Nebraska’s GOP primary election for governor is the latest test of former President Donald Trump’s influence.
Ahead of Tuesday’s election, the 45th president endorsed a wealthy political outsider seeking the Republican party’s nomination for governor, Charles Herbster. Polls show Herbster, an agricultural businessman from the southeast corner of the state, is roughly even with Jim Pillen, who is endorsed by the state’s term-limited Repulibacan governor, Pete Ricketts.
Pillen, a University of Nebraska Regent, is known for introducing a resolution to oppose critical race theory in University of Nebraska classrooms and has garnered much of the party’s moderate support.
“I’m a Christian conservative. I’m a veterinarian. I’m a pig farmer,” Pillen told a crowd in December.
Credentials like those resonate in Nebraska, where agriculture is one of the state’s top industries. Pillen is well funded, raising $8.4 million in the past year for his race for governor.
Herbster, a major GOP donor for years, hasn’t raised a lot of money. Instead, he donated $11.5 million of his own money. He’s hoping Trump’s endorsement will win support from Nebraskans like Ann Soby, who was one of the thousands of Herbster supporters at a rally last week Trump attended for the candidate.
“I’m here to support making America great again,” Soby said.
“The Nebraska political establishment has taken control of the state and the Nebraska Republican Party, and they are trying to scare me out of this race,” Herbster told the crowd.
A few weeks before the rally, the Nebraska Examiner published a story in which eight women, including a state senator, alleged Herbster inappropriately touched or forcibly kissed them. The candidate denies the charges.
“Charles is a fine man, and he’s innocent of these despicable charges,” Trump said at the event.
The question is how much of a difference the allegations will make in Tuesday’s primary, says John Hibbing, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a longtime observer of state politics. “Are these Nebraska Republicans really going to stick with the Trump candidate, even in the face of all these allegations?” he asks. “Or will they cut their losses and go with somebody who’s kind of like Trump but not endorsed by Trump?
Herbster has filed a defamation lawsuit against state Sen. Julie Slama, one of the women who accused him of groping her. Slama filed a countersuit and a hearing has been set for next month.
Meanwhile, polling has consistently shown Herbster, Pillen and a third candidate — State Sen. Brett Lindstrom of Omaha — doing equally well among voters.
“The one difference about me – that’s different than any other candidate that’s running in this race – is that I’m the only proven tax-cutter that is running for governor on the Republican side,” Lindstrom said during a Nebraska Public Media debate in March.
Hibbing, the political scientist, says that Lindstrom will likely benefit from the more than 8,000 Democrats and independents who’ve registered as Republicans in the last two months.
The winner of Tuesday’s primary is widely expected to go on to win the general election. The last time a Democrat won a gubernatorial race in Nebraska was 1995.