahleson said. “You may disagree with these policies, but I don’t think it’s arguable that it’s a more thoughtful and benevolent use of one’s personal resources.”

Pillen’s office did not reveal who ran for the soon-to-be vacated Senate seat, but at least one Democrat has submitted a nomination: Ann Ashford, the Omaha widow of former Congressman Brad Ashford. Ann Ashford ran unsuccessfully for the seat of the 2nd Congressional District House based in Omaha, Nebraska in 2020.

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