Cornhusker State Gov-Elect Jim Pillen (R) will be sworn into office later today, meaning he will soon announce his choice to replace resigning Sen. Ben Sasse (R).
The Senator was first elected in 2014 and won a second term in 2020 but is leaving Washington to become president of the University of Florida. On Tuesday, Sen. Sasse delivered his farewell speech to his colleagues. His official resignation day is this Sunday, January 8th. Once the Senate seat is vacant, new Governor Pillen will have the opportunity of choosing a replacement who will serve until the next regular election, which in this case is the 2024 general.
The odds clearly favor outgoing Gov. Pete Ricketts (R) as Mr. Pillen’s selection, but such a move is reportedly not getting a completely positive reception within Nebraska GOP circles. Charges of an inside deal surround the potential pick since Gov. Ricketts was instrumental in helping Mr. Pillen win a crowded Republican primary back in May.
Gov. Ricketts, a member of the Ameritrade company’s founding family, commands major personal wealth and contributed a reported $1.4 million of his own money to help Mr. Pillen, then a State Board of Regents member, come through a crowded Republican primary. Gov. Ricketts contributed $100,000 directly to the Pillen campaign, and $1.3 million to an outside organization that was heavily supporting his endorsed candidate’s political effort.
In the GOP primary, the most important contest in an open gubernatorial election cycle from a state where voter registration favors Republicans over Democrats by a 48.8 – 27.8% clip and the last Democratic presidential candidate to carry Nebraska was Lyndon Johnson in 1964, Mr. Pillen won a close nomination victory over eight GOP opponents.
The former university regent, veterinarian, and member of the Nebraska Football Hall of Fame for his career as a defensive back at the University of Nebraska, defeated rancher Charles Herbster, who former President Donald Trump endorsed, and state Sen. Brett Lindstrom (R-Omaha) by a 34-30-26% count with the remaining six contenders dividing the minor candidate vote.
Mr. Pillen was indirectly helped when several women came forward to accuse Mr. Herbster of sexual impropriety after Trump had announced his support. The scandal certainly contributed to neutralizing the Trump endorsement, which, in almost every primary election outside of Georgia seemed to jump start the supported candidate to a nomination victory.
In the Nebraska race, however, it was the Ricketts endorsement and major financial support that proved a principal reason for Mr. Pillen winning the party nomination. He would go onto score a 60-36% win over Omaha state Senator Carol Blood (D) in November, carrying all but two of the state’s 93 counties.
Gov. Ricketts was first elected in 2014, winning a tight open multi-candidate Republican primary as six individuals were vying for the right to succeed term-limited GOP Governor Dave Heineman. He defeated then-Attorney General Jon Bruning by just over 2,300 votes statewide to claim the party nomination. Mr. Ricketts went onto post 57 and 59% general election victories in 2014 and ’18, respectively.
The outgoing Governor’s career didn’t begin so smoothly, however. In his first run for public office, where he spent over $12 million of his personal wealth in a campaign against then-Sen. Ben Nelson (D), Mr. Ricketts was destroyed in the 2006 general election by a 64-36% margin.
Regardless of who replaces Sen. Sasse, the individual must stand for election in 2024 to fill the remaining two years of the present term. The seat is next in-cycle for a full term two years later, in 2026.
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