Billionaire’s scion and Nebraska governor Pete Ricketts set a high watermark for controversy during his first six years in office. There was his “crazy” refusal to lock down the state despite a surge of COVID-19 cases, the unearthed racist messages from his former campaign field director, and his maskless gabfest at a sports bar on election night 2020. (The restaurant worker who filmed the governor was fired.)
Yet in recent months the nuttiness quotient has somehow metastasized. Over the summer, the governor fueled a far-right conspiracy that claimed that some of President Biden’s conservation efforts were in fact a private land grab.
Then Ricketts dived head first into the culture wars, assailing critical race theory, the playing of the “Black national anthem” at a University of Nebraska basketball game, and other anti-racism efforts at the college.
“That document is basically saying the University of Nebraska is systematically racist. I don’t believe it,” Ricketts said of the anti-racism proposals on Nov. 22.
On Wednesday the Omaha NAACP published a statement imploring the governor to back off.
Ricketts’ provocations are likely calculated, local politicos say. His second term ends in just over a year, and he’s mimicking the latest right-wing playbook in pursuit of higher office.
“I think he’s gunning for either a cabinet office when a Republican president takes over in ’24 or a vice presidential slot,” said John McCollister, a Republican member of the Nebraska Legislature who was previously the executive director of a think tank Ricketts cofounded, the Platte Institute for Economic Research.
“It’s ironic because he [initially] didn’t support Trump, but he’s embracing Trumpian types of policies now,” McCollister added. “I’d say during his first term, when I was in the legislature, he wasn’t embracing so many of these cultural issues.”
Another former Republican official, who knows Ricketts well, says the governor’s professed outrage feels performative: “The only thing I can think of is that he expects Donald Trump to be a factor in the next election, whether he is a nominee or whether he anoints somebody else… and I think [Ricketts] is trying to appeal to the Trump faction of the party.”
Speculation is growing that Ricketts may run for president himself, even just in the hopes of landing a high-profile gig when he likely loses.
“At least within the state, there isn’t an obvious next office to run for,” said Kevin Smith, chair of the department of political science at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. “Both of our senators,” Ben Sasse and Deb Fischer, “seem pretty well ensconced.”
Ricketts’ office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The 57-year-old governor owes at least some of his success to his parents, Joe and Marlene, who spent hundreds of thousands of dollars backing his first campaign in 2014, filings show.
The family, which collectively owns a majority stake in the Chicago Cubs, owes much of its wealth to the online brokerage TD Ameritrade. Joe Ricketts founded the predecessor to the business in 1975; Forbes pegs his net worth at $4.5 billion.
Roughly five years ago, before Pete Ricketts channeled Trump’s tactics, the family spent millions of dollars during the Republican primaries funding a Super PAC that tried to keep The Donald out of office—prompting Trump to tweet that they “better be careful, they have a lot to hide!”
Pete Ricketts ultimately endorsed Trump, who infamously launched his campaign by calling many Mexican immigrants criminals and “rapists.”
Now, as the governor seems to be contemplating a similar presidential bid, he is fanning flames of his own. It’s a strategy playing out in a number of right-wing races, including the Senate campaigns of J.D. Vance and Blake Masters.
Last month Ricketts assailed the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, after its basketball program played “Lift Every Voice and Sing”—also referred to as the Black national anthem—in addition to the Star Spangled Banner.
The college’s athletic director said the gesture was intended as a display of “unity and education.”
Soon after, Ricketts’ office released a statement on Nov. 5 proclaiming that there is “only one national anthem for the United States.”
He followed that with an attack on the university’s chancellor, Ronnie Green, over UNL’s diversity and inclusion proposals, which included efforts to recruit underrepresented students and staff and a commitment to address “institutional barriers that perpetuate equity gaps.”
Ricketts declared in a press conference that he had “lost all faith” in Green.
Meanwhile, university president Ted Carter published an open letter defending the proposals.
“We will not impose critical race theory, nor any theory, upon students. We will not hire candidates based on their skin color. We will not close our doors to any qualified student. We will not limit the free, robust exchange of ideas on campus—one of the most cherished ideals in higher learning,” he wrote.
There is a sense among some observers that the governor’s indignation is just a naked political calculation.
“I don’t think he is being sincere,” a person who spent years working with Ricketts told The Daily Beast. Instead, the person said, the governor seems to believe that political wedge issues offer his best shot at national office.
Either way, as Ricketts competes in the Outrage Olympics, his statements are taking a toll.
“It does feel a bit like some of the politicians and [the governor] included are sort of digging through university business to find ways of fighting a culture war,” one University of Nebraska professor told The Daily Beast. “And it does create an additional sense of fear and dread on campus.”