Nebraska Republicans rally for ‘unity’ as party shows cracks heading into fall

Protest vote expresses frustration with ‘political establishment’

By: - May 11, 2022 3:44 pm

Nebraska Republican Party chairman Dan Welch speaks during a “unity rally” Wednesday in Lincoln. To the right are 1st District Mike Flood, Gov. Pete Ricketts and GOP gubernatorial nominee Jim Pillen. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — Nebraska’s Republicans upheld their tradition Wednesday of hosting a “unity rally” the day after GOP candidates compete in contested primary elections.

Charles Herbster, the second-place finisher Tuesday in the gubernatorial race, attended, as did Theresa Thibodeau, Herbster’s former running mate, who finished fourth in the governor’s primary. 

Thibodeau and several others who lost primary elections Tuesday attended the rally to show that they back the winning candidates, including University of Nebraska Regent Jim Pillen, the GOP nominee for governor.

Herbster, in a statement from his campaign later Wednesday, clarified that he was withholding any endorsement in the governor’s race until he has resolved a lawsuit against State. Sen. Julie Slama, one of eight women who alleged in an April 14 Nebraska Examiner article that Herbster groped them. He sued her for defamation and denied wrongdoing.

She counter-sued him for sexual battery.

His campaign in a statement said: “Charles is going to continue pursuing all legal avenues until his name is cleared. The lawsuit was never about the governors race, but about returning honor to Mr. Herbster’s reputation. He will not endorse any gubernatorial candidate until that time.”

Nebraska GOP gubernatorial nominee Jim Pillen speaks during the Nebraska Republican Party’s “unity rally” Wednesday in Lincoln. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)


State Sen. Brett Lindstrom, who finished third in the governor’s primary race, didn’t attend the rally, although he endorsed Pillen during his concession speech Tuesday night. 

“I think that what’s important today is that we think about tomorrow,” Pillen said Wednesday. “I will work to earn the rest of Republicans’ votes, eyeball to eyeball, across this state.” 

Divisions within the state’s dominant political party remain, however, and must be repaired, Herbster said during his concession speech Tuesday night. He did not speak during the rally Wednesday.

GOP incumbents faced stiffer-than-usual protest votes on Tuesday, including many from voters who lodged complaints online about the state’s “political establishment.” 

Nebraska Secretary of State Bob Evnen, who is running for re-election, received 94,566 votes Tuesday, winning over two primary challengers. But those challengers, Robert Borer and Rex Schroder, drew a combined 122,239 votes.

Former Nebraska GOP gubernatorial candidate Charles Herbster speaks to people before attending a “unity rally” held by the Nebraska Republican Party on Wednesday in Lincoln. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

State Treasurer John Murante, seeking re-election, saw perennial candidate Paul Anderson pick up 43% of the GOP primary vote. 

Even Lt. Gov. Mike Foley, running for state auditor, watched a nominal opponent, Larry Anderson, get 27% of the vote Tuesday.

“It’s unity in name only,” Nebraska Democratic Party chairwoman Jane Kleeb said Wednesday by phone. “The Republicans are fractured and divided.”

Tuesday’s protest vote was less pronounced in the three U.S. House races. Second District Rep. Don Bacon earned 77% of the primary vote against upstart Steve Kuehl, even after former President Donald Trump targeted the congressman during a rally for Herbster. 

State Sen. Mike Flood, who won the GOP nomination in Nebraska’s 1st Congressional District, rallied Republicans around a goal of firing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

“This morning we are standing together united as one Republican team,” Flood said. “We are all on the same team. … We are working to make sure conservative GOP values are represented in Washington.”

Republican State Sen. Mike Flood claims victory Tuesday in the GOP primary race to represent Nebraska’s 1st Congressional District. Flood is vying to replace former U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, who resigned in March after being convicted of three felonies. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

Flood criticized his general election opponent, Democratic State Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks, as a supporter of abortion on demand and said that anti-abortion Nebraskans will make their voices heard.

Flood and Pansing Brooks will face off in a June 28 special election to replace former Rep. Jeff Fortenberry for the remainder of 2022. Fortenberry resigned in March after being convicted of three felonies. Flood and Pansing Brooks will also be on the November ballot to determine who represents the district in the next term.

Patty Pansing Brooks
State Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln is running for Congress in the 1st Congressional District (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

“The stakes in this race are as high as they have ever been for women’s reproductive health,” Pansing Brooks said in a statement. “My GOP opponent co-sponsored legislation this year that would force raped children and incest victims to go to term. I will lead in Congress to combat the Supreme Court’s rollback to the dark ages and protect all women’s bodily autonomy.” 

Gov. Pete Ricketts, a Pillen supporter, help to fund millions of dollars worth of negative outside ads against Herbster and Lindstrom, turning off some GOP voters. On Wednesday, Ricketts tried to re-focus Republicans on defeating Democrats.

Primaries, the governor said at the unity rally, strengthen “our conservative cause” and make candidates better. 

“We have to remember that our primary goal is to beat the Democrats in November,” he said.

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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.

Nebraska Examiner is part of States Newsroom, the nation’s largest state-focused nonprofit news organization.