In Nebraska, a Trump-Inspired Candidate Cracks Open Divide in the GOP


WAHOO, Neb. — In his run for governor of Nebraska, Charles Herbster is doing his best imitation of former President Donald Trump.

His 90-minute stump speech is packed with complaints about people living in the country illegally, stories boasting of his businesss, a conspiracy theory connecting China, the coronavirus pandemic and the 2020 election, and denials of the recent accusations that he’s groped women at political events.

He even vows to clean up the “swamp” — but he means Lincoln, the state capital.

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Like his political role model — and chief backer — Herbster is proving to be a one-man political wrecking ball. In a state long known for genteel, collaborative politics and, for the past 24 years, one-party rule, Herbster’s bid has cracked his party into three camps, with Trump supporters, conservatives and business-friendly moderates battling for power. A major donor for years to conservative candidates, Herbster has been abandoned by longtime political allies and seen his running mate quit his ticket to run for governor herself. The claims of groping are coming from fellow Republicans.

Behind all the drama is a question with resonance far beyond Nebraska. Trump’s endorsement of Herbster, a major donor to Trump’s political career, isn’t just the first-time candidate’s top credential — it is his campaign’s entire rationale. Trump’s name is on Herbster’s lawn signs, ads and billboards. Herbster spent Friday stumping across western Nebraska with Steven Moore, a former Trump economic adviser who is a minor Trumpworld celebrity.

Herbster is about to find out if a Trump endorsement alone is enough to win a major Republican primary.

This is a proxy war between the entire Republican establishment in America against President Donald J. Trump,” Herbster, who campaigns wearing a white cowboy hat and a black vest bearing the logo of his cattle semen business, said Thursday. “Anybody who the establishment cannot control, they are fearful of.”

Herbster, a longtime Trump ally who was with members of the Trump family during the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, is running against Jim Pillen, a University of Nebraska regent who is backed by the state’s powerful Ricketts family political machine, and Brett Lindstrom, a youthful state senator who has consolidated support from the party’s remaining moderates and Democrats. More than 8,000 Democrats have switched parties in recent weeks to have some influence on a governor’s contest in an overwhelmingly Republican state. Polling in the final days before Tuesday’s vote shows the race is a three-way dead heat.

Jim Pillen, a University of Nebraska regent and Republican gubernatorial candidate who is backed by the state’s powerful Ricketts family political machine, addresses the Nebraska Bankers Association convention in La Vista, Neb., May 5, 2022. (Walker Pickering/The New York Times )

If Ohio’s recent Senate primary is a guide, the three-way race is working in Herbster’s favor. The Trump-endorsed candidate for Senate, JD Vance, won in a crowded field, taking less than one-third of the vote. (There’s precedent for this in Nebraska. Eight years ago, Gov. Pete Ricketts won the nomination with just over one-quarter of the vote.)

But Trump’s touch is looking less golden in other states, particularly in two-way contests for governor. In Georgia, former Sen. David Perdue, Trump’s choice, is lagging far behind Gov. Brian Kemp in polling, leading Trump to distance himself from that campaign. In Idaho, the former president has backed Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin’s challenge against Gov. Brad Little. McGeachin has struggled to gain traction, and Trump hasn’t mentioned her since his endorsement in November.

Trump has thrown his full weight behind Herbster. This past Sunday, he traveled to Nebraska for a rally and appeared on a conference call for Herbster supporters Thursday night, where he cast Herbster’s rivals as “Republicans in name only.”

“Charles was a die-hard MAGA champion,” Trump said on the call. “When you vote for Charles in the primary, you can give a stinging rebuke to the RINOs and sellouts and the losers who are so poorly representing your state.

Like Trump in the 2016 Republican presidential primary, Herbster is facing accusations that he has mistreated women and tried to use that fact to gain support. Two women, including a state senator, publicly accused him of groping them at a political event in 2019. Herbster has denied the claims and broadcast a TV ad slamming his accuser.

“Any allegation that was sent my way is 100% totally false,” he said.

He has repeatedly blamed the accusations on Ricketts, a conservative two-term incumbent who cannot run again because of term limits. The Ricketts family has feuded with Trump. It spent millions on a last-ditch effort to block Trump from winning the Republican presidential nomination in 2016; Trump then said the family better “be careful.”

