The power of Trump’s endorsement takes a blow in Nebraska’s GOP primary for governor

Will Bauer | May 10, 2022
Jim Pillen, center, talks about his campaign after receiving an endorsement from Gov. Pete Ricketts, right, on Jan. 18 at the state Capitol in Lincoln, Neb. According to the AP, Pillen won the Republican primary May 10.
Jim Pillen, center, talks about his campaign after receiving an endorsement from Gov. Pete Ricketts, right, on Jan. 18 at the state Capitol in Lincoln, Neb. According to the AP, Pillen won the Republican primary May 10. Grant Schulte | AP

Updated May 10, 2022 at 11:33 PM ET

In Nebraska, Jim Pillen has won the Republican primary for governor, according to a race call from The Associated Press.

Riding the endorsement of Gov. Pete Ricketts and much of the state’s GOP establishment, Pillen, a hog producer and University of Nebraska regent, held off rival candidates that included Charles Herbster — a political newcomer backed by former President Donald Trump — and state Sen. Brett Lindstrom.

Pillen’s win is a loss for Trump and the power of his endorsement, which has seemed to push other Republicans in prominent primaries to victory this year, including in West Virginia Tuesday and in Ohio last week.

Trump and his son, Donald Trump Jr., came to Nebraska to campaign for Herbster, a wealthy businessman who donated $11.5 million of his own money to his campaign. The stump speeches and spending weren’t enough to beat Pillen in the end, who raised $8.4 million.

Herbster could have suffered among voters after the Nebraska Examiner published a story detailing allegations from eight women that he groped or forcibly kissed them. Herbster later filed a defamation lawsuit against state Sen. Julie Slama, one of the accusers. Slama has filed a countersuit.

Pillen, meanwhile, campaigned on his opposition to abortion rights and critical race theory. He also says he supports restricted government and making Nebraska more friendly to agricultural business.

Campaign posters supporting Nebraska Republican candidate for governor Charles Herbster decorate the grounds of the I-80 Speedway prior to the start of a rally with former President Donald Trump on May 1 in Greenwood, Neb.
Campaign posters supporting Nebraska Republican candidate for governor Charles Herbster decorate the grounds of the I-80 Speedway prior to the start of a rally with former President Donald Trump on May 1 in Greenwood, Neb. Scott Olson | Getty Images

He says that one of his top priorities will be keeping youth from leaving the state for opportunities elsewhere. “Guess where the grass is the greenest and the tallest,” Pillen said at a rally on Monday, “right here in Nebraska.”

Like Herbster and other candidates in the race, Pillen says as governor he would push back against policies from Washington, D.C., and fight any COVID-19 mandates.

The Republican will face Democrat Carol Blood in the November general elections. Blood, a Nebraska state senator, cruised to victory Tuesday night. Her challenger Roy Harris made very few public campaign appearances.

Pillen is widely expected to take office in November. The last time a Democrat won a statewide office was 2006 when Nebraska voters reelected Ben Nelson to the U.S. Senate. Nelson was also the last Democratic governor in the state, serving from 1991 to 1999.

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Transcript :

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Today is primary day in Nebraska, and it’ll be a test of former President Donald Trump’s influence. He’s backing a wealthy political outsider seeking the Republican Party nomination for governor. Polls show that candidate is roughly even with his most mainstream GOP opponent. Nebraska Public Media’s Will Bauer reports.

WILL BAUER, BYLINE: Two-term Republican Governor Pete Ricketts is term-limited. His pick to carry on his legacy is University of Nebraska regent Jim Pillen.

JIM PILLEN: I’m Jim Pillen. I’m a Christian conservative. I’m a veterinarian. I’m a pig farmer.

BAUER: Those kinds of credentials resonate in Nebraska, where agriculture is one of the state’s top industries. Pillen has much of the state’s establishment GOP support and has raised $8.4 million. But this isn’t a typical election cycle in Nebraska.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL RALLY)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) USA. USA. USA.

DONALD TRUMP: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you very much. And thank you, Nebraska. A great place. Thanks for victories that we’ve had in Nebraska.

BAUER: Former President Trump came here last week to rally support for Charles Herbster, who appeared alongside him.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL RALLY)

CHARLES HERBSTER: 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.

BAUER: Herbster, an agriculture businessman and major GOP donor for years, hasn’t raised a lot of money for this race. Instead, he donated $11.5 million of his own money, and he’s hoping Trump’s endorsement will win support from Nebraskans like Ann Sobey, one of thousands who came to the rally.

ANN SOBEY: I am here to support Making America Great Again.

BAUER: But a few weeks before the rally, an independent news site published a story in which eight women, including a state senator, alleged Herbster inappropriately touched or forcibly kissed them. He vehemently denies the charges.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL RALLY)

TRUMP: Charles is a fine man, and he’s innocent of these despicable charges. By the way, Charles, welcome to politics.

BAUER: John Hibbing is a political science professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a longtime observer of state politics.

JOHN HIBBING: The question is, are these Nebraska Republicans really going to stick with the Trump candidate even in the face of all these allegations? Or will they cut their losses and go with somebody who is kind of like Trump but not endorsed by Trump?

BAUER: Herbster is suing the state senator who’s accused him of groping. She’s filed a countersuit. A hearing has been set for next month. Meanwhile, there’s a third GOP candidate in the primary who is polling at roughly the same numbers as the other two. State Senator Brett Lindstrom of Omaha is only 41 years old but has the most state government experience in the primary.

BRETT LINDSTROM: The one difference about me that is 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.

BAUER: The University of Nebraska’s John Hibbing says Lindstrom will likely benefit from the 8,000 Democrats and independents who have registered as Republicans in the last two months. But he also points out that polling by all three candidates show 24% of voters undecided.

HIBBING: I think it’s one of the most fascinating races in the country, especially in terms of what it could reveal with regard to the continuing sway of Donald Trump and the Republican Party of a very red state like Nebraska.

BAUER: The winner of today’s primary is widely expected to go on to win the general election. The last time a Democrat was elected governor here was 1995. In the last competitive GOP primary, Nebraska’s current governor, Pete Ricketts, won with just 26% of the vote.

For NPR News, I’m Will Bauer in Lincoln.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.