OMAHA, Neb. – With Ben Sasse apparently ready to resign his Nebraska U.S. Senate seat to become president of the University of Florida, speculation is rampant that his temporary replacement could be Gov. Pete Ricketts.
Ricketts, who like Sasse is a Republican, would otherwise be out of a political job due to term limits at the end of the year.
Scenarios of how Ricketts would ascend to the U.S. Senate run the gamut from his presumptive successor naming him as Nebraska’s newest U.S. senator to Ricketts appointing himself to fill the seat. However, Ricketts issued a statement Friday afternoon appearing to rule out appointing himself.
“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 said in the statement.
The question is whether Ricketts wants the job.
“I think the obvious candidate is Pete Ricketts, and if he wants to be a U.S. senator, then it's his to take,” said Mark Fahleson, a former chairman of the Nebraska Republican Party.
Dan Welch, who was the state GOP chairman until he was unexpectedly voted out during a shake up at the state party's convention in July, agreed that all eyes are on Ricketts to fill the seat.
“I haven't talked to him, so I don't know what his plans are," Welch said. ”This probably took him by surprise, too."
Ricketts on Friday confirmed that the news of Sasse's departure caught him off guard.
“The first I learned about Sen. Sasse’s plan to resign from the United States Senate was yesterday, when he called to notify me," Ricketts said, adding that the job of governor "is the greatest job in the world, and it will remain my number one focus for the remainder of my term.”
The University of Florida confirmed Thursday that Sasse is the sole finalist to become the president of the school, and Sasse has indicated he will take the job. Fahleson, an attorney who is a longtime close friend of Sasse, said Friday that given the university's process for hiring its next president, “the earliest he'll step down is in early December."
Sasse’s replacement would serve until 2024, the next opportunity for a special election for the seat. The winner of that election would then have to run again in 2026, when Sasse’s term expires.
Ricketts could still appoint a successor if Sasse resigns before Jan. 3, and the governor's statement Friday didn't address what he would do if Sasse resigns before Ricketts' term is up. The governor's office did not immediately return a message seeking clarification.
If Sasse were to leave the Senate after that, when Ricketts leaves office, the newly-elected governor would appoint Sasse’s replacement. Republican Jim Pillen — who has been heavily supported by Ricketts to be his successor — is favored to win the governor’s race in November.
The Nebraska Secretary of State's office confirmed that there is nothing in Nebraska law that would keep a sitting governor from appointing himself. And most Democrats, according to Nebraska Democratic Party Chairwoman Jane Kleeb, had expected him to do so.
“Ricketts is power hungry and will do anything to either send himself or someone who will answer to him,” Kleeb said Friday. “Nebraskans are tied of the revolving door, musical chairs and one-party rule."
While some political insiders feared Ricketts appointing himself to the seat would reek too much of self-dealing, others within the state’s Republican Party were unfazed by that possibility.
“It’s not self-dealing if he’s the obvious candidate for the job,” Fahleson said. “And there's no one out there who's on his level. He has not contemporaries.”
Fahleson said that, despite the questions about how the seat will be filled, there's no question which party will control it.
“Nebraska is a solidly Republican state, and whoever makes that appointment will be a Republican,” he said.