WAHOO, Nebraska – In his bid to become governor of Nebraska, Charles W. Herbster does his best impersonation of former President Donald J. Trump.
His 90-minute stump speech is full of complaints about illegal immigrants, stories of his corporate triumphs, a conspiracy theory linking China, the coronavirus pandemic and the 2020 election, and denials of recent allegations that he groped women at political events.
He even swears to clear the “swamp” – but he means Lincoln, the state capital.
Like his political role model – and main lender – Mr. Herbster turns out to be a one-man political wrecking ball. In a state long known for its genteel, collaborative politics and, for the past 24 years, a one-party government, Mr Herbster’s bid has split his party into three camps, with Trump supporters, establishment conservatives and business-friendly moderates who struggle for power. Herbster, a major donor to conservative candidates for many years, has been abandoned by longtime political allies and saw his running mate give up his ticket to become governor himself. The accusations of groping come from fellow Republicans.
Behind all the drama lurks a question with resonance far beyond Nebraska. Mr. Trump’s endorsement of Mr. Herbster, a major donor to Mr. Trump’s political career, is not only his first time running for office, it is the entire rationale of his campaign. Mr. Trump’s name appears on Mr. Herbster’s signs, advertisements, and billboards. mr. Herbster spent Friday? stumbling across western Nebraska with Steven Moore, Trump’s former economic adviser who is a minor Trumpworld celebrity.
Herbster is about to find out if Trump’s approval 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 in a white cowboy hat and black vest with his cattle semen company’s logo, said in an interview on Thursday. “Anyone who can’t control the establishment is afraid of it.”
Herbster, a longtime Trump ally who was with members of the Trump family during the Jan. 6, 2021 Capitol attack, takes on Jim Pillen, a University of Nebraska regent who is backed by the powerful Ricketts political family of the state. 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 sides in recent weeks to have some influence on a governor’s contest in a predominantly Republican state. Polls in the final days before Tuesday’s vote show the race is a three-way dead heat.
If the recent Ohio Senate primary is any guideline, the three-way race is working in Mr. Herbster’s favor. Trump-backed Senate candidate JD Vance won in a crowded field, taking less than a third of the vote. (There’s a precedent for this in Nebraska. Eight years ago, Governor Pete Ricketts won the nomination with just over a quarter of the vote.)
But Mr. Trump’s touch looks less golden in other states, especially in two-way contests for governor. In Georgia, former Senator David Perdue, Mr Trump’s pick, is lagging far behind Government Leader Brian Kemp in the polls, causing Mr. Trump to distance himself from that campaign. In Idaho, the former president has backed Lieutenant Governor Janice McGeachin’s challenge to administration Brad Little. Ms. McGeachin is struggling to get a grip, and Mr. Trump hasn’t mentioned her since his approval in November.
How Donald J. Trump is still looming
mr. Trump has his full weight behind Mr. Herbster thrown. On Sunday, he traveled to Nebraska for a meeting and appeared on a Herbster supporters conference call Thursday night, depicting Mr. Herbster’s rivals as “Republicans in name only.”
“Charles was a die-hard MAGA champion,” Trump said during the phone call. “If you vote for Charles in the primaries, you can reprimand the RINOs and sell-out parties and the losers who represent your state so badly.†
Like Mr Trump in the 2016 Republican presidential primaries, Mr Herbster has been accused of assaulting 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. Mr Herbster has denied the allegations and aired a TV ad criticizing his accuser.
“Every accusation that has been sent my way is 100 percent completely false,” he said in an interview.
He has repeatedly blamed the allegations on Mr Ricketts, a two-term conservative incumbent who cannot re-run due to term limits. The Ricketts family is arguing with Mr Trump. It has spent millions on a last-ditch effort to prevent Mr Trump from winning the 2016 Republican presidential nomination; Trump then said the family had better “be careful.”
