Lindstrom has shot in governor’s race, but is he conservative enough for Nebraska GOP voters?
Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert endorses State Sen. Brett Lindstrom in the Republican primary race for governor. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)
OMAHA — Two new pieces of campaign mail being sent to Nebraska Republicans say a top GOP candidate for governor is an “Omaha Liberal” and a “Liberal in Disguise.”
This direct mail targets State Sen. Brett Lindstrom, originally a long-shot candidate who has emerged with a chance to secure the nomination.
The Omaha financial adviser is in a tight, three-way primary race with University of Nebraska Regent Jim Pillen and Conklin Co. CEO Charles Herbster.
As Nebraska’s May 10 Republican primary campaign rounds into its final weeks, Lindstrom is taking fire from groups tied to his top competitors.
One of last week’s anti-Lindstrom mailers was sent by the Herbster campaign, and the other was distributed by Conservative Nebraska, a group funded partly by Gov. Pete Ricketts, a Pillen supporter.
Negative mail aims to push people away from backing a candidate, said Kevin Smith, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
“It doesn’t necessarily get a voter to vote for someone,” Smith said. “The object is to make them think twice about voting for someone else.”
Lindstrom’s campaign said Friday that the latest attacks show he’s got momentum in the race. The campaign’s polling shows an upward tick.
A Lindstrom spokesman says the candidate has run a positive campaign, emphasizing his efforts to cut income and Social Security taxes. He also helped pass property tax relief.
“I think the tax record — over $1 billion in tax cuts — is pretty cut and dried,” Lindstrom spokesman Pat Trueman said. “That’s anybody’s definition of conservative.”
Lindstrom received an A rating from the National Rifle Association and has staked out an anti-abortion stance with no exceptions.
But the senator’s opponents, including Ricketts, question whether Lindstrom is conservative enough for Nebraska Republicans.
His critics point most often to one of four issues from Lindstrom’s eight years in the Nebraska Legislature:
- In 2015, Lindstrom supported an effort during a tight budget year to bracket, or kill, a voter ID bill. Lindstrom has argued that the $1 million cost of implementing that bill was too high at the time for the state. He has since backed voter ID bills, including State Sen. Julie Slama’s constitutional amendment proposal this year to implement voter ID.
- Also in 2015, Lindstrom voted to repeal the death penalty and to override Ricketts’ veto of the repeal. Lindstrom has argued that his votes show that he is consistently pro-life, with no exceptions. That includes people on death row. He has said that, if elected governor, he would carry out the will of Nebraskans who voted in 2016 to reinstate the death penalty.
- Lindstrom’s support in 2015 for a six-cent gas tax increase has been targeted in dark money TV ads. He has said the money was needed to fix aging parts of Interstate 80 and help parts of rural Nebraska catch up with backlogs of road and bridge repairs and resurfacing. Lindstrom also voted to override a Ricketts veto of the six-cent increase.
- In 2016, he voted to allow young people brought to the U.S. illegally as children to apply for professional licenses, including as a hairstylist, teacher or accountant. Critics cast this as providing a state benefit for people living here illegally. Lindstrom has said DACA recipients were then in the country legally, had grown up in the state and could fill Nebraska jobs.
Another point of contention with Lindstrom’s GOP critics: He has earned support from centrist Democrats and Republicans.
He has been endorsed by former Rep. Brad Ashford, who recently died, and by former State Sen. Bob Krist. Both were former Republicans who switched to the Democratic Party. Krist ran unsuccessfully for governor as a Democrat in 2018 and recently switched back to the GOP to vote for Lindstrom in the May primary.
One GOP Facebook group buzzed recently about a photo of State Sen. John McCollister, a centrist Republican, wearing a Lindstrom sticker.
Herbster, in a fundraising email Friday, blamed Lindstrom for Democrats switching parties to vote in the GOP primary race. Nearly 2,000 Democrats re-registered as Republicans in March.
Ricketts, asked for a comment Saturday, said in a statement: “Brett Lindstrom raised the gas tax 23%, opposed voter ID, gave taxpayer benefits to illegal immigrants, repealed the death penalty, and even tried to gut the Property Tax Credit Relief Fund. It’s no wonder Democrats are supporting Lindstrom — his liberal record speaks for itself.”
The Pillen and Herbster campaigns did not return calls seeking comment for this article.
Political observers say Lindstrom’s competitors were bound to turn on him if he became more competitive in the race.
Lindstrom stayed under the radar while Herbster and Pillen beat each other up, said Randall Adkins, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
All three candidates have now been the target of negative TV ads. Those sponsoring the ads are trying to influence undecided voters, Adkins said. “They’re trying to level the playing field.”
Direct mail is less effective than door-to-door canvassing, Adkins said. People read the mail for seconds, he said, often while throwing it away.
“That’s why campaigns try to grab attention with a barbed headline or a picture,” Adkins said.
One example: Last week’s mailer from Herbster featured a photograph of Lindstrom that made the Omaha senator look like Groucho Marx.
“Is Lindstrom conservative? Yes, yes he is. Is Lindstrom some sort of undercover liberal from Omaha? No,” said Smith, the UNL political science professor.
Said Adkins: “It’s just knock-down drag-out Republican politics in Nebraska. The stakes are big here. Everybody knows it.”
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