Nebraska governor names predecessor to US Senate seat

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LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — In one of his first acts as Nebraska’s governor, Republican Jim Pillen named his predecessor to the state’s vacant U.S. Senate seat on Thursday.

Pillen surprised no one in naming fellow Republican Pete Ricketts to the seat vacated Sunday by Ben Sasse.

The governor said 111 people applied for the vacant seat and nine people — all Republicans — were interviewed. He said he chose Ricketts based on their shared conservatism and Ricketts’ promise that he would later run to be elected to the seat.

“I don’t believe in placeholders. I believe that every day matters. … Placeholders don’t have any accountability to the people,” Pillen said.

Ricketts said he would fight for conservative values and a strong national defense, and would work to hold leaders in Washington accountable for waste and fraud.

“This is an unexpected opportunity,” Ricketts said. “I am humbled and grateful.”

He also promised to continue Sasse’s vocal criticism of the Chinese Communist Party, saying he will work with Republican colleagues in the Senate to reduce China’s geopolitical influence.

Ricketts' appointment came even after some fellow Republicans expressed reservations about Pillen selecting his benefactor.

Pillen was elected in November in large part because of Ricketts’ backing, which included more than $100,000 of his own money contributed 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.

The reproach was repeated Thursday by state Democrats.

“Gov. Pillen appointed Pete Ricketts in order to pay him back for buying the governor’s seat,” Nebraska Democratic Party Chairwoman Jane Kleeb said in a statement. “This is the most blatant pay-to-play scheme we’ve seen in our state, and it’s happening right in front of us all. Nebraskans deserve a Senator who will work for them, not someone who buys elections as a hobby.”

On Thursday, Pillen rejected criticism that his selection of Ricketts amounted to backroom dealing.

“Anybody who knows me knows that’s just not in my DNA,” Pillen said, adding that he has “way too much respect for Nebraskans” to select anyone he didn’t believe would be elected by the majority of voters.

Pillen handily defeated Democrat Carol Blood in the November general election in a state that hasn't elected a Democrat as governor since 1994. But the GOP primary was much closer, with Pillen squeezing past Herbster to win the nomination in a nine-person race.

Ricketts will serve two years before a special election is held in 2024 to finish out the last two years of Sasse’s term. He would then have to seek reelection in 2026 for a full six-year term.

Sasse announced last fall that he would be leaving the Senate just two years into his second six-year term to take a job as president of the University of Florida.

Ricketts steps into his new role as one of the richest 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 is expected to be sworn in when the U.S. Senate reconvenes on Jan. 23.