Ricketts, who tried talking Trump out of endorsing Herbster last year, is blunt about his opposition to Herbster’s bid. He considers the groping claims disqualifying. Should Herbster win the Republican nomination, Ricketts will not endorse him unless he “apologizes to the women he’s done this to,” he said.

Herbster was facing criticism well before the claims. Some Republicans bristled at his focus on the sort of divisive cultural issues that don’t typically dominate the political conversation in the state. He campaigns on eliminating sex education in Nebraska’s public schools, cracking down on illegal immigration and curbing China’s influence.

In July, his running mate, former state Sen. Theresa Thibodeau, quit the ticket and later jumped into the race herself. She said Herbster had little interest in anything other than trying to emulate Trump.

“If you want to lead the state, you should get your knowledge up on policies that affect our state,” she said Thursday. “He had no initiative or willingness to do that.”

But Herbster’s message resonated with Trump conservatives, and soon one of his rivals followed suit. Pillen, a 66-year-old former defensive back for the University of Nebraska’s football team with a grandfatherly demeanor, promised to ban critical race theory at the University of Nebraska and bar transgender women from participating in women’s sports or using women’s bathrooms.

“Both the Pillen and the Herbster campaigns have focused on national issues of which they have little control over, and they should have been more focused on state issues,” said former Gov. Dave Heineman, a Republican who was on Herbster’s payroll after leaving office. He hasn’t yet made an endorsement.

Pillen downplayed Trump’s influence in the race.

“Nebraskans, we like to figure things out and solve our own problems and think for ourselves,” he said.

Lindstrom, a 41-year-old state senator who also played football for Nebraska, is running a campaign transported from the pre-Trump era. He highlights cooperation with Democrats in Nebraska’s unicameral legislature and, while he said he had no regrets about voting twice for Trump, said he’d prefer “a new face” in 2024.

While Nebraska’s Republican primearies are typically decided by conservative rural voters who are deeply loyal to Trump, Lindstrom, a wonky financial advisor, is betting his campaign on appealing to urban professionals around Omaha — where Trump lost one of the state’s Electoral College votes to Joe Biden.

“The style and brand that’s going on in the Republican Party right now has created a lot of wedges,” Lindstrom said. “That isn’t really healthy.”

At a Wednesday fundraiser for Lindstrom at an upscale Italian restaurant in Omaha, about half of the two dozen people interviewed said they voted for Biden in 2020. A handful had switched parties to vote for Lindstrom in the primary.

Allen Frederickson, CEO of a health care company who became a Republican to vote for Lindstrom, said electing Herbster would make it hard to recruit workers to Nebraska’s booming economy, which has the nation’s lowest unemployment rate.

“Trumpism would impact our internal and external image as a state,” he said. “We need Nebraska to be an appealing state from a business perspective.”

Herbster makes little effort to appeal outside the Trump constituency. He begins his speeches, whether to Trump-hatted supporters in Wahoo or bankers in the Omaha suburbs, by offering “greetings from the 45th president of the United States of America, Donald J. Trump.”

Like Trump, Herbster casts doubt on the legitimacy of US elections. In Wahoo, he posited an outlandish theory about the former president’s loss.

“This is the truth,” he told supporters. “The pandemic came from China. It was timed perfectly to make sure that they could rig the elections so Mark Zuckerberg could put $400 million into the toll the last four months of the election. Because whether you like it or not, they didn’t want Donald J. Trump to be president for two terms. That’s exactly what happened.”

Herbster has little use for or interest in the traditions of Nebraska politics. He called for ending the state’s system of nonpartisan elections, eliminating the state board of education and said that, on his first day in office tourism, he’d demand the bureau change its quirky slogan: “Nebraska. Honestly, it’s not for everyone.”

The question Nebraska’s Republican primary voters will settle Tuesday is whether any of that matters — or matters more than Trump’s stamp of approval.

“It’s everything,” said former Rep. Lee Terry of Omaha, a Herbster supporter. “There’s a lot of Trump people in Nebraska.”

© 2022 The New York Times Company



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