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Republican governor candidates race to the wire in Nebraska

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It's been a wild ride, but the Republican gubernatorial candidates who have jockeyed for position with promises of tax relief and pledges of conservative government have finally reached the end of the trail.

Voters will determine the winner of the marathon yearlong race for the GOP nomination at the primary election on Tuesday.

There have been ups and downs on the long and bumpy road to Election Day, with Falls City cattle producer and businessman Charles Herbster running out front most of the way as measured by candidate polling results.

Armed by his close ties to former President Donald Trump and self-funding his campaign, Herbster galloped into an early lead.

But late-in-the-campaign allegations that Herbster had improperly touched or groped eight women, including state Sen. Julie Slama of Sterling, during public events threw a block in his path as the candidates rounded the turn and headed down the final stretch with Columbus hog producer Jim Pillen of Columbus finishing strong and Sen. Brett Lindstrom of Omaha riding into contention.

Adding a little drama ahead of the finish line, Trump's decision to fly to Nebraska to give a boost to Herbster in the final days stirred a storm.


Trump's scheduled appearance at I-80 Speedway between Lincoln and Omaha had to be postponed for a couple of days due to the forecast of heavy rain and high winds coinciding with his originally anticipated arrival.

The former president ultimately showed up to endorse Herbster during a long and rambling speech two days later. Herbster had been his agricultural adviser during Trump's presidency and subsequently became a familiar figure at White House events, developing relationships with Trump family members and advisers who helped support his campaign. 

Trump's endorsement presumably could be especially golden in the heavily Republican counties of western and central Nebraska where statewide GOP primary elections often tend to be won. 

Meanwhile, Pillen, a University of Nebraska regent who has been endorsed by Gov. Pete Ricketts and a host of GOP stalwarts and luminaries, soldiered ahead with a full schedule of campaign stops all across the state, steadily gathering visibility and momentum for a final surge.

And along the way Lindstrom's campaign appeared to take off.

Polling evidence that Lindstrom was suddenly gaining ground triggered a negative TV ad assault directed at the Omaha financial adviser and two-term state senator.

Perhaps even more consequently, thousands of Democrats appeared to be changing their voter registration to Republican in order to participate in choosing the GOP gubernatorial nominee at the May 10 primary election.

Informed political speculation suggests that most of those votes would likely be cast for Lindstrom, who appears to be the least doctrinaire or partisan Republican candidate and is an experienced member of the nonpartisan Legislature with a working knowledge of state government along with a record of tax reduction. 

Democratic voters who have changed their registration to participate in the Republican primary election are motivated in large part by the reality that Nebraska governors essentially have been chosen in GOP primary elections for the last couple of decades with Democratic nominees struggling to compete statewide.

Ben Nelson was the last Democrat to be elected governor when he was re-elected to a second term in 1994. 

Pillen has centered on the need for additional property tax relief, his pro-life credentials, support for Second Amendment gun rights and opposition to any teaching of critical race theory in Nebraska schools. CRT examines the intersection of race, society and law in the United States. 

Herbster has said Nebraska needs to "completely rehaul" its tax system and replace it with "a new consumption-based tax system." He has voiced support for pro-life and Second Amendment positions while also stressing the need to "defend each state's right to conduct and oversee its election process."

Lindstrom has pointed to his success in gaining legislative approval of his bill to completely phase out state income taxation of Social Security benefits along with an overall legislative record of supporting tax relief.  He proposes action to "cut red tape for small business" and identifies himself as pro-life and as a supporter of Second Amendment gun rights.

Although his name won't be on the ballot, Trump could conceivably be a big factor in determining the final outcome. 

Last week, all 22 of the candidates he endorsed in Ohio and Indiana primary elections, including Senate candidate J. D. Vance in Ohio, won. Vance prevailed in a four-candidate scrap with 32% of the vote.  

What could be developing in the final days of the campaign might be a potential repeat of the down-to-the-wire 2014 Republican gubernatorial primary election in Nebraska, which Ricketts won with just 26.5% of the vote.

There are nine Republican candidates for governor on the ballot this year, including former state Sen. Theresa Thibodeau of Omaha, but only Pillen, Herbster and Lindstrom appear to have had the resources needed to win.

In 2014, four well-resourced candidates split most of the vote although there were six names on the Republican ballot. That, in effect, reduced the percentage of votes required to win.

Ricketts ultimately defeated Attorney General Jon Bruning by one percentage point and 2,347 votes in a race that was so close that Ricketts suggested that Bruning might be conceding too early when the attorney general called him on election night.   

The other well-known and well-resourced candidates at the time were State Auditor Mike Foley, now Ricketts' lieutenant governor and a supporter of Herbster despite the governor's endorsement of Pillen, and then-Sen. Beau McCoy of Omaha, whose campaign was funded by Herbster after he dropped out of the race, citing his wife's health challenges.

McCoy now is a marketing director at Conklin Co., which is owned by Herbster.

In addition to the top three and Thibodeau of Omaha, other Republicans running for the GOP nomination are Michael Connely of York; Lela McNinch and Donna Nicole Carpenter, both of Lincoln; Breland Ridenour of Elkhorn; and Troy Wentz of Sterling.

On the Democratic side of the ticket, Carol Blood of Bellevue is running against Roy Harris of Linwood. Scott Zimmerman of Omaha is a Libertarian candidate.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7248 or

On Twitter @LJSdon



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