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Ricketts Rival Herbster Mulls 2024 Senate Challenge in Nebraska
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Ricketts Rival Herbster Mulls 2024 Senate Challenge in Nebraska

Plus, the Republican Main Street Partnership previews its 2024 campaign strategy and Democrats react to Biden’s State of the Union address.

Nebraska gubernatorial candidate Charles Herbster speaks during a rally hosted by former President Donald Trump on May 1, 2022 in Greenwood, Nebraska. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.)

Up to Speed

  • In his State of the Union address Tuesday night, President Joe Biden lauded his administration’s first-term accomplishments in a speech widely seen as a soft launch for his 2024 reelection campaign. Biden struck a deliberately moderate tone throughout, boasting of bipartisan legislative accomplishments and—when he stopped to criticize Republican policy proposals—repeatedly deviating from his prepared remarks to clarify that not all congressional Republicans endorsed them. In a particularly striking exchange, Biden’s assertion that “some Republicans want Medicare and Social Security to sunset” drew an enormous chorus of boos from GOP members in attendance. Biden, who initially seemed bemused by the strength of the reaction, pivoted to applauding the body’s seeming unity on the subject: “Tonight let’s all agree—and apparently we are—to stand up for seniors. Stand up and show them we will not cut Social Security. We will not cut Medicare.”
  • Two Republicans delivered official State of the Union responses: newly inaugurated Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders and freshman Rep. Juan Ciscomani of Arizona, who delivered his speech in Spanish. Sanders offered a withering critique of Biden’s age, fitness to serve, and policy agenda: “The dividing line in America is no longer between right or left. The choice is between normal or crazy.” Ciscomani’s speech was more restrained, but hit similar themes: “President Biden wants to tell you that everything is great, but why aren’t people feeling great?” he said in Spanish. “The American dream feels more unattainable, and sadly, President Biden fails to show leadership and present any viable solution.” Ciscomani also echoed that cuts to Social Security and Medicare are “off the table” in the current Congress.
  • What’s next for Republican Lee Zeldin of New York, who came 6.4 points short of toppling Gov. Kathy Hochul in last year’s gubernatorial election? The former congressman told reporters Monday that he’s setting up a new federal political action committee and hasn’t ruled out challenging Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who’s up for reelection in 2024. Zeldin’s loss was the best Republican showing in a New York gubernatorial in two decades, helping Republican candidates flip three House districts on Long Island. 

Former GOP Gov. Candidate Herbster May Challenge Sen. Ricketts in ‘24

Former GOP gubernatorial candidate Charles W. Herbster is considering challenging Nebraska Sen. Pete Ricketts in 2024, The Dispatch has learned. The news comes roughly two weeks after former two-term Gov. Ricketts—appointed by his successor Jim Pillen to fill former Sen. Ben Sasse’s seat—was sworn into office January 23.

Challenging Ricketts in 2024 would likely come at a steep financial cost for Herbster. Ricketts’ family has deep pockets (his father Joe founded TD Ameritrade), and both the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) and Mitch McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund (SLF) have signaled they’re open to spending heavily in Republican primaries this cycle.

Herbster is weighing his options. “I have had a lot of people both within Nebraska and Republicans involved in national politics reach out, encouraging me to run for the United States Senate in 2024,” Herbster said in a statement to The Dispatch. “I am in the fortunate position right now where I have several different options available for my political future. The Senate in 2024 is certainly one of those options. However, at this time, I have made no decisions and have no pending announcement.” 

Herbster’s spokesman Rod Edwards declined to say whether Herbster has spoken with any Senate Republicans about the potential challenge.

Nebraska law dictates that Ricketts must run in a 2024 special election to serve the last two years of Sasse’s term, and again in 2026 to serve a six-year term. Ricketts has committed to both contests. The 2024 election will be his second U.S. Senate race to date: He ran unsuccessfully in 2006 against Democrat Ben Nelson. 

Herbster’s public interest in the seat comes months after he lost Nebraska’s GOP nine-way gubernatorial primary to Jim Pillen by four points, ending a hotly contested Republican contest that centered on Herbster’s alleged sexual impropriety with a number of women. Former President Donald Trump had endorsed Herbster’s campaign.

Weeks before the May 10 primary, GOP state Sen. Julie Slama alleged to the Nebraska Examiner that Herbster reached up her skirt and touched her inappropriately at a local GOP event in 2019. (Herbster denied the allegations, and both parties have since dropped their dueling lawsuits.)

Pillen went on to win the general election in November and, on January 12, appointed Ricketts to fill the Senate seat vacated by Sasse, who now serves as president at the University of Florida. 

