Nebraska Republican gubernatorial candidates, from left, Charles Herbster, Brett Lindstrom and Jim Pillen, at a candidate forum in Lincoln. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)
WAHOO, Nebraska — Most of the hay is in the barn by this point in Nebraska’s Republican gubernatorial primary, after months of campaign stops, ads, endorsements and noise.
Polling shows a race that could go any of three ways, said Logan Phillips, the national political analyst whose RacetotheWH.com correctly predicted the GOP’s U.S. Senate primary in Ohio.
His model shows a dead heat at the top between Conklin Co. CEO Charles Herbster and University of Nebraska Regent Jim Pillen. It gives State Sen. Brett Lindstrom a solid chance to win, too.
“My model has this race as what might be the most competitive race I have information on,” Phillips said. “Trump’s influence has been less than I expected.”
RacetotheWH.com gives Herbster a 44% chance of winning, Pillen a 42% chance of winning, and Lindstrom a 14% chance. Phillips projects that all three candidates will secure between 20% and 30% of the vote.
Phillips bases his projections on who wins most often out of 10,000 simulations. He factors in polling, fundraising, endorsements, election experience and Google searches in the race’s last week.
Most polling shows only those three within range of winning the primary among nine GOP candidates in the race. The next closest to the top three is former State Sen. Theresa Thibodeau, whom Phillips’ model gives a 0.2% chance to win. The winner of Tuesday’s primary will likely face State Sen. Carol Blood, who faces only a nominal primary challenge.
Each of the primary race’s three contenders spent the race’s final days hammering home themes from their campaigns.
Herbster has spent the last few days hosting rallies in person or by phone where he speaks about national issues like immigration and re-litigating the 2020 election for former President Donald Trump, who endorsed him and held a rally.
When he speaks about Nebraska issues, he speaks about the need for tax reform in Nebraska, though he offers few specifics on what he’d like to change.
“The fact that we brag about the fact that we’re the only state in the United States that has a one-house Legislature, and we’re proud of that,” Herbster said at a Wahoo stop last week. “That’s like bragging about the 1967 tax law and how it’s great today.”
He has run as a political outsider, but spent much of his campaign touting ties to national GOP insiders and has been joined at rallies in the final weeks by Trump, Trump economist Stephen Moore and embattled U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida.
Herbster calls the groping allegations of eight women against him “fake news,” and has said he would ban sex education in K-12 schools. He says some textbooks should be burned.
The race’s best-known candidate, University of Nebraska Regent Jim Pillen, may have fumbled an early name ID advantage from his Husker playing days by not matching Herbster’s first TV ad purchases.
Pillen campaigned in small groups across the state, holding more than 400 meetings with voters in Nebraska’s 93 counties, including 30 with the Nebraska Farm Bureau.
The hog producer avoided traditional debates, preferring candidate forums. Pillen has proposed capping school spending growth so state property tax relief funds make a bigger dent.
The education part of Pillen’s playbook emphasizes the need to steer more K-12 students toward internships, apprenticeships and training in the trades beyond the college path.
He has spent the race’s final days calling voters and preparing for a final campaign swing with key supporters Gov. Pete Ricketts, former Gov. Kay Orr and his coach at Nebraska, Tom Osborne.
“I’m running for governor to keep our kids here with great opportunities, cut taxes, defend agriculture, strengthen our rural communities, end abortion and critical race theory, and preserve our conservative values,” Pillen said in a statement Sunday.
The race’s upstart contender, State Sen. Brett Lindstrom, has taken a beating in the race’s final stretch from outside ads after gaining momentum for running a positive campaign.
At last count, outside groups tied to Ricketts and others had run more than $1.6 million in negative ads against Lindstrom. Lindstrom raised a total of $2.52 million for his bid.
Some conservatives have questioned Lindstrom’s 2015 vote to repeal the death penalty, which voters restored by initiative petition and he now says he would enforce as governor, as well as his vote to boost roads funding with an increase in the gas tax.
Lindstrom, a financial adviser, spent much of the spring in session. Senators passed Nebraska’s largest tax cut, including accelerating his income tax cut on Social Security payments.
“The momentum is real,” Lindstrom said during an Omaha fundraiser with a key supporter, Mayor Jean Stothert. “They’ve been doubling down, tripling down, quadrupling down, which is a positive sign. So we’re going to continue to stay positive.”
The race’s biggest wildcard could be what more than 8,000 party switchers do. The Nebraska Democratic Party lost 5,625 voters over the same span. And nonpartisans lost 2,631.
Two nonpartisans who spoke to the Nebraska Examiner at Herbster’s Trump rally said they might vote for Herbster. Voters had until May 2 to change their registration for the primary. Others said they switched to vote for Lindstrom or Pillen.
“I certainly think that’s a major wildcard,” said Paul Landow, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha with experience in campaigns. “It’s unusual, and it’s unclear how it will affect the race. But it almost certainly will.”
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