Nebraska Governor Accused Of Buying Senate Seat

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Michael Ginsberg Congressional Correspondent
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The impending appointment of outgoing Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts to retiring Sen. Ben Sasse’s seat could widen the split within the state Republican Party as Ricketts faces accusations that he bought the seat.

Ricketts has been clear about his interest in the seat, telling Omaha ABC affiliate KETV that serving in the Senate would allow him to “best serve the people of Nebraska and advance our conservative values.” The two-term governor was the Nebraska GOP’s Senate nominee in 2006, setting a state self-funding record in his 28-point loss to incumbent Democrat Ben Nelson. More recently, he put his money behind incoming Gov. Jim Pillen, helping the hog farmer and University of Nebraska regent through a fractured GOP primary.

Pillen is all but certain to appoint Ricketts to serve in the 118th Congress once Sasse formally resigns to serve as president of the University of Florida. Pillen has created a formal process to replace Sasse, with at least five people applying. His pick will serve two years ahead of a 2024 special election. (RELATED: University Of Florida Students Melt Down Over Ben Sasse Considering Leadership Role)

“I will be conducting a thorough process to review and select the best candidate for the U.S. Senate seat. I’ll be looking to appoint someone who embodies the commonsense, conservative values of Nebraska,” Pillen said in a statement to the Daily Caller.

Ricketts is personally worth more than $50 million, and his family was worth $4.5 billion in 2015. He gave both directly to Pillen and to a political action committee supporting the candidate. Pillen defeated businessman Charles Herbster by 9,400 votes in the May 2022 primary, and beat Democrat Carol Blood by 23 points in November.

WASHINGTON, DC – SEPTEMBER 28: Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE) speaks on his cell phone as he walks through the U.S. Capitol Building on September 28, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Political operatives in Nebraska are pointing to these donations as a quid pro quo that clinched the open seat for Ricketts.

“The application process is just a formality. The appointment of Gov. Ricketts has been a foregone conclusion,” GOP consultant and former Herbster deputy campaign manager Rod Edwards told the Caller. “Gov. Ricketts spent millions of dollars to make sure that Jim Pillen was elected.”

“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,” political consultant Ryan Horn told the Associated Press.

Although at least four other candidates have reportedly submitted applications, they will likely have to wait until 2024 to run for the seat in earnest, Edwards and public relations specialist Dan Parsons agreed. The two also said that Ricketts will almost certainly face a primary challenge, stemming from hard feelings over the appointment process. Both linked the Ricketts controversy to the larger battle within the national GOP between supporters of former President Donald Trump and those who hope a new leader will emerge.

Trump supported Herbster in the primary, while Ricketts gave $100,000 directly to Pillen and $1,275,000 to the pro-Pillen political action committee Conservative Nebraska.

“The Republican Party nationally is not united either. Those interests will have an impact on the Senate race,” Parsons said. (RELATED: NRSC Chairman Sen. Rick Scott Vows To Support Incumbents Against Trump-Backed Primary Challengers)

It is “likely, maybe probable that [Ricketts] receives a challenge,” Edwards added.

Parsons compared the appointment process to the 1987 replacement of Democratic Nebraska Sen. Edward Zorinsky, who died in office. Republican Gov. Kay Orr appointed David Karnes, a campaign aide who never before held elected office, to fill the seat. Karnes lost his bid for a full term in 1988 to Democrat Bob Kerrey, who held the seat until 2001.

Ann Ashford, the widow of former Rep. Brad Ashford, is the only Democrat to apply for the seat. She lost the 2022 primary for the state’s Second Congressional District. Nebraska’s three members of Congress are all Republicans, as are all statewide elected officials. Republicans control 32 of the 49 seats in the state’s unicameral state legislature.

Ricketts’ appointment “probably won’t lead to Democrats winning because there is no Ben Nelson or Bob Kerrey waiting in the wings, but anything could happen if they find a moderate,” Parsons said. “Nebraskans just don’t like that element of money and influence in the state.”