Where Herbster stumbled and how Pillen won Nebraska’s GOP gubernatorial primary

Trump wasn’t enough for Herbster to beat the NU regent

By: - May 13, 2022 5:45 am

Jim Pillen addresses his supporters at Embassy Suites in Lincoln after winning the Republican nomination for Nebraska governor. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

OMAHA — Nebraska’s GOP primary voters handed former President Donald Trump his first loss of 2022 when they chose Jim Pillen over Trump’s pick for governor, Charles Herbster.

The former president acknowledged Nebraska’s primary race result Wednesday, posting on Truth Social: “58-1. Charles W. Herbster came VERY close despite tremendous headwinds!”

But answering why Herbster lost, and how Pillen won, is more complex than the national narrative questioning whether Trump’s hold on Republican politics might be waning. Following are observations and analysis based on interviews with political scientists and reporting from the campaign trail.

Three things Herbster did wrong

Nebraska gubernatorial candidate Charles Herbster gives an interview to One America News Network before former President Donald Trump’s rally in Greenwood, Nebraska. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

First, Herbster spent less time on the campaign trail than either of his top competitors, Pillen and State Sen. Brett Lindstrom. Herbster instead was the first candidate to run TV ads.

Herbster campaigned in person only a handful of days each month until March, based on internal campaign schedules and other information confirmed with former Herbster campaign staffers. In at least a third of Nebraska’s counties, no record shows Herbster attending a campaign event during this cycle. 

Being there matters in rural Nebraska. In the sprawling 3rd Congressional District, voters prefer meeting candidates face to face. Third District voters made up 47% of the GOP’s vote for governor this year, and Pillen won the district.

Second, the Conklin Co. CEO tried to nationalize the governor’s race, focusing on the Trump endorsement and talking about national issues, including repeating Trump’s claim that the 2020 election was rigged. He emphasized critical race theory, the government’s pandemic response and illegal immigration.

Herbster rarely articulated a clear plan for Nebraska, other than saying he wanted to help market the state.

Critics said he told different audiences what he thought they wanted to hear. On taxes, for example, he expressed support for a consumption tax to offset property taxes with some rural audiences. He told some urban audiences he preferred an “all-of-the-above” approach, including income tax cuts. 

Third, with his TV ads, Herbster waited too long to define himself in a positive light and spent more time criticizing Pillen, his top opponent, political observers said. 

Nebraskans often recoil from negative ads when they are easily tied to a particular candidate running them, said Paul Landow, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Herbster also ran an ad attacking State Sen. Julie Slama, who has accused Herbster of groping her at a political dinner in 2019. He has denied any wrongdoing and has sued her. She responded by counter-suing him.

He spent much of his ad time defending himself for making late property tax payments, for owning businesses and homes outside Nebraska, for groping allegations made by eight women, including Slama, and for suggesting eliminating sales tax exemptions. In other words, Herbster spent a lot of time pushing back against criticism, said John Hibbing, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Herbster was more positive and less of a flame-thrower on the stump until the race’s final weeks, when he struck a more aggressive tone, alleging conspiracies against his candidacy

“I think Nebraskans in general are pretty fair-minded people, and I think that in the case of Herbster, they were easily able to separate the bull [expletive deleted] from the reality,” Landow said of voters. “They act as referees in these kinds of contests, and here they saw a foul, and they blew the whistle.”

Three things Pillen did right

First, Pillen spent the bulk of his campaign on the road. The Columbus-area hog producer and University of Nebraska regent made more than 400 in-person appearances, reaching all 93 Nebraska counties. 

He campaigned often in small-group settings, at restaurants, community centers and churches. He made 30 appearances with the Nebraska Farm Bureau, which endorsed him. He had additional help from Americans for Prosperity.

Jim Pillen, a Nebraska GOP gubernatorial candidate, speaks during a town hall forum hosted by his campaign and the Nebraska Farm Bureau at Pals Brewing Co. in North Platte, Nebraska. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

Pillen focused attention on the state’s second- and third-tier cities, including North Platte, Beatrice and Fremont. That type of approach has helped candidates win before in close GOP primaries, Hibbing said. The results showed in a geographic analysis done by Nebraska Public Media.

Second, Pillen took advantage of his access to the statewide network of contacts, volunteers and campaign staff tied to Gov. Pete Ricketts and other supporters in the Nebraska political establishment. 

