Nebraska Freedom Festival loses key speaker after Charles Herbster pulls out

Herbster’s team blames ‘miscommunications’ in the event planning process

By: - August 26, 2022 5:28 pm

Nebraska GOP gubernatorial candidates Charles Herbster (left), Theresa Thibodeau (center) and State Sen. Brett Lindstrom (right), speak during an Omaha Chamber of Commerce and Industry forum Wednesday at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

OMAHA — A group aiming to amplify Nebraska’s populist right won’t get to show quite the level of Republican unity that its leaders hoped to convey at a Saturday event called the Second Annual Nebraska Freedom Festival.

The Nebraska Freedom Coalition, which is organizing the event, intended to have four of the top GOP candidates for governor speak at the event — although not Jim Pillen, who won the race. 

Nebraska Freedom Festival

When: Saturday. Gates open at 2 p.m. Speakers start at 4 p.m.

Where: Sarpy County Fairgrounds

Cost: $25 per adult, $20 for students, available here.

Speakers include: National conservative personalities Alex Stein, who posts videos of himself trolling Democrats on Capitol Hill and elsewhere; rapper Nick Nittoli; musician Bryson Gray; and Ali Alexander, who helped organize “Stop the Steal” rallies in the run-up to Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington, D.C., before the U.S. Capitol was stormed. 

Then on Thursday, Charles Herbster informed the group he wouldn’t be attending, either. Herbster, who finished second behind Pillen, is a longtime supporter of the Freedom Coalition, and the organization has been promoting Herbster’s appearance online for weeks. 

The Freedom Coalition membership is a blend of libertarian Republicans and people who want to more aggressively support former President Donald Trump. The group spent much of the GOP primary race touting Herbster, who had been endorsed by Trump. Members of the coalition helped oust Gov. Pete Ricketts’ team from the leadership of the Nebraska Republican Party.

Leaders of the coalition had criticized Pillen during the primary campaign but invited him to speak at their event. Pillen told the group weeks ago, however, that he would not be attending. The University of Nebraska regent’s campaign staff said Pillen had a scheduling conflict. 

A Herbster staffer reached Friday blamed “miscommunications in the planning process” for Herbster being unable to participate Saturday. Herbster had promoted the event on his Facebook page until Thursday, when the post was pulled.

The staffer declined to detail the miscommunications, saying he would not “discuss private conversations about the event planning and Charles’ participation.” He said Herbster looked forward to seeing his “Patriot friends” again soon.

“We wish them a safe event and great success,” said Rod Edwards, who is now overseeing a new political action committee, Nebraska First, which Herbster launched Thursday to boost conservative candidates.

Patrick Peterson, executive director of the Freedom Coalition, said that he was “disappointed that Charles can’t attend,” and that he was also disappointed with the timing of Herbster’s decision. 

Here is one of the online promotions the Nebraska Freedom Coalition has used to promote the Nebraska Freedom Festival. (Submitted photo)

Peterson declined to explain why Herbster told them he wasn’t attending, except to say that Herbster “couldn’t seem to give up the limelight for himself to help other candidates, especially those running down ballot.”

Peterson said the event was geared to help candidates in lower-profile races, including the State Board of Education, and school boards, county sheriffs and county boards in eastern Nebraska.

Peterson also just found out that State Sen. Brett Lindstrom, who finished third in the GOP governor’s race, won’t be speaking.

Lindstrom said he decided to attend the event because organizers asked him to show unity. 

He said he had told the group that his new private-sector job limits his ability to speak at political events. He said he was surprised to see that the festival schedule online listed him as a speaker. 

At least one of the four gubernatorial candidates is still on board to speak Saturday: Former State Sen. Theresa Thibodeau of Omaha, who finished fourth in the race. Thibodeau said she hopes people don’t see disunity in Herbster’s and Lindstrom’s decisions not to speak.

“Without knowing the details of why each person has pulled out of the event, I am disappointed that it has happened in the 11th hour,” she said. “Tomorrow’s event is a perfect time to showcase that all Republicans can come together as a united front to promote and support our conservative candidates.”

Thibodeau and Lindstrom both endorsed Pillen on Election Night. Herbster has not endorsed Pillen in the general election. 

Breland Ridenour, the other advertised speaker from among the gubernatorial candidates, did not immediately return a message left Friday asking whether he still intended to speak. He was still on the schedule the Freedom Coalition shared Friday morning, however.

Peterson said Friday afternoon that Ridenour confirmed that he would speak at the event. Ridenour finished fifth in the primary. 

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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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