Herbster’s threat to challenge Ricketts escalates an already tense feud between the two Republicans from last cycle. Ricketts, who appointed Slama to Nebraska’s unicameral legislature in 2019, strongly condemned Herbster after Slama went on the record with her accusations. Ricketts also denied any political involvement in the allegations. 

Herbster has criticized Pillen’s decision to tap Ricketts for Sasse’s seat. According to the Nebraska Examiner, Ricketts gave $100,000 to Pillen’s campaign last year, and he and his family spent millions in ads hitting Herbster and fellow GOP gubernatorial opponent state Sen. Brett Lindstrom.

Spokesmen for Ricketts and the NRSC declined to comment for this article.

GOP Group Puts Millions Behind House ‘Pragmatic Conservatives’

The Republican Main Street Partnership is planning to invest more than $25 million in House races in 2024 to grow the GOP’s razor-thin majority. It’s already busy recruiting candidates and testing their viability in targeted districts via focus groups run by one of the party’s most prominent pollsters.

The group has its sights on a dozen House districts represented by Democrats, with plans to expand the target package to include seats where incumbent Republicans might retire. Of these, there are at least four in which top recruits have already been identified whose electability is being researched. (Dave Sackett, a Republican pollster in Washington, was tapped to oversee polling and focus groups.)*

Sarah Chamberlain, executive director of the Republican Main Street Partnership, declined to list the districts the group is eyeing for a GOP takeover or hold. But she let slip that New Hampshire’s 1st District and Washington state’s 3rd District are on her radar. Both were top GOP priorities in the 2022 midterm elections, but in each the party came up short because general election voters rejected Republican nominees closely aligned with Trump.

“We’re really on top of this in an earlier way than we’ve ever been before,” Chamberlain told The Dispatch this month. That means earlier candidate recruitment, earlier candidate training schools, and earlier candidate funding, plus advance preparation to field candidates in contested districts where popular Republican incumbents are thought likely to retire.

Advising Chamberlain on policy and political matters is Greg Walden. The former Oregon congressman served two terms as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, the House GOP campaign arm, and enjoyed a stint as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The group’s sales pitch, essentially, is that the only way to preserve and grow House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s majority is to pour resources into swing districts and competitive seats where “Main Street”-style candidates are best positioned to win a general election.

“There’s nowhere else to win seats,” Chamberlain said.

The Republican Main Street Partnership is the political operation that affiliates with the Main Street Caucus, a group of more than 70 House Republicans that this year, for the first time, is constituted as an official congressional caucus. The caucus meets Wednesdays, it has a paid staff, and members pay dues. Often characterized as centrists, Main Street Caucus members, who often represent competitive districts, describe themselves as “pragmatic conservatives.”

Ideologically, there’s not much distance between the Main Street Caucus and the insurgent-minded House Freedom Caucus. The differences that do arise are typically tactical. “We don’t like fiscal cliffs; we don’t like dumpster fires,” Rep. Dusty Johnson, Main Street Caucus chairman, said in an interview last week with The Dispatch

But similar to their brethren in the House Freedom Caucus, that doesn’t mean they don’t see pressure points like the national debt ceiling as an opportunity to negotiate fiscal restraint. “I don’t know a single pragmatic conservative who supports a clean debt ceiling increase,” Johnson said. In recent digital ads, the Republican Main Street Partnership has pressured Biden to negotiate with House Republicans on legislation to lift the debt limit and cut spending, warning of economic calamity if the president refuses to compromise and the United States defaults on its $31.4 trillion debt.

Dems React to Biden’s 2024 Soft Launch

“Let’s finish the job” is a slogan that fits on a yard sign, in a hashtag, or in a convention-floor chant. And its repeated use by President Joe Biden during his second State of the Union address Tuesday night is the most unmistakable sign yet the commander in chief is planning a 2024 reelection bid.

But Democratic Party regulars, especially members of Congress, have worried the 80-year-old Biden isn’t up for the rigors of another campaign—particularly considering the coronavirus pandemic enabled him to spend so much time off the trail in 2020, a luxury he won’t have this time around. 

Did Biden’s State of the Union address, his third address to a joint session of Congress as president, calm nerves?

Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a progressive and Biden rival for the Democratic nomination in 2020, called the president’s speech “excellent” and said she is “absolutely” comfortable with him as the party’s 2024 nominee. “He talked about both what he has accomplished and what he’s still fighting for. I loved every part of it.”

“It was a strong speech by a president who has an extraordinary track record,” added Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, another Democrat who fell short against Biden in the race for the party’s 2020 nomination. “I would be confident and hopeful that he will run.”

Their views are not universal, though. T.J. Rooney, former chairman of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, said institutional Democrats—campaign contributors, professional operatives, and loyal party activists—remain split on Biden as a presumed 2024 reelection bid approaches. “Everyone loves him,” Rooney said. “But most understand the optics versus anyone other than Trump are awful.”

In other words, Rooney explained, as long as Trump remains the frontrunner for the Republican nomination, internal Democratic unease about Biden will remain at a simmer. But should the former president fade in the GOP primary, party anxiety is likely to spike.

Rep. Dan Kildee reflected some of this lingering hesitation in a post-State of the Union interview with The Dispatch as he exited the House chamber. Kildee, who represents Michigan’s 8th District, a Republican-leaning swing seat anchored in Flint, lauded a Biden address that was broadly lauded by Democrats, in Washington and around the country. But, Kildee emphasized, it’s the president’s performance on the job that matters—his impact on Americans’ lives at home and his leadership abroad, “not a 90-minute performance on a stage.”

 “I think there’s going to be a long discussion that he’ll have to have with his family,” Kildee added. “I’ll wait for him to make that decision before I make any decision about the future.”

Eyes on the Trail

  • Club for Growth takes a shot at Trump … again: Club for Growth President David McIntosh told reporters Monday that the conservative anti-tax organization’s super PAC—Club for Growth Action—will likely play against former President Donald Trump in the 2024 presidential primary. “If he gets the nomination we’ll help him try to win, but the last three elections show that he’s lost,” McIntosh told reporters Monday. The group is actively searching for another candidate, and invited Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, former Vice President Mike Pence, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott to make their case to the organization at a retreat with donors next month. McIntosh said that the Club for Growth didn’t extend an invitation to Trump, who lashed out Tuesday after hearing he didn’t make the cut. (As of Wednesday morning, The Dispatch confirmed Pompeo would not attend the Club’s retreat due to a scheduling conflict, while Pence and Youngkin were noncommittal. No word either way from spokesmen for DeSantis, Haley, and Scott.)
  • Club teases 2024 Senate playbook: Audrey also previewed the Club for Growth’s Senate strategy in a piece for the site today. Throughout the 2024 cycle, the group plans to invest heavily in efforts to oust Democratic Sens. Jon Tester in Montana and Joe Manchin in West Virginia. But in bluer-leaning Senate battlegrounds like Michigan, the Club is adopting a more hands-off approach. McIntosh said Monday that the group is waiting to see whether Club-aligned candidates emerge in Michigan’s GOP Senate primary, but acknowledged that a more centrist Republican nominee may give the GOP a better chance of retaking the Senate majority. (The Dispatch first reported this week that former Congressman Peter Meijer and GOP Reps. Bill Huizenga and Lisa McClain are considering running for retiring Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow’s seat.) “It may be that Peter Meijer’s the best candidate for Republicans to win the seat, but he might not have that good a score on our scorecard,McIntosh said. We would then strategically say: ‘Let’s just stay out.’”
  • DeSantis vs. Disney: As he eyes a possible challenge against former President Donald Trump in next year’s Republican presidential primary, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis will spend the next few months beefing up his resume for Republican voters. Florida’s legislative session starts in March, but lawmakers this week gaveled in for a special session to address some unfinished business from last year, including DeSantis’ high-profile struggle with Disney over the media giant’s ostensibly left-wing political agenda and special treatment under Florida law. Republican lawmakers on Monday introduced legislation that would strengthen DeSantis’s control over the Reedy Creek Improvement District, in which Walt Disney World sits and over which Disney has long enjoyed control akin to that of a county government. This bill would keep the district intact but give the governor the right to appoint the five members of its Board of Supervisors. Previously, supervisor elections took place under an unusual “one acre, one vote” setup—an arrangement designed to allow Disney, which owns most of the district’s land, to pick its own supervisors. 
  • Don’t forget Kristi: Fox News reported this morning that South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem is traveling to D.C. next week to deliver a series of policy speeches amid speculation she could enter the 2024 presidential contest.

Notable and Quotable

“Speaker, I don’t want to ruin your reputation, but I look forward to working with you.”

—President Joe Biden to House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in his State of the Union address, Tuesday, February 7

Let Us Know

Did you watch the State of the Union, and if so, did it make you more or less confident in Biden’s ability to run and win again?

Clarification, February 8, 2023: Dave Sackett’s role was clarified from a previous version of this article.

Andrew Egger is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.

David M. Drucker is a senior writer at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he was a senior correspondent for the Washington Examiner. When Drucker is not covering American politics for The Dispatch, he enjoys hanging out with his two boys and listening to his wife's excellent taste in music.

Audrey is a former reporter for The Dispatch.