Former State Sen. Theresa Thibodeau, a Republican from Omaha, is campaigning for governor of Nebraska. (Courtesy of Thibodeau for Governor)
OMAHA — A former running mate, a former political mentor and more than a dozen former campaign staffers who helped get Charles Herbster’s Nebraska governor’s race off the ground no longer stand by his side.
Herbster, the CEO of Conklin Co., still holds the endorsement of President Donald Trump, which might be enough to get him across the finish line in a rock-ribbed Republican state.
But why have a number of Nebraska Republicans who know Herbster and his campaign best left his team? The Nebraska Examiner has spent the past several weeks asking that question.
Several, including former running mate Theresa Thibodeau, who is now running against Herbster for the Republican nomination, pointed to Herbster’s lack of interest in learning about state issues and his obsession with national politics.
One example: Herbster recently proposed publicly that Nebraska should consider adopting a college savings plan. The State of Nebraska has had college savings plans since the mid-1990s.
“He has no clue how Nebraska works,” Thibodeau told the Examiner. “The reason I stayed on longer than I should have is because I thought, ‘Holy cow!’ … Somebody’s going to have to figure out how to not have our state going to shambles.”
Heineman, Herbster weigh in
Former Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman, who served on the Conklin board and mentored Herbster politically before parting ways for “personal reasons,” acknowledged having heard similar concerns.
Heineman has stayed neutral to date in this year’s GOP primary race for governor. But he said he understands how it looks that he mulled a run of his own for the seat, after working with Herbster from 2015 to 2021.
“Part of the reason I think people were asking me to consider it was they didn’t know the candidates, and they were concerned that the top two didn’t have the state government experience to be an effective governor,” Heineman said.
Herbster’s campaign said those criticisms and others reflect that he’s an outsider running a campaign that Nebraska’s political establishment doesn’t like.
“Charles is not a career politician, and he is not running an establishment campaign like many had wanted,” the statement said. “Most who demanded a more traditional establishment campaign are no longer on the team, and we have moved on.
“We must be doing something right with voters, because Charles is the frontrunner to be the next Governor of Nebraska.”
Ex-staffers speak up
Several people once close to Herbster started criticizing him more as polling showed his lead narrowing in the GOP primary race with University of Nebraska Regent Jim Pillen and State Sen. Brett Lindstrom.
Thibodeau and a number of former staffers expressed frustrations about Herbster spending so much time out of state. They criticized him for campaigning in Nebraska only a handful of days each month until March, an assessment that was confirmed by internal campaign schedules obtained by the Examiner.
Herbster’s emphasis on TV ads and endorsements is testing the axiom that Republicans in Nebraska’s massive, largely rural 3rd Congressional District want to see candidates and size them up in person.
Herbster has spent $3.2 million on TV ads to date, a POLITICO reporter shared on Twitter Sunday. Pillen has spent $2.16 million. Lindstrom has spent $852,000. Both Pillen and Lindstrom have spent more than twice as much time as Herbster campaigning in Nebraska, based on information from the campaigns.
“He was never there,” one former staffer said. “We couldn’t get him to campaign. They spaced out the (social media) posts to make it look like he was campaigning, but they were from the times when he bothered to step foot back in the state.”
Several former Herbster and Conklin staffers contacted for this story declined to comment, citing nondisclosure agreements. Others spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid being sued.
‘A traveling salesman’
Former staffers’ most common Herbster criticism: They describe Herbster as a “traveling salesman” who will tell any person he is speaking with what he thinks that person wants to hear.
“His political philosophy and his beliefs are not rooted in any belief system,” another former staffer said. “There was never any political foundation on key issues.”
They shared the example of tax policy. When Herbster entered the race in April 2021, his campaign website highlighted his support for a new consumption tax to help replace or offset property taxes.
Herbster has since backed off direct support for any specific tax plan and said he wants to explore tax relief in all of its forms — income tax relief, property tax relief, a possible consumption tax and perhaps even an EPIC consumption tax.
A common theme of staff discussions was Herbster’s willingness to hire Nebraska consultants to advise him on Nebraska issues and then disregard them when the answers were hard to hear.
“It was his way or the highway,” a third former staffer said. “He brought in all these Nebraskans for advice on how to win, and he listened to none of them. He followed the nationals (national political consultants), and he yelled at all of us in front of people.”
Thibodeau, when asked why she decided to come forward now and not when she quit Herbster’s campaign, said she was not criticizing Herbster to benefit her bid, which is polling at a distant fourth.
She said she couldn’t wait any longer because Herbster has a chance to win the primary race, and she wants Nebraska Republicans to know what they’d be getting: a “non-existent, figurehead governor.”
Thibodeau and several former staffers said Herbster wouldn’t be interested in or capable of running state government. Thibodeau, a former state senator, said Nebraskans who care about Trump and “America First” policies should know that Herbster doesn’t know enough about how to get proposals passed in the Legislature.
Gov. Pete Ricketts, who opposes Herbster, has allies among about a third of state senators, she said. Democrats control another quarter, and the remainder are more centrist than Herbster.
“He will get eaten alive,” Thibodeau said.
Herbster is now following Ricketts’ example by ramping up his donations to individual legislators. He has been a prolific donor to Republican causes nationally and in Nebraska, including donating millions to Trump’s campaigns and to former State Sen. Beau McCoy’s 2014 run for governor.
Heineman, when asked whether he thought Herbster would make a good governor, said that decision was not his to make.
“I don’t know that anybody can answer that, and I’m not really going to try,” he said. “That’s up to each individual voter in Nebraska.”
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