by Ross Benes, author of Rural Rebellion: How Nebraska Became a Republican Stronghold
If you want to understand how much Nebraska politics has changed during the twenty-first century, consider Pete Ricketts’s recent US Senate appointment.
Ricketts, the scion of an online investment trading fortune amassed by his father, stormed onto Nebraska’s political scene in 2006 by dropping $12 million of his own money to lose a senate race by 28 percentage points to Democrat Ben Nelson. Democrats would not witness another victory of this magnitude for the foreseeable future.
After his defeat in the 2006 senate race, Ricketts displayed persistence and determination, embedding himself deeper into the Nebraska GOP by becoming a national committeeman and founding a think tank as he waited eight years for the right time to run again. When he ran for governor in 2014, he showed political savvy by running an aggressive campaign and rebranding his candidacy to focus on tax cuts and immigration opposition, which were both planks that his Republican predecessors rode to glory. After significantly outspending his opponents, Ricketts won a crowded gubernatorial primary with the lowest winning share of voters in state history. (He gained an unaided assist when the lead runner became mired in a financial scandal.)
Following the 2014 primary, Ricketts, like all Republican nominees in recent statewide Nebraska elections, easily cruised to victory in the general election. Once he became governor, his position, wealth, and relationships with other powerful people allowed him to influence the legislature by boosting his preferred candidates into office. Nebraska’s unique nonpartisan state legislature took a hard rightward turn after Ricketts put his fingerprints on the body. When Republicans senators who voted against Ricketts’s wishes ran for reelection, dark money groups with ties to his family stepped in to primary those disloyal candidates. When seats in the legislature opened up, Rickets appointed twentysomethings with little political experience but a lot of loyalty to the party he effectively controlled. (Two of his appointees married each other.) Governor Ricketts won reelection in 2018 without much of a fight.
Nebraska governors usually do not get officially involved in the elections where their replacements on chosen. But in the 2022 governor’s race, Ricketts endorsed Jim Pillen and spent lavishly to give his preferred candidate an advantage during a hotly contested primary. Now that Pillen is governor, he repaid his debts by appointing Ricketts to the open seat in the US Senate that Ben Sasse vacated.
Seventeen years after getting blown out in a senate race, Ricketts’s deep pockets finally helped him achieve the role he originally sought when he ventured into electoral politics. This time, he garnered the position without having to win over any voters. While this strategy may seem calculated and off-putting, it is nevertheless a legal avenue to office. Seen another way, it is an effective way to gain power.
Ricketts’s appointment puts a spotlight on how a wealthy governor can extend their influence due to deregulated campaign finance laws. It also highlights how ineffective Nebraska Democrats have become. Like the Husker football team, Nebraska Democrats haven’t won anything of significance in years. When Ricketts first ran for senate in 2016, Nebraska Democrats still won major statewide races. But when Pillen won his primary in November 2022, it was all but guaranteed that he’d easily win the general. And once that happened, there was little doubt who he’d appoint.
Ross Benes is the author of Rural Rebellion: How Nebraska Became a Republican Stronghold.