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Every June, Omaha hosts the College World Series, a tradition that draws hundreds of thousands to Nebraska’s largest city.
The baseball event is more than a month away, but the heated Nebraska GOP gubernatorial primary has reached the bottom of the ninth inning as voters head to the polls on May 10.
Nine candidates are on the ballot. Three are so packed together in recent polls that the race is deemed too close to call.
Gov. Pete Ricketts has continued Nebraska’s track record as a reliable red state, but he is completing his second term and cannot seek re-election.
The entrepreneur, whose father founded TD Ameritrade, is part owner of the Chicago Cubs with his siblings. He endorsed Jim Pillen, a hog producer and business owner who is founder of Pillen Family Farms and a Nebraska University regent.
Charles Herbster, a cattle producer who owns Herbster Angus Farms along with an agribusiness called the Conklin Co., is backed by Donald Trump and served as an agricultural adviser to the former president.
State Sen. Brett Lindstrom, who like Pillen played football at the University of Nebraska, lives in Omaha and received a stamp of approval from Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert.
Herbster was the frontrunner for several months until an April 14 article in the Nebraska Examiner revealed accusations that he groped eight women, including state Sen. Julie Slama, at political functions and fundraising dinners over several years.
Herbster has repeatedly and vehemently denied the allegations and filed a defamation lawsuit against Slama. The lawmaker responded with a countersuit that accuses Herbster of sexual battery.
Trump has steadfastly supported Herbster, appearing with him at a rally in Nebraska on May 1 when he said, “I defend my people when I know they’re good.”
In March, a KA Consulting LLC survey showed Herbster with a comfortable nine percent advantage over Pillen and a 10 percent cushion over Lindstrom.
A poll conducted by WPA Intelligence from April 30 to May 2 and commissioned by Pillen’s campaign found that Pillen is leading the race with 31 percent, followed by Herbster (26 percent) and Lindstrom (16 