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There's more to Pillen's GOP Nebraska primary win than a Trump defeat

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From one angle, the Republican primary for Nebraska governor was a test of Donald Trump’s power in a red state, and the defeat of Charles Herbster, Trump’s chosen candidate, was a rebuke from Nebraska’s GOP electorate.

True, Trump did endorse Herbster. He even visited the state ahead of the election and joined for a second, call-in “tele-rally” after that. But there was more than the former president’s endorsement at play in Jim Pillen’s victory Tuesday.

“I think that Trump is still pretty popular,” said Philip Young, a political consultant and former executive director of the state GOP. “I think this race had some local-specific things regarding the candidates that came into play, and it wasn’t just about a Trump endorsement.”

Herbster faced late-breaking groping allegations from eight women. Negative advertising saturated the airwaves and mailboxes — some of it funded by the current governor. Two of the top three candidates had far deeper pockets than the third. Thousands of voters changed their registrations to vote in the heated race.

Pillen, who is backed by outgoing Gov. Pete Ricketts and other powerful state Republicans, won with 34% of the vote. Herbster got 30% and State Sen. Brett Lindstrom, who presented himself as a fresh-faced (but still conservative) alternative with experience, came away with 26%.

Pillen’s vote margins were about 9,500 over Herbster and 21,000 over Lindstrom. A fourth candidate, former Sen. Theresa Thibodeau, claimed 15,861 votes — just over 6% — a meaningful sum in the overall results.

County-level results put numbers to a narrative that already felt true in the race: Lindstrom performed strongly around the state’s big population centers, Pillen claimed a broad swath of the state and Herbster did best in the state’s most rural areas.

“If you put Republican voters into three buckets and looked at that distribution across the state, I think what you’d see is something that looks very much like the geographical patterns of voting strength for those three candidates,” said Kevin Smith, chair of University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s political science department.

Pillen, a hog producer and University of Nebraska regent, carried 58 counties, the most important of which was Lancaster. He won the home of Nebraska’s capital by 2,900 votes over Herbster. He also won big in his home county of Platte, where he carried a whopping 67% of the total vote and topped Herbster by more than 2,400 votes.

Together, just Lancaster and Platte counties account for more than half of Pillen’s winning margin over Herbster.

But Pillen generally fared well across the state.

The candidate, who was endorsed by the Nebraska Farm Bureau, ran strongly in farm country, winning nearly two-thirds of rural counties outside the big three of Douglas, Lancaster and Sarpy counties. His total advantage over Herbster in those counties was more than 8,000 votes.

And while Lindstrom ran up the most votes in the big three, Pillen critically held his own there against Herbster.

Pillen actually came in third in both Douglas and Sarpy counties, but combined he trailed Herbster there by only about 1,500 votes. Along with his big margin in Lancaster County, he topped Herbster in the big three by roughly 1,400 votes.

Even in some of the counties where Trump has proved the strongest, Pillen had a good showing against his Trump-endorsed rival.

Of the 30 counties where Trump ran up his highest percentage of votes against Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election, Pillen carried half of them. That included Pillen winning three of the five counties where Trump’s 2020 vote percentage topped 90%.

Herbster carried 31 counties in all, all of them rural. He ran up his biggest vote advantages over Pillen in Sarpy County (about 1,000 votes) and his home county of Richardson (just under 600 votes). Most of the counties Herbster carried were sparsely populated counties in the Panhandle and Sandhills, too small to make much difference in his race against Pillen.

Lindstrom won four counties total. He carried his home county of Douglas, neighboring Sarpy and also the two counties just to the north in Washington and Burt. Lindstrom has relatives in Burt County, where he received his strongest vote percentage in the state at 49%.

Lindstrom watch party

Brett Lindstrom, Republican candidate for Nebraska governor, speaks with supports during an election results watch party in Omaha on Tuesday.

