THE CORNHUSKER KICKBACK: How the Ricketts dynasty purchased a US Senate seat in Nebraska 

Ricketts gave $100,000 to Pillen's campaign in the lead-up to the May 2022 primary, and gave $1.28 million to Conservative Nebraska, a PAC in the state. His largest single donation to the PAC was $775,000 just before the primary.


Nebraska Governor Jim Pillen announced on Thursday the appointment of his predecessor, Pete Ricketts, to the US Senate, filling a vacant seat left by former Senator Ben Sasse. Pillen was Ricketts’ hand-picked successor as governor and spent lavishly to support his campaign in the primary against Trump-endorsed candidate Charles Herbser. 

Pillen would go on to win the Nebraska primary, but then months later in October, Sasse abruptly announced his resignation from his Senate seat to accept the role across the country as the University of Florida’s next president. Sasse was first elected to the seat in 2014, and won his reelection in 2020. Ricketts will serve until a special election in 2024, and the seat will then be on Nebraska’s ballot in 2026 for a full term. 

The shadow campaign for Ricketts for Senate began almost as immediately as Sasse announced he would leave the seat. Prominent Senator Lindsey Graham publicly boosted Ricketts for Senate in October when he made a stop at a steak fry, first reported by The Post Millennial, in Nebraska just days after Sasse announced his resignation. Graham endorsed Ricketts to take the seat in the Senate before Ricketts had even announced he had an interest in the seat.

Graham said Ricketts "may be moving to Washington for a few years” at the event

The Ricketts family’s net worth is $5.3 billion according to a recent Forbes report. Joe Ricketts, 81, Pete’s father, is the founder of TD Ameritrade and the owner of the Chicago Cubs. 

Ricketts gave $100,000 to Pillen's campaign in the lead-up to the May 2022 primary, and gave $1.28 million to Conservative Nebraska, a PAC in the state. His largest single donation to the PAC was $775,000 just before the primary.

Shortly after Sasse’s resignation announcement in October, Ricketts said "The first I learned about Senator Sasse's plan to resign from the United States Senate was yesterday, when he called to notify me. If I choose to pursue the appointment, I will leave the appointment decision to the next governor and will follow the process established for all interested candidates."

Ricketts had run for senate in Nebraska in 2006, spending $12 million. He lost, but boosted his name recognition. He became a national GOP committeeman, founded a think tank, and ran for governor in 2014.

Kansas Press reports that as governor, Ricketts was able to use "his position, wealth, and relationships with other powerful people… to influence the legislature by boosting his preferred candidates into office."

"It is the honor of a lifetime to serve as the governor of Nebraska. It is the greatest job in the world, and it will remain my number one focus for the remainder of my term," Ricketts added.

Ricketts formally announced his intent to seek the Senate seat in December.

Ricketts was term-limited, meaning he could not seek another term as governor during the 2022 midterms. Pillen won the election after receiving hefty financial and political support from Ricketts in the state’s GOP primary.

According to the Nebraska Examiner, Ricketts donated more than $1.3 million during the 2022 election to assist in getting Pillen elected. This includes contributions to outside groups that bashed the opponents of Pillen during the primary.

One such opponent was Trump-backed Charlie Herbster, who received 80,771 votes to Pillen’s 91,555, according to NBC News data. 

Herbster was accused by State Sen. Julie Slama of touching her inappropriately, an accusation that led to dueling lawsuits. These lawsuits were dropped in October, according to the Nebraska Examiner. Herbster's team alleged that the accusations were part of a plot by Ricketts to help his pick for governor, Pillen.

Following the state’s primaries in May, six Republicans in the state had their credentials canceled, with reasons ranging from a changing of party to supporting another candidate for governor against the party’s nominee.

This resulted in one of these six Republicans, elected GOP delegate Matt Innis, being arrested for trespassing and assault after trying to enter the July convention. 

Critics of Rickett said Pillen was set to choose the former governor because of his donations during the primary. Nebraska Democratic Party chair Jane Kleeb said Nebraskans "deserve a senator who will work for them, not someone who buys elections as a hobby."


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