Mr Ricketts, who last year tried to persuade Mr Trump to back Mr Herbster, has been blunt about his opposition to Mr Herbster’s offer. He finds the allegations of groping disqualifying. Should Mr Herbster win the Republican nomination, Mr Ricketts will not support him unless he “apologises to the women he did this to,” he said in an interview.
Mr Herbster faced criticism well before the allegations. Some Republicans have been annoyed by his focus on the kinds of divisive cultural issues that don’t normally dominate political preservation in the state. He campaigns to ban sex education in Nebraska public schools, tackle illegal immigration and curb China’s influence.
In July, his running mate, former state senator Theresa Thibodeau, pulled out of the ticket and later jumped into the race herself. She said Mr Herbster had little interest in anything but trying to emulate Mr Trump.
“If you want to run the state, you have to gain your knowledge about policies that affect our state,” she said Thursday. “He had no initiative or willingness to do that.”
But the message from Mr. Herbster resonated with Trump’s conservatives, and one of his rivals soon followed suit. Pillen, a 66-year-old former defender of the University of Nebraska soccer team with a grandfatherly demeanor, pledged to ban critical race theory at the University of Nebraska and prohibit transgender women from participating in women’s sports or using women’s restrooms.
“Both the Pills and Herbster campaigns were focused on national issues that they have little control over and they should have been more focused on state issues,” said former Governor Dave Heineman, a Republican who has been on Mr. Herbster stood. office. He hasn’t approved yet.
Mr Pillen downplayed Mr 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 soccer for Nebraska, is running a pre-Trump-era campaign. He emphasizes working with Democrats in Nebraska’s unicameral parliament and while he said he did not regret voting for Trump twice, he said he would prefer “a new face” by 2024.
While the Republican primary in Nebraska is typically decided by conservative rural voters who are deeply loyal to Trump, Mr. Lindstrom, a shaky financial adviser, is focusing his campaign on targeting urban professionals around Omaha — where Mr. Trump is one of the state’s executives. lost. Electoral college votes for President Biden.
“The style and brand that’s going on in the Republican Party right now has created a lot of wedges,” said Mr. Lindstrom. “That’s not really healthy.”
During a Wednesday fundraiser for Mr. Lindstrom at an upscale Italian restaurant in Omaha, about half of the two dozen people interviewed said they had voted for Mr. Biden in 2020. A handful had switched parties to vote for Mr Lindstrom in the primary. †
Allen Frederickson, the director of a health care company who turned Republican to vote for Mr. Lindstrom, said Mr. Herbster’s election would make it difficult to recruit workers for Nebraska’s booming economy, which has the nation’s lowest unemployment rate. has.
“Trumpism would have an impact on our internal and external image as a state,” he said. “We need Nebraska to be an attractive state from a business perspective.”
Mr Herbster makes little effort to appeal outside the Trump constituency. He kicks off his speeches, whether they’re hated Trump supporters in Wahoo or bankers in suburban Omaha, with “greetings from the 45th President of the United States of America, Donald J. Trump.”
Like Mr Trump, Mr Herbster questions the legitimacy of the US election. In Wahoo, he posited a bizarre theory about the loss of the former president.
“This is the truth,” he told supporters. “The pandemic came from China. It was timed perfectly to make sure they could manipulate the election so that Mark Zuckerberg could pay $400 million in the final four months of the election. Because like it or not, they didn’t want to Donald J. Trump becomes president for two terms, which is exactly what happened.”
Mr. Herbster has little use or interest in the traditions of Nebraska politics. He called for an end to the state’s system of impartial elections, the elimination of the state council on education and said on his first day in office he would demand that the tourism board change its quirky slogan: “Nebraska.” To be honest, it’s not for everyone.”
The question that Nebraska’s Republican primary voters will decide on Tuesday is whether that matters — or is more important than Mr. Trump’s stamp of approval.
“It’s everything,” said former Omaha Representative Lee Terry, a Herbster supporter. “There are a lot of Trump people in Nebraska.”