Smith speculated that Pillen attracted the traditional establishment Republicans, while Herbster picked up most of the “MAGA (Make America Great Again) crowd” of staunch Trump supporters. He said it’s reasonable to infer that Lindstrom’s strength partly reflects party crossovers and frustrated, moderate Republicans in the suburbs.

“In states like Nebraska, where there are viable, conservative candidates that can connect with people who would otherwise support Trump candidates on values and issues that are meaningful to them, those candidates can run and win,” Smith said. “Jim Pillen showed that.”

But calling the results a “rebuke” of Trump may be too strong a statement, said Dona-Gene Barton, a UNL political science professor who has researched the lifespan of political scandals. For one, Herbster still did pretty well in a tight three-way race. And scandal landed heavily on his campaign last month.

April 14, the Nebraska Examiner published allegations from eight women that Herbster had touched them inappropriately. And, in the closing days of the campaign, attack ads ran that targeted his track record of paying property taxes late and insinuations about his time judging beauty pageants.

The constant bombardment and release of new allegations didn’t give Herbster time to rebound, at least for a significant portion of voters, Barton said.

“When you have late-breaking scandal information and you continue to have new details that voters can then digest — that’s when it can have some of the biggest impact on vote tallies,” she said. “So this was the perfect storm, at least when it comes to the Herbster campaign.”

The race left observers guessing for more than two hours Tuesday night.

Initial returns that were heavy on mail-in ballots from urban counties showed Lindstrom ahead. But his opponents closed the gap and ultimately overtook him as more results rolled in.

“It looks to me like Brett Lindstrom was very strong in the mail ballots in the urban areas, but the election day votes were more even,” said Ryan Horn, president of Bullhorn Communications and a Republican media strategist. “That’s a reflection of the Ricketts family money.”

All three candidates were the target of negative advertising, which observers frequently identify as a significant factor in this race. Herbster and Pillen aimed ads at each other, and other ads came from third-party groups, including one that received nearly $1.3 million from Ricketts in March and April and targeted both Herbster and Lindstrom.

“Negative campaigning works,” Young said — and it worked for Pillen this time. Young said it didn’t seem that negative ads aimed at the nominee stuck as well as attacks against the other two top candidates.

When a political consultant’s candidate doesn’t have enough positives, he said, he or she looks to raise the opponents’ negatives.

“Unfortunately, I think there were more people voting against candidates than voting for candidates,” Young said.

In the race’s waning weeks, Lindstrom attracted a barrage of attacks casting him as liberal and targeting votes he has taken in the Nebraska Legislature. Lindstrom’s campaign estimated that outside groups spent about $1.8 million total on mail, TV and text messages against him — more than the Lindstrom campaign had spent, total, as of late April.

“No one has spent more money attacking Republicans in the state of Nebraska than Pete Ricketts,” Horn said. “His late attacks against Brett Lindstrom, mostly overwrought and out of context, did just enough damage to a campaign that didn’t have the funds to match and respond.”

Lindstrom stuck with a positive message throughout the campaign, and many of his supporters Tuesday night cited that as a reason they voted for him. But his war chest was also far smaller than Herbster’s or Pillen’s. He was outspent several times over.

Lindstrom brought in about $2.8 million cash, including late contributions as of Tuesday afternoon, and had spent about $1.6 million as of April 25.

Pillen saw significant success in fundraising and brought in about $8.8 million cash, counting late contributions as of Tuesday afternoon.

Among the contributions Pillen has reported since the most recent filings were due: $250,000 he gave to his own campaign on May 4, his first time shelling out since a $1 million contribution in 2021. The campaign had spent about $6.8 million as of April 25.

Herbster poured $11.3 million cash from his own pocket into his campaign out of a total of roughly $11.6 million cash raised since the start of 2021, counting late contributions filed as of Tuesday afternoon. He had spent about $8.6 million cash as of April 25.

“I’m trying to remember a primary election for a statewide race that has been as bruising as this one,” Smith said. “And … nothing is coming to mind.”

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