Nebraska’s costliest governor’s race left wild numbers in its wake

Herbster, Pillen, Lindstrom drove spending into rare air

By: - February 6, 2023 5:00 am

(Getty Images)

OMAHA — The costliest election in Nebraska history is over, including a governor’s race with state-record spending in 2022 of $29 million, campaign finance reports show.

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Nebraska Republican gubernatorial candidates, from left, Charles Herbster, Brett Lindstrom and Jim Pillen, at a candidate forum in Lincoln. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

Even including the general election that University of Nebraska Regent Jim Pillen won over State Sen. Carol Blood, nobody spent more than the second-place finisher in the GOP primary.

Trump-endorsed agribusinessman Charles Herbster self-financed more than 99% of his primary campaign, including in-kind donations from his businesses. He raised and spent more than $13 million. 

That’s the most ever raised or spent on any Nebraska governor’s race. The next-highest tally was Pillen’s, who raised $11.5 million in the GOP primary and the general elections combined, including $1.5 million of his own money. He spent $11.1 million. 

Pillen benefitted from his top political patron, then-Gov. Pete Ricketts, who in 2022 continued to dominate Nebraska politics with his donations targeting several races.

Ricketts gave Pillen’s campaign $100,000. Additionally, Ricketts and his family spent more than $3 million on third-party TV ads attacking Pillen’s top two opponents, Herbster and State Sen. Brett Lindstrom. 

The attack ads changed a three-way race. Lindstrom’s donations decreased dramatically during the second round of ads against him. Support for Herbster fell in tracking polls.

Carol Blood, Democratic nominee for Nebraska governor, talks to people attending her town hall in Omaha. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

Lindstrom raised nearly $3 million — a more typical gubernatorial haul for a GOP primary frontrunner – and spent most of it. Blood raised $636,000 and spent nearly all of that. 

Even the race’s lesser-known candidates raised significant sums: Third-party candidate Dave Wright raised and spent $149,000, and write-in candidate Robert Borer raised and spent $52,000.

The only other candidate in past Nebraska elections to spend as much as Herbster or Pillen was Ricketts in 2006, when he lost a bid challenging U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson. Ricketts spent $13.4 million, of which he donated $12 million to his campaign. 

Nelson spent $7.3 million on the race. Ricketts achieved his Senate ambitions in January, after Pillen appointed him to replace Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., who resigned to lead the University of Florida. 

Nebraska Examiner staff writer Zach Wendling contributed to this report.

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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.