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Nebraska Gov. Pillen appoints former Gov. Pete Ricketts as Ben Sasse's Senate replacement

Sasse, a Republican, officially resigned from the Senate this week to become president of the University of Florida.

Nebraska Gov. Jim Pillen announced Thursday that former Gov. Pete Ricketts will fill the Senate seat of Ben Sasse, who officially resigned from Congress this week to return to academia as president of the University of Florida.

Ricketts, a Republican, like Pillen and Sasse, will serve two years ahead of a 2024 special Senate election.

Sasse, a vocal critic of former President Donald Trump and his supporters, officially resigned from the Senate on Sunday. He submitted his resignation last month, saying he would leave office Jan. 8, two years into his second term.

Pillen said Thursday the process to fill Sasse’s seat was taken “incredibly seriously,” because the appointee needs to “represent the people” of Nebraska.

The appointee must reflect “values and ideology important to Nebraskans,” including a belief in “less government and fiscal accountability,” and be “person of incredible faith, God-fearing like almost all Nebraskans,” Pillen said.

“It’s clear the person for the job was Sen.-designate Pete Ricketts,” he said.

Pillen said Ricketts was chosen after more than 100 people applied and nine were interviewed.

After Pillen’s remarks, Ricketts thanked the governor, saying he was proud to support his campaign, and he also thanked Sasse for his service. Ricketts then said he wants to make the federal government “run like a business.”

“We need to make Washington, D.C., accountable, and ensure they are bringing the high level of services we did here in Nebraska,” Ricketts said.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., welcomed the news in a statement Thursday, saying he is “thrilled to hear” Ricketts is heading to the Senate and “looks forward to working closely” with him.

“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, adding Ricketts has a "proven record" that "pairs sharp business savvy with a deep commitment to public service."

Ricketts, who reached his term limit as Pillen’s predecessor, stated his intention last month to seek the appointment to succeed Sasse. 

“For me, it came down to a single question: How can I best serve the people of Nebraska and advance our conservative values?" Ricketts said in a statement announcing his bid. "In Congress, we’re in a fight for the future of our nation, and it’s a fight we have to win."

Ricketts, a top political ally of Pillen, Ricketts had endorsed Pillen to succeed him and was a favorite to replace Sasse.

In farewell remarks last week, Sasse criticized the Senate, which he had been a member of since 2015, saying, “This institution doesn’t work very well right now.”

“Each of us knows we should be taking a look in the mirror and acknowledging that lives lived in a politicized echo chamber are unworthy of a place that calls itself a deliberative body, let alone the world’s greatest deliberative body,” he said.

“When we’re being honest with each other, which usually means when on one of the very rare occasions where cameras aren’t present, we all know that a big chunk of the performative yelling that happens here and in every hearing room is just about being booked for even more performative yelling at night on TV,” he added.

Ricketts’ relationship with Trump has taken several turns in recent years. Trump took aim at Ricketts’ family during the 2016 presidential campaign cycle. Ricketts’ parents, billionaire Joe and Marlene Ricketts, were major donors to a super PAC opposed to Trump.

“I hear the Rickets family, who own the Chicago Cubs, are secretly spending $'s against me. They better be careful, they have a lot to hide!” Trump tweeted in 2016.

The Rickettses, however, eventually came around to supporting Trump, with Ricketts, then the governor, attending a rally in support of Trump's 2016 presidential bid.

Trump also chose Ricketts in 2018 to serve on the Advisory Committee for Trade and Negotiations. He praised Ricketts as a “terrific” governor the same year.

But Ricketts drew ire from Trump last year when he asked him to stay out of the Nebraska GOP primary for governor and urged him not to endorse anyone. Trump endorsed businessman Charles Herbster, who lost to Pillen.

Trump also had a bone to pick with Ricketts last year after Ricketts campaigned for Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, who became a target of Trump’s for refusing to help overturn the results of the 2020 election.

Trump called Ricketts a “RINO,” an acronym for “Republican in name only,” for backing Kemp. Trump endorsed former Sen. David Perdue, who lost to Kemp in the GOP primary.

Ricketts at the time downplayed any differences with Trump, saying: “I agree with many of the policies of the former president. We just back different candidates,” according to the Nebraska Examiner, a nonprofit news service.

The Ricketts have come under scrutiny in a series of controversies in recent years, among them reports that the newly appointed senator managed investments when he was governor, according to an Omaha World-Herald report in 2018. Joe Ricketts, meanwhile, faced backlash from the Blackfeet tribe in Montana last year for building miles of fencing around his ranch, which tribal members say endangers wildlife.

The senior Ricketts also drew scrutiny in light of emails leaked in 2019 that were racist and Islamophobic in nature — a revelation that resurfaced when the family entered a bid to buy the famed Chelsea soccer club in England last year, which they ultimately withdrew. He apologized for the emails, saying, “I strongly believe that bigoted ideas are wrong.”