OMAHA, Neb. – In one of the nation's most overwhelmingly Republican states, the party is entering the final stretch of a bruising primary campaign deeply divided over who should become the nominee for governor.
Nearly all of Nebraska's GOP establishment leaders are lining up behind businessman Jim Pillen, believing he would be the easy favorite to win in November. But no endorsement matters quite like that of former President Donald Trump, who is backing his longtime friend Charles Herbster. And in a twist, a third candidate, state Sen. Brett Lindstrom, is emerging as a strong contender in part because of an endorsement from the mayor of Omaha, the state's biggest city.
Whoever comes out on top in the state's May 10 primary will enter the general election in a strong position against Democratic state Sen. Carol Blood. But the fractures that have surfaced during the primary campaign, particularly in the wake of groping accusations from multiple women against Herbster, have frustrated GOP leaders in Nebraska.
“It’s unfortunate,” said state Sen. Steve Halloran, a conservative Republican and longtime party activist. “What we’re seeing here is creating a lot of tension within the party.”
There has been little polling in the nine-person primary race to succeed two-term Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts, who can’t seek reelection because of term limits. Herbster was seen as a strong front-runner through much of the race but is now fighting accusations that he groped at least eight young women at public events.
Herbster has denied the allegations and has even filed a lawsuit against state Sen. Julie Slama, the only accuser to be identified by name. Slama, who has endorsed Pillen, has counter-sued, accusing Herbster of trying to silence a sexual assault victim.
The allegations have roiled the race, with Herbster airing an ad that accuses Ricketts and Pillen of orchestrating the allegations. The spot points to Slama's ties to Ricketts as a former campaign spokeswoman and one of his legislative appointees. Her attorney called the ad a “vicious new political advertisement” and the lawsuit “a frivolous and bad faith attempt to bully a sexual assault victim into silence.”
On Tuesday, four other female Republican state lawmakers said they were setting up a legal fund to help others who have accused Herbster.
“He is a predator,” said Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Omaha.
Trump defied much of Nebraska’s GOP establishment when he endorsed Herbster, rewarding a longtime supporter and ignoring Ricketts’ request that he stay out of the race. After Trump’s endorsement, Ricketts released a scathing statement about Herbster and then endorsed Pillen, who also has been backed by a host of Nebraska luminaries, including former Gov. Kay Orr, the influential Nebraska Farm Bureau, and renowned former University of Nebraska football coach and congressman Tom Osborne.
The allegations didn't stop Trump from planning a rally with Herbster this weekend. The event was initially scheduled for Friday, but was rescheduled for Sunday because of severe weather.
Trump remains popular in Republican-dominated Nebraska, but some campaign experts question whether his blessing will be enough to offset Pillen’s support from top Nebraska Republicans or Lindstrom’s recent surge.
“Without question, the Trump endorsement has value,” said Chris Peterson, a Nebraska Republican campaign strategist and lobbyist who isn't affiliated with any of the candidates for governor. “But what we’ve seen over the last few months is that most Republican primary voters already associate Herbster with Trump, so that’s largely factored into their calculus.”
As he waded into this year's contentious primary races, Trump has ignored a long list of allegations leveled against candidates he supported. He endorsed football great Herschel Walker for an open Senate seat in Georgia, despite allegations that Walker repeatedly threatened to kill his ex-wife and her new boyfriend and exaggerated claims of business success, among others.
He backed one of his former aides, Max Miller, for an Ohio congressional seat even though Miller’s ex-girlfriend, former White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham — who also served as a top aide to former first lady Melania Trump — had accused Miller of growing abusive as their relationship deteriorated. Miller has denied the charges.
Some endorsements have come back to sting Trump.
Trump originally threw his support behind Sean Parnell, an Army veteran, in Pennsylvania’s competitive Senate race. But Parnell eventually chose to drop his bid amid allegations of abuse by his estranged wife that he has denied.
Ryan Horn, an Omaha-based political strategist, said Trump’s endorsement of Herbster may be a turnoff for many of the same suburban Omaha Republicans who were skeptical of Trump in 2020. Horn said he doesn't think Pillen has made much headway with them, either, despite the Ricketts endorsement.
“There’s just something about both of those guys that left voters unsatisfied,” Horn said.
Horn said that could give an edge to Lindstrom, an Omaha financial adviser who has focused his campaign on cutting taxes.
With no clear front-runner, the vote could be tight. The last time Nebraska Republicans were running for an open governor’s seat in 2014, Ricketts won a heated six-man race by less than 2,400 votes and claimed less than 27% of the total Republican primary vote.
Other GOP candidates running are former state Sen. Theresa Thibodeau, who had been Hebster's running mate but left the campaign; Breland Ridenour, an Omaha information technology manager; and other lesser-known names.
Follow Grant Schulte on Twitter: https://twitter.com/GrantSchulte