Herbster targets groping accuser Slama in paid campaign TV ad, perhaps a first in Nebraska

Advocates say his lawsuit and ad could chill women coming forward in other cases

By: - April 28, 2022 5:45 am

Herbster ad screen shot

OMAHA — Nebraska GOP gubernatorial candidate Charles Herbster is using a paid campaign TV ad to attack the Republican state senator who has sued him for sexual battery.

Slama was one of eight women who told the Nebraska Examiner that Herbster had groped them at political events and beauty pageants at some point during the last six years. All of the women’s accounts were corroborated by witnesses or people the women spoke to immediately afterward. Slama was the only one of the eight women who spoke on the record.

Charles Herbster (Courtesy of Charles Herbster for Governor)

Herbster sued Slama Friday for defamation. His lawsuit asserts that he is the victim of a “politically motivated and groundless attack” and that Herbster seeks to “defend his reputation and good name.”

Slama filed a countersuit on Monday. Her attorneys called Herbster’s action a “frivolous and bad faith attempt to bully a sexual assault victim into silence.”

State Sen. Julie Slama
State Sen. Julie Slama of Sterling debates on the floor of the Nebraska Legislature.
(Courtesy of Unicameral Information Office)

Candidates under fire often defend themselves by questioning an accuser’s credibility, said Dona-Gene Barton, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

They typically do so at news conferences, in interviews and on talk radio, she said. They also turn to social media and surrogates, said Barton, who studies how politicians respond to crises.

“We live in a world where facts often mean very little in voters’ minds,” Barton said. “Campaigns with enough money can spin the narrative. It doesn’t matter so much what the facts are. It matters how you spin the narrative.”

Barton said candidates have learned to confront serious allegations head-on. They would rather spin the response in their own words than have the news media or other campaigns do it, she said.

Herbster is defending himself on multiple fronts this way, she said. She pointed to a recent ad in which he looks at the camera and gives an explanation for being late nearly 600 times in paying his property taxes.

The new Herbster ad marks an unusual moment in local politics. One longtime political observer said he had never seen a Nebraska candidate attack an alleged victim in a paid TV ad.

“Politicians often attack each other, but that’s not what this is doing,” said Paul Landow, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “This is attacking the victim of a serious crime alleged to have been committed by the politician paying for the ad.”

The risk of this approach, Landow said, is that it could hurt Herbster with women, even as it excites some parts of his political base that want him to fight.

Herbster’s new ad hit days before he is to be a featured speaker at a Save America Rally in Greenwood, Nebraska, on Friday with former President Donald Trump, who endorsed him in October. 

Herbster has previously compared himself to Trump and to Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh, all of whom faced accusations of impropriety from women. The new ad does not mention Trump, but it does begin by picturing Thomas and Kavanaugh.

The narrator says “lies” were stacked up to “ruin” both Republican nominees to the Supreme Court. Both justices were confirmed by the Senate after contentious confirmation hearings.

A screen shot of Herbster’s ad.

The ad shows images of GOP gubernatorial candidate Jim Pillen and Gov. Pete Ricketts, saying they are responsible for the allegations against Herbster. Ricketts and Pillen have said they are not involved in any conspiracy.

The ad does not name Slama but talks about Herbster’s “accuser” and mentions connections between Slama and Ricketts. The ad questions why Herbster’s accuser called, texted and met with him after “the supposed incident.” 

Experts, including Christon MacTaggart of the Nebraska Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence, have said such follow-up contact with an alleged abuser is “incredibly common.” Victims, she said, often have trouble processing what has happened to them. Some want to just move on.

The ad also mentions Herbster getting an online invitation to Slama’s wedding. Slama has said that was a mistake and said she wasn’t aware of it until Herbster RSVP’d. 

One of Slama’s lawyers, Dave Lopez, said Tuesday that what happened to Slama was real, and not part of some “wild conspiracy.” Lopez said Slama would hold Herbster accountable for the ad, which he described as slanderous and defamatory. 

“Charles Herbster is solely responsible for the harm he inflicted against Senator Slama, and he will answer for it in court,” Lopez said.

Herbster’s campaign declined to comment about the ad, which began running statewide on Tuesday, except to say it would continue to run.

Terri Poore, policy director of the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence, based in Washington, D.C., has worked with victims and advocacy groups for 30 years.

She said she has never seen a political ad like this one. The tone that political leaders take in responding to alleged sexual violence is key to preventing future sexual violence, Poore said. 

“We’ve been at this moment in this nation of really reckoning with sexual assault,” she said. “More and more survivors are willing to come forward. But this kind of rhetoric, this kind of language sets us back. 

“It tells survivors that their worst fears are true. … We have to speak about these issues in ways that encourage people to come forward.”

MacTaggart, the Nebraska advocate, said her organization has seen an increase in emails and calls from sexual assault survivors since the Examiner article was published April 14. Many have said they were experiencing trauma after seeing or hearing about the women’s allegations, the subsequent lawsuits and the new ad, she said.

Women for Herbster, a group of the candidate’s supporters who post often on Herbster’s campaign Facebook page, have posted pictures and testimonials in recent days defending Herbster.

They have shared his campaign’s message that Herbster hires and promotes women. Herbster’s campaign manager, Ellen Keast, and his national campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, have spoken out in his defense.

All the women serving in the Nebraska Legislature have come forward to defend Slama. State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan said Herbster crossed the line by suing Slama and then crossed it again by running this ad.

“It’s disgusting,” Linehan said. “It would be one thing if there was one victim here. There’s seven (more) victims. They’re all in their early 20s or late teens. He doesn’t go around to women in our age group, who would turn around and slap him.”

Victims of sexual violence can contact the Nebraska Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence to access a statewide network of service providers online, or by calling the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network’s survivor hotline toll-free at (800) 656-4673.

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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 worked as an assignment editor and editorial writer. He was an investigative reporter at KMTV.