They helped Pillen notch a win in Lancaster County, home to NU’s main campus, despite the candidate criticizing the university. 

Third, Pillen campaigned as a hard-core conservative. His views on issues echoed many of Herbster’s political stands, including opposing critical race theory and illegal immigration. On abortion, Pillen said he wanted to outlaw it in Nebraska. 

Observers said early on that it looked like Pillen was crowding a lane already occupied by Herbster, but without Trump’s endorsement. The strategy ended up proving smart, Hibbing said.

Pillen offered a safe harbor to conservative voters who liked Herbster’s confrontational style, but with less drama when scandals kept hitting Herbster near the end of the race.

“Nebraskans are pretty big on Trump’s policy positions,” Hibbing said. “If they can get that without all the drama, then why not?”

Said Landow: “Pillen appeared to be as conservative as Herbster, but a nice-guy alternative.”

Three outside factors

First, outside money played an outsized role in the race. Ricketts and other donors spent nearly $3 million on third-party TV ads that attacked Herbster and Lindstrom. That let Pillen focus ads on his own message, rather than spending advertising time criticizing an opponent. 

State Sen. Brett Lindstrom speaks with a potential donor during a fundraiser in Omaha. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

Lindstrom gained momentum until he faced about $1.7 million in attack ads. He couldn’t afford to push back to defend attacks on his legislative voting record.

Herbster faced about $1.2 million in negative outside TV ads. They reinforced concerns about Herbster enough that he had to spend advertising money and time defending himself.

All told, Herbster spent about $12 million on the primary, including more than $11 million of his money. Pillen spent more than $8 million, mostly from donors. Lindstrom spent $2.6 million.

Second, one of the most unusual outside factors in the race: the sheer number of fires Herbster had to fight during the race.

He paid his property taxes late nearly 600 times over more than two decades, which became the subject of negative ads.

He was dogged with questions about whether his primary residence was in Nebraska or Missouri. Ricketts and others criticized him for operating his largest business, Conklin Co., out of state, in Missouri and Minnesota.

At Trump’s urging, as Politico reported, Herbster and his campaign team reacted so aggressively to the women’s groping allegations that he kept the story alive for most of the final month.

The allegations led all 13 women in the Nebraska Legislature to call on Herbster to quit the race. Several of them created a fund to pay the legal costs of people making credible allegations against him. 

Former State Sen. Theresa Thibodeau, a Republican from Omaha, is campaigning for governor of Nebraska. (Courtesy of Thibodeau for Governor)

Herbster also was dealing with Theresa Thibodeau, who quit the campaign as his running mate and later criticized him as being poorly prepared to run for office. She stood up for the women accusing Herbster of groping. Thibodeau finished ahead of Lindstrom in Dundy, Hayes, Loup, McPherson, Perkins and Valley Counties, rural areas where Herbster needed votes.

“There were all these brush fires that were significant but, taken one at a time, could possibly have been handled,” Landow said. “But when they all blew up together, you ended up with a major forest fire that was impossible to fight.”

The race’s third outside factor of note was Trump’s endorsement, which propelled Herbster into frontrunner position in October.

Trump visited Nebraska late in the race and held a telephone town hall for Herbster. Several of Trump’s former lieutenants, including Kellyanne Conway, Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie, worked for or with Herbster’s campaign. 

Some political observers questioned whether Trump endorsed Herbster too soon in what was sure to be a competitive open primary. Herbster spent months advertising that he was Trump’s favored candidate.

Other results

Visit the Nebraska Secretary of State’s Office for results on this and several other races from Tuesday’s primary election.

That left little room for the big bounce Trump has given other candidates in competitive GOP races by endorsing later in the election cycle, including the U.S. Senate primary in Ohio. 

Hibbing said the Trump endorsement was important no matter when it came. Part of Herbster’s problem, he said, is that it appears “he thought that was all he needed.” 

Said Landow: “I think that Trump’s endorsement was really important for Herbster, but it wasn’t enough. The forest fire overtook him, and even Trump couldn’t put it out.”

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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 spent several years as an assignment editor and worked two stints as an editorial writer. From 2005 to 2007, he served as communications director for then-Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman. Aaron most recently was the lead investigative reporter for KMTV 3 in Omaha, focusing on holding public officials accountable. His work has received awards from the Associated Press, Great Plains Journalism and more.

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