Nebraska Democrats back Omaha activist Preston Love Jr. to challenge Ricketts for US Senate seat

Jan 17, 2024, 1:29 PM

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Longtime Omaha community activist Preston Love Jr. has announced he is seeking the Democratic nomination to challenge Republican U.S. Sen. Pete Ricketts for the seat Ricketts was appointed to fill last year.

Love, 81, launched his campaign Wednesday in north Omaha before a crowd of about 100 with the endorsements of some of the state’s top Democrats, including state party executive director Precious McKesson and state Sen. Tony Vargas. Vargas is for a second time running for Congress in an effort to unseat Republican Rep. Don Bacon in a closely watched race.

Even with that backing, Love acknowledged that he has an uphill battle in deep red Nebraska, where all of the statewide elected offices and the entirety of the state’s congressional delegation are Republican. The GOP also dominates the state legislature, and Nebraska voters haven’t elected a Democrat as president in nearly 60 years since voting for Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964.

But Love wasted no time in painting Ricketts — a former two-term Nebraska governor and one of the wealthiest senators in the U.S. Senate with a net worth estimated between $50 million and $100 million — as privileged and out-of-touch with most voters.

“People here see me in the grocery store,” Love told the crowd. “I’m just a regular person. And I want you to know that a regular person can be a United States senator. Some of our greatest senators have been regular people.”

Ricketts was appointed to the Senate by his successor, fellow Republican Gov. Jim Pillen, early last year to fill a vacancy left when former Sen. Ben Sasse resigned to take a job as president of the University of Florida. The appointment was for a two-year span until a special election could be held in 2024 for remaining two years of the term.

It was a move panned even by some Republicans as having the appearance of back-room dealing. Ricketts had heavily supported Pillen to succeed him as governor and donated more than $100,000 of his own money directly to Pillen’s campaign. Ricketts also gave more than $1 million to the political action committee Conservative Nebraska, which ran a slew of attack ads against Pillen’s primary opponents.

Love hopes to appeal to voters turned off by Ricketts’ appointment and who want to see more congressional action to address issues that concern both urban and rural residents. That includes better access to health care, more jobs, climate change legislation and gun regulations to curb mass shootings in the U.S.

It is the second time the state party has backed Love for the Senate seat — although the first time came under unusual, scandal-plagued circumstance. State Democrats settled on Love as a write-in candidate for the seat in September 2020 after fellow Democrat Chris Janicek, who won the primary, refused the party’s demands to drop out of the race after he sent lewd texts about a campaign staffer.

Love was the party’s third choice after its initial write-in candidate, the late former U.S. Rep. Brad Ashford, dropped out just days after announcing his bid. The state party’s first choice, Omaha mental health practitioner Alisha Shelton, was prohibited from running as a write-in candidate under Nebraska’s “sore loser” law because she lost to Janicek in the primary. Sasse went on to overwhelmingly win re-election.

Love is the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Black Votes Matter Institute of Community Engagement and an adjunct professor of Black studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

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Nebraska Democrats back Omaha activist Preston Love Jr. to challenge Ricketts for US Senate seat