Heartland governor’s race emerges as red-state gut check

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Nebraska’s been lucky so far. It’s largely ducked the ugly intraparty feuding that’s consumed the GOP in Georgia, Arizona and elsewhere in the post-Trump era.

Donald Trump won big in Nebraska, one of the nation’s most rock-ribbed Republican states. But so did Sen. Ben Sasse, one of his fiercest critics, who pulled more votes statewide than the former president in November. The state party rebuked Sasse following his vote to impeach Trump, but it stopped short of taking the next step — censuring him. Other Republicans with moderately conservative profiles have fared well, too. Rep. Don Bacon, who supported Trump but criticized his rhetoric, out-performed Trump in his Omaha-based congressional district in November.

But if the state stands out as a petri dish of divergent strains of conservatism, the Republican primary for governor in 2022 is poised to test the limits of their peaceful co-existence.

The question in Nebraska — as it is in other heavily Republican swaths of the country — isn’t if a Republican must be supportive of Trump to win an open statewide office. They almost certainly must be. It’s whether just supporting Trump is good enough — or if, in the reddest of states in the new GOP, only the Trumpiest candidate can win.

In Nebraska, that means whether any institutionalist Republican — even a pro-Trump one — can beat Charles Herbster, the wealthy rancher and friend of Trump who not only supported him, but went so far as to attend the Jan. 6 rally in Washington that preceded the riot at the Capitol.

In a field that may include one former governor and several other mainstream Republicans, said Ryan Horn, a Republican media strategist based in Omaha, “The problem is you get four or five people running and they all divide up the vote, and the chest-thumper has a floor of 20 or 25 percent, maybe, saying, ‘They’re all a bunch of pussy communists,’ and then Trump endorses him.”

He said, “You’re going to get a really good case study of just how much can a Donald Trump endorsement standing alone in a Republican state do for somebody.”

Nebraska represents a different — and perhaps more significant — kind of lab test for Republicans than more highly publicized contests that have pitted outspoken Trump critics against his loyalists in other states. This is not neighboring Wyoming, where Republican Rep. Liz Cheney has faced ongoing recriminations for her vote to impeach Trump, or Texas, where at least one Republican is running on an anti-Trump platform in a special congressional election.

There is no prominent Republican running as the anti-Trump candidate. Instead, for traditional Republicans who supported the former president to varying degrees, the contest will serve as a measure of what level of fealty is required — and how significant a factor the former president will be in crowded primaries.

More than a year ahead of the gubernatorial race in Nebraska, Trump has not yet endorsed. An adviser to the former president said “nothing imminent” is coming.

But the expectation is that Trump eventually will support Herbster, according to interviews with about a dozen party officials and strategists in recent days. Corey Lewandowski, a former Trump campaign manager, is advising him, according to multiple Republicans familiar with the campaign. And the combination of Herbster’s wealth and ties to Trump are already framing the earliest stages of the race.

Earlier this month, the Omaha World-Herald reported that former Gov. Dave Heineman was considering running, a development confirmed by sources who have spoken with him.

Heineman is not without Trump credentials. He was an honorary chair of Trump’s reelection campaign in Nebraska and sat on the board of directors of one of Herbster’s companies. And other contenders are already incorporating Trump into their early overtures to the electorate. In an introductory video for his campaign, Jim Pillen, a University of Nebraska regent and top tier primary contender, promised to “defend President Trump’s progress on growing our economy and fighting hard for the forgotten men and women Washington long left behind.”

But it will be hard for anyone to out-Trump Herbster, who served as the former president’s top agricultural adviser in 2016 and chaired the Farmers and Ranchers for Trump committee in 2020. He gave more than $1.1 million to pro-Trump groups during the 2020 campaign and attended the rally at the Capitol on Jan. 6. He said he left Washington before the ensuing riot.

Nebraska relishes a degree of independence from traditional Republican orthodoxy. Its legislature is nonpartisan and unicameral, and voters in Bacon’s district gave an electoral vote to Joe Biden last year — something that has happened for a Democrat in Nebraska only twice over the past half-century.

For Republicans in Nebraska, said former Rep. Brad Ashford, the Democrat who lost his seat to Bacon in 2016, “I don’t think you have to be Trump all the time … Nebraska Republicans are much more moderate than the party.”

Or as state Sen. Brett Lindstrom of Omaha put it, “You don’t have to be the Trumpiest Trumpster of the bunch.”

That lane, said Lindstrom, who is preparing for his own likely run for governor, is undeniably Herbster’s. But Lindstrom, who like most Republicans supported Trump, believes any endorsement in the gubernatorial race is unlikely to be determinative.

“People are pretty independent,” he said. “They’re business owners … You care about your family, some neighbors, your community, that’s what matters to people. I don’t think it’s whether you support Trump or not. It is kind of what we can do for Nebraska, not necessarily what Trump can do for Nebraska.”

If Trump does put his thumb on the scale, the calculation for those who don’t receive his blessing will become more complicated — especially if the size of the field swells. In 2014, now-Gov. Pete Ricketts, who is termed out, won the state’s multi-candidate primary with just over a quarter of the primary vote. The fear of some traditionalist Republicans in Nebraska is that if too many of them run, Herbster may have a sufficiently high floor of single-minded Trump loyalists to do the same.

To prevent that, according to multiple Republicans familiar with the dynamics of the race, every other candidate will labor to split the vote in the expansive, heavily Republican and rural western part of the state, hoping to dilute Herbster’s strength there while running up their own numbers in the more populous eastern part of the state that is home to Lincoln and Omaha. If Herbster could win with a plurality of the vote, according to that thinking, so could any of the other contenders.

It’s possible the race for governor, where taxes, jobs, schools and the economy are front of mind, may not become as nationalized as federal races are. Bryan Slone, the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce president who ran for governor in 2014 and is considering running again, said that all of the contenders are “pretty consistent with core conservative Republican values” and “probably pretty supportive of Trump’s policies.”

Because of that, he said, “you distinguish yourself by your vision of the future and the specific things you think the state has to accomplish. And those are bigger than just the federal political issues right now.”

Lindstrom, 40, will appeal to the electorate on generational grounds, among other issues. Pillen, a pork producer, has ties to agriculture in the state.

Jessica Flanagain, a top adviser to Ricketts who is now advising Pillen, said Nebraska is small enough that “people expect to meet, know and size up the candidates on the issues that matter to them.”

“Endorsements are a factor, but not the only factor,” she said. “In a world where all politics is national, governor’s races are still local.”

Still, Trump carried Nebraska by nearly 20 percentage points, and his imprimatur, like elsewhere, is currently Republican gold. In a statewide primary, the 3rd congressional district, which spans most of the state outside of Omaha and Lincoln and covers all or parts of 75 counties, can prove decisive. And Herbster is already targeting its western reaches.

Kolene Woodward, the party chair in Scotts Bluff County, a Trump stronghold at the western edge of the state, said Herbster plans to address her local party on April 27.

Of Pillen, she said, “A lot of people out here were impressed that he was a pig farmer.”

But if a candidate can get Trump’s endorsement, Woodward said, “that’s going to be huge, huge, huge.”

“In Nebraska,” she said, “that is a really big deal.”

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