Herbster goes off script in governor debate; Lindstrom stays on; Thibodeau attacks

Event was first, possibly only debate, in Nebraska GOP primary race

By: - March 24, 2022 10:54 pm

Nebraska governor candidates debate at Nebraska Public Media on east campus of University of Nebraska-Lincoln. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — Four Republicans running to be Nebraska’s next governor stood on a soundstage Thursday and answered questions from reporters for an hour on live television statewide.

That they did so is rarely news. But Thursday’s event, hosted by Nebraska Public Media, was the first and perhaps only debate of this GOP primary race. And University of Nebraska Regent Jim Pillen, one of the top three candidates, has refused to participate in any debates before the May 10 primary election.

Political observers told the Nebraska Examiner they wanted to see how the race’s early frontrunner, Conklin Co. CEO Charles Herbster, handled unavoidable questions, with cameras on.

On prisons and criminal justice reform, Herbster highlighted the need for better mental health care in Nebraska. He said nonviolent criminals need a path back to work. He also discussed building Nebraska’s next prison in a major city. 

On taxes, Herbster said he’d explore all options. 

Unusual answer

Herbster also stood by the evening’s most unusual answer: He said, without offering evidence, that China planned the COVID-19 pandemic to get rid of President Donald Trump. 

Asked to explain after the debate, Herbster shared a debunked conspiracy theory about the virus being designed by China to force global political change.

“This is a planned pandemic,” Herbster said. “It was planned all along. I’ve said that from day one, and it was planned to be a part of taking America down and dividing America.”

Health experts and fact-finding organizations such as FactCheck.org have debunked similar statements as false. Public health experts still disagree about whether the virus was naturally occurring or manmade, but no mainstream sources allege it was intentional. Most agree the virus was first observed in China. 

Herbster said during the debate that he would help Nebraska’s farmers and ranchers protect agriculture, in part, by not allowing foreign nationals to buy farmland in Nebraska.

His top opponents on stage Thursday, State Sen. Brett Lindstrom of Omaha and former Sen. Theresa Thibodeau, also of Omaha, said the law wouldn’t allow Herbster to do as he proposed. 

“No,” Lindstrom said. “That is not possible.”

‘Or you’re lying’

Thibodeau, who was Herbster’s running mate and is now running against him, said the U.S. Constitution would not allow a ban.

“If you are going around saying that you’re pro-Constitution, and then in the next sentence, you say you’re going to restrain somebody from buying land, then either you don’t know what you’re talking about or you’re lying,” she said in a follow-up interview. 

Herbster, asked after the debate how he would accomplish his pledge on land ownership, offered no specifics.

“I’m going to figure that out,” he said. 

Lindstrom, who has staked his campaign on running a positive race, focused on the future. He avoided attacking his peers and emphasized his efforts to cut taxes, including state taxes on Social Security payments. He has proposed a bill this year to cut them faster. 

Nebraska needs to focus on recruiting and retaining young people, Lindstrom said, including investing in education and amenities.

But he pegged that message to taxes, as well, saying he’d like to raise the amount of income taxed in Nebraska to $50,000 for an individual filer and to $100,000 for a family.

“I want to get closer to an income tax of zero percent,” Lindstrom said. “I think that will encourage people, from a tax standpoint, to come here.”

Sharpest swipe

Thibodeau, who has polled a distant fourth behind Herbster, Pillen and Lindstrom, took the evening’s sharpest swipes at her opponents. 

She said Herbster didn’t know what he was talking about and won’t locate his largest business in Nebraska.

And she said Lindstrom calls himself a tax cutter but voted for a significant gas tax increase that families feel at the pump.

“What (voters) need to know is actually what the current frontrunners are going to do and how they’re going to interact with Nebraskans,” Thibodeau said. “One won’t show up to tell them, and the other one shows up and talks about country issues. So how are Nebraskans actually going to be able to make a good decision?”

On water and agriculture, the candidates largely agreed on the need to spend money in Colorado and across Nebraska to protect Nebraska’s water supplies. Each also pledged to help smaller local meat-processing plants grow and to fight larger packers.

On pandemic planning, all four candidates said they would fight future federal and state mandates on masks and vaccines.

All walks of life

On inclusivity, all four candidates, including tech entrepreneur Breeland Ridenour, said they would listen to Nebraskans from all walks of life and would serve all Nebraskans.

In their answers to a question about working with marginalized groups, candidates criticized Nebraska Tourism’s controversial slogan, “Nebraska. Honestly, it’s not for everyone.” 

Herbster, whose campaign has attacked Pillen on TV ads, said, “There is no room for us to criticize and condemn and attack others, because we were all created in God’s own image.”

Pillen’s campaign issued a statement criticizing the other candidates for participating in debates moderated by the “liberal media.” It said he hosted a telephone town hall.

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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.