Nebraska Gov. Jim Pillen (R) on Thursday tapped former Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts (R) to fill the Senate seat vacated by former Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) earlier this month.
The move has been widely expected since October, when Sasse became a finalist to become president of the University of Florida. The two-term senator officially resigned his seat on Sunday, creating the immediate vacancy. He is set to become the university’s president next month.
Ricketts will now serve until January 2025. Under Nebraska state law, Rickets will have to run in a special election in 2024 to fill the remaining two years of Sasse’s term. He would then have to run again in 2026 in order to win a full six-year term.
Pillen said there had been 111 applicants for the role and his team interviewed nine candidates, but pointed to the election schedule and Ricketts’s ability to win statewide as key factors in his decision.
“My job in this process is really, really simple: to find the best person to represent us Nebraskans,” Pillen said.
“Ultimately, the timing of this is very, very rigorous, and my belief in not [selecting] a placeholder and my belief in seniority being really, really important, and running statewide elections and winning statewide elections in ’24 and ’26 is rigorous and demanding, and ultimately that was a big separator,” Pillen said.
Pillen also noted that Ricketts has committed to running in 2024 and 2026 and that he would not accept a nomination to the Cabinet if asked by a future Republican president.
“Past performance is a pretty good indicator of future performance,” Pillen added.
The former two-term governor, who also co-chaired the Republican Governors Association during the 2022 campaign cycle, was among those who officially applied for the vacancy with Pillen, the newly minted governor.
Pillen was elected in November in part because of support from Ricketts, having turned away a primary challenge from Charles Herbster, who was backed by former President Trump, in May. The former governor gave more than $100,000 to Pillen’s campaign and donated nearly $1.3 million to a political action committee that ran a series of attack ads against Herbster.
Ricketts on Thursday said he is excited to take on the “unexpected opportunity.”
“There’s a fallacy in Washington, D.C., that government can’t work and we have to expect failure, but that’s not true. We proved that’s not true here in Nebraska,” Ricketts said. “We need to hold Washington, D.C., accountable for making sure they’re providing the same level of high service that we do in state government.”
Ricketts immediately becomes one of the richest members of Congress, which also helps give him a leg up ahead of what could be two elections in the next four years, as he could self-fund to an extent. Ricketts’s family owns the Chicago Cubs.
Additionally, this is not Ricketts first attempt at joining the Senate. In 2006, Ricketts lost to then-Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) by a margin of more than 27 percentage points despite spending $12 million of his own money on the contest.
Ricketts joining the upper chamber is a big win for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senate Republicans, as it would be considered a safe bet that the party will hold the seat, likely taking the state off the map in the 2024 general election.
The GOP leader on Thursday said he’s “thrilled to hear” Ricketts is heading to the Senate.
“Governor Pillen could not have found a more capable leader to take the baton from our colleague Senator Sasse and fight for the Cornhusker State,” McConnell said in a statement.
The only potential wrench would be a challenge from pro-Trump forces after Ricketts helped Pillen to defeat Herbster. However, Ricketts has not been outwardly critical of the former president like Sasse, his predecessor, had been. Sasse was among the seven Senate Republicans to vote to convict Trump for his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.
The appointment also brings the Senate back to capacity with 100 senators.
Updated at 10:48 a.m.