Pillen says no to GOP primary debates with reporters

Herbster, Lindstrom, Thibodeau agreed to debate twice, starting March 24

By: - March 10, 2022 5:12 pm

Six Nebraska’s candidates for governor participated in a forum in Lincoln hosted by the Nebraska Chambers Association. From left: State Sen. Carol Blood, Charles Herbster, State Sen. Brett Lindstrom, NU Regent Jim Pillen, Breeland Ridenour and former State Sen. Theresa Thibodeau. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

Nebraska Republicans might not see all their top governor candidates on the same debate stage before the May 10 primary election.

University of Nebraska Regent Jim Pillen, who has turned down debates thus far, said no to another one this week, on NTV News, based in Axtell, Nebraska. 

His campaign told the central Nebraska TV station by news release that he wouldn’t be participating, according to an email from the station’s leadership to the other candidates.

In the news release, Pillen campaign manager Kenny Zoeller described debates as “often just political theater.”

“We are going to continue to manage our outreach in a way that serves the interests of Republican voters, not the ratings of media outlets,” he said. 

Zoeller said news outlets use debates to pit GOP candidates against each other and hijack Republican voters’ agenda.

Pillen also turned down a debate planned by online news outlet Nebraska Sunrise News, which employs a number of conservative reporters and editors.

Pillen’s news release on Wednesday said his team had turned down the Sunrise News debate because it didn’t include candidates Theresa Thibodeau and Breland Ridenour. The release said Charles Herbster, a competing candidate, had worked to exclude them.

Sunrise News publisher Fletcher Reel, in an email to Pillen’s team Thursday, called the Pillen campaign’s news release “false” and demanded a retraction.

Reel’s email said it was his news organization’s decision on whom to invite, not Pillen’s. It said Sunrise set the standard on which candidates to invite, based on “viability,” including the amount of money each candidate had raised.

Reel told the Nebraska Examiner on Thursday that Pillen’s press release was “complete nonsense.” Reel said his organization canceled the planned debate when Pillen declined.

On Thursday, the Pillen campaign declined to comment. The campaign confirmed that Pillen has not agreed to any debates but highlighted his participation in a number of candidate forums, including several next month.

GOP governor candidates Herbster, Thibodeau and State Sen. Brett Lindstrom have agreed to participate in the first debate of the race, scheduled for March 24 in Lincoln. That event will be hosted by Nebraska Public Media. Pillen declined to participate.

Lindstrom, Herbster and Thibodeau said they also have agreed to join the NTV debate in April, once a date is finalized.

Herbster’s campaign, in a statement Thursday, said voters learn from seeing candidates on stage during debates.

“Voters get to see how candidates perform in a less controlled and manipulated environment when the heat is on,” the campaign said. “During a debate, candidates do not have time to consult staff on answers; they need to react in the moment and give genuine responses.”

Lindstrom’s campaign, in a statement, said he has “always prioritized debates and forums.” 

Thibodeau, in a statement Thursday, said Pillen is “afraid.”

“The real story is simple: Jim Pillen will not debate because he fears Nebraska voters,” she said. “Pillen knows that he is an unqualified candidate with a minimal understanding of fundamental issues.” 

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Aaron Sanderford
Aaron Sanderford

Political reporter Aaron Sanderford has tackled various news roles in his 20-plus year career. He has reported on politics, crime, courts, government and business for the Omaha World-Herald and Lincoln Journal-Star. He also spent several years as an assignment editor and worked two stints as an editorial writer. From 2005 to 2007, he served as communications director for then-Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman. Aaron most recently was the lead investigative reporter for KMTV 3 in Omaha, focusing on holding public officials accountable. His work has received awards from the Associated Press, Great Plains Journalism and more.