December 3, 2022

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Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse sets down with the World-Herald for a wide ranging conversation.
With Republican U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse seemingly ready to accept a big job in academia and resign his seat, one big question swirled through Nebraska politics Thursday.
Does Gov. Pete Ricketts want Sasse’s job?
And that fundamental question in turn leads to others:
If so, would he consider appointing himself to the Senate?
Could the choice slide to GOP gubernatorial candidate Jim Pillen, who if elected to succeed Ricketts in November would be in position in January to appoint his strongest political supporter to the seat?
Or could either Ricketts or Pillen choose a placeholder, an experienced political hand who would hold the seat until it could be filled in an open special election in 2024?
While Ricketts had little to say Thursday, a number of longtime Republican activists and political observers believe Ricketts is likely to ultimately want the job he sought unsuccessfully in 2006.
“I do think the conventional wisdom in Nebraska is that Pete Ricketts is one day interested in going to the Senate,” said Ryan Horn, a GOP campaign consultant from Omaha.
“He has never said ‘I’m not interested in Washington, I don’t want to do that,’ ” said Randall Adkins, a University of Nebraska at Omaha political scientist.
“I’m going to assume that Pete Ricketts is the next senator under almost any scenario, assuming he wants it,” said a former state GOP leader who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Jane Kleeb, the state Democratic Party chair, said Thursday on Twitter she expects Ricketts to appoint himself.
Ricketts’ office issued a statement that simply noted that the Senate seat is not currently vacant.
Should Sasse take a job as president of the University of Florida and resign his Senate seat, under law the state’s governor would have 45 days to appoint someone to fill the vacancy for the next two years.
In 2024, an election would be held to fill the remaining two years of the term. And then another election would be held in 2026 to fill the seat’s next regular six-year term.
The first question now is one of timing.
Depending on when Sasse might resign, the choice could fall on Ricketts’ watch. It could fall to whoever follows him into office the first week of January.
Or the 45-day window could span both the end of Ricketts’ term and the start of his successor’s, in which case Ricketts could make the choice or let the decision slide to his successor.
“It’s hard to speculate now until the dust settles a bit,” said Hal Daub, a former Omaha mayor and U.S. congressman.
While it might make sense for Sasse to time any resignation in consultation with state GOP leaders, Sasse hasn’t always been known as a party player. He may not leave when it’s most convenient politically.
If Ricketts is indeed interested in the job, history nationally has shown that for a governor to appoint himself to a U.S. Senate seat is politically fraught. The governor who does so very rarely gets re-elected the next time he goes before voters.
“There’s not a very good track record of governors appointing themselves,” Daub said.
Horn agreed such a choice “would not sit well with voters.”
“The only thing American voters enjoy less than nepotism is self dealing,” he said.
If Ricketts is interested in the seat and is faced with that choice, he might politically decide it’s better to name someone to fill the seat just for the next two years, on a pledge that they would not run in 2024. That would make for a more open race in 2024.
Names of some possible placeholders were already being thrown around Thursday. They included former Nebraska GOP governors Kay Orr and Dave Heineman and Daub.
The last time Nebraska had a vacant Senate seat, after the sudden 1986 death of Democrat Ed Zorinsky, Daub had lobbied Orr for the seat before she chose David Karnes. Asked Thursday, the 81-year-old Daub said he might be willing to serve in a placeholder role now.
If the choice by timing or by choice slides to Ricketts’ successor, that could well be Pillen, the odds-on favorite to be elected governor next month over State Sen. Carol Blood of Bellevue in this Republican-leaning state.
Some believe that if Pillen does get that choice, he could well choose Ricketts, who battled to help Pillen win the GOP governor primary in May.
“If I were a betting man, that’s where my money would go,” said Rod Edwards, who served as deputy campaign managers for Charles W. Herbster, who lost to Pillen. “Jim Pillen would not have won the primary without Ricketts’ support.”
But some observers say that for Ricketts to be appointed by the man he strongly endorsed for governor would risk some of the same political pitfalls of appointing himself. That again might be a political argument for a placeholder appointment.
Should Ricketts decide he’s not interested in serving in the Senate, there would be a wide range of potential candidates, both for the appointment and for running in 2024.
The list would probably start with GOP congressmen Don Bacon and Mike Flood but also include a number of state political figures, business leaders and others.
J.L. Spray, the state’s GOP committeeman, said he has no idea what Ricketts will do. But he said he knows one thing: the deliberative governor will not rush into anything.
“I think this governor is very thoughtful, and even in a surprising moment, he will stop and give reasonable consideration to the choices that are here for the state,” he said.
Sen. Ben Sasse uses a machete to chop weeds in an organic popping corn field in early August during a visit to the Hunnicutt farms near Giltner. 
Fallon Hunnicutt uses a machete to cut weeds along the family’s popping corn field during a visit by Sen. Ben Sasse on Thursday near Giltner. 
Sen. Ben Sasse laughs with his communications director James Wegmann as he exits his campaign RV on Thursday on a visit to the Hunnicutt family farms near Giltner.
Bréley Hunnicutt carries her sister Vashti on her shoulders as they head back to their house after a campaign visit from Sen. Ben Sasse on Thursday to the family’s farms near Giltner.
Sen. Ben Sasse talks with Zach Hunnicutt about his farming operation in 2019 near Giltner.
Sen. Ben Sasse and Fallon Hunnicutt pull weeds in the Hunnicutt’s organic popping corn field Thursday near Giltner. 
Breslyn Hunnicutt (left), her brother Truett and Sen. Ben Sasse (center) pet Rock Star, a husky-lab mix Thursday during a campaign stop to the Hunnicutt farms near Giltner. 
Sen. Ben Sasse talks with Brandon (left) and Zach Hunnicutt on Thursday during a visit to the family’s farm near Giltner.
A drone piloted by Brandon Hunnicutt flies about the family’s organic popping corn field during a visit by Sen. Ben Sasse on Thursday near Giltner. 
Breslyn Hunnicutt hugs her dad Brandon during a visit by Sen. Ben Sasse on Thursday to the family’s farms near Giltner.
Sen. Ben Sasse made it official that he will run for reelection on Aug. 5 at the Millard airport.
Sen. Ben Sasse (left) takes a photo with Matt Johnson of Bellevue on Aug. 5 at Millard Airport, where Sasse announced he is running for reelection. 
Sen. Ben Sasse walks off stage after being handed a Runza sandwich by former Gov. Dave Heineman on Aug. 5 at the Millard Airport, where Sasse announced he is running for reelection. 
Whitney Belin (center) fans her friends before Sen. Ben Sasse speaks Aug. 5 at Millard Airport, where he announced he’s running for reelection. “I went to one of these when he was first elected,” said Belin.
Former Gov. Kay Orr praises Sen. Ben Sasse’s pro-life stance on Aug. 5 at Millard Airport, where Sasse announced he is running for reelection.
cordes@owh.com, 402-444-1130, twitter.com/henrycordes
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