OMAHA, Neb. – When Republican Jim Pillen becomes Nebraska’s governor next month, one of his first acts will likely be to name his predecessor and biggest supporter to fill an open U.S. Senate seat.
Pillen was elected in November in large part because of current Gov. Pete Ricketts ’ backing, and now he can return the favor by appointing him to the Senate, more than 15 years after Ricketts spent $12 million of his own money on a failed bid for the office.
Even as they acknowledge Ricketts is deeply conservative and qualified to replace outgoing Sen. Ben Sasse, some Republicans aren’t sure such an appointment would be a good idea.
“It looks bad. It smells bad. What it looks like is two rich guys using their money and power to grab a Senate seat,” said Jeremy Aspen, an Omaha Republican and former state party delegate. “This is how authoritarian countries operate, where a powerful few ride roughshod to get what they want. Things like this stay on voters’ minds.”
It's hard to overstate how much Ricketts helped Pillen, a veterinarian and hog farmer, win his party's nomination after a contentious primary race featuring 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 political action committee Conservative Nebraska, which ran a slew of attack ads against Pillen's primary opponents, including the 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 Pillen's nascent administration, Ricketts’ reputation and the wellbeing of the state, they need to consider not doing this,” Aspen said. “Pillen could appoint someone not so tied to him. There are plenty of conservative Republicans in the state that could fill that seat for two years. Then Ricketts could run for it in 2024. Let the voters decide.”
Sasse, who has a new job as president of the University of Florida, is leaving the Senate just two years into his second term. He has had a complicated relationship with Republicans in Nebraska after his outspoken criticism of Trump. He was one of seven Republican senators to vote to convict the former president of “incitement of insurrection” after the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack.
Ricketts didn't respond to requests to comment on the criticisms surrounding his likely appointment. Pillen issued a statement saying only that he'll be conducting a thorough process to select the best candidate. He's given a deadline of Dec. 23 for those interested in the seat to apply. Ricketts announced his application last week.
“I’ll be looking to appoint someone who embodies the commonsense, conservative values of Nebraska,” Pillen said.
If appointed, Ricketts would step in as one of the wealthiest senators in the chamber with a reputation for using that wealth to back conservative causes and candidates. Ricketts’ put his net worth at about $50 million when he ran for a second term as governor in 2018.
Ricketts has freely used his money to both push his political agenda and to get allies elected 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 donated extensively to conservative legislative candidates, including some who challenged more moderate Republicans who defied Ricketts’ push to keep the state’s death penalty.
In addition to his own wealth, even wealthier family members have often contributed to his and other conservative causes. While Ricketts donated $100,000 to the ballot effort to require Nebraska voters to show a photo ID to vote, Ricketts' mother dropped $1.5 million into the ballot initiative, which voters passed in November. Ricketts’ father, TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts, is worth an estimated $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 that spent by the Ricketts family to elect Pillen as Nebraska's newest governor — has the appearance of buying a Senate seat, said Ryan Horn, a Republican political consultant from Omaha. Ricketts' ambition to serve in the U.S. Senate is no secret. In 2006, he challenged then-U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson, a Democrat, but lost badly.
Ricketts would probably be a good senator for Nebraska, Horn said. He would likely vote the way 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.
“This has the feeling of the fix being in so that they don’t have to really face the voters. It seems that they’re avoiding, as much as possible, a fair fight," Horn said. "The way this is being done is cynical, and cynicism is a mortal threat to democracy.”
Other Republicans don't share that sentiment. Several even advocated the idea of Ricketts appointing himself to the Senate seat if Sasse had stepped down before Ricketts finished out his term early next month.
One of those is Mark Fahleson, a former chairman of the Nebraska Republican Party, who stands by his comments that Ricketts should have appointed himself if he'd had the opportunity because “he’s 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 he believes will help Nebraska and our country,” Fahleson said. “You can disagree with those policies, but I don't believe it's debatable that it's a more thoughtful and benevolent use of his personal resources.”
Pillen's office has not revealed who has applied for the soon-to-be vacated Senate seat, but at least one Democrat has submitted an application: Ann Ashford, the Omaha widow of former Congressman Brad Ashford. Ann Ashford ran unsuccessfully for Nebraska's Omaha-based 2nd Congressional District House seat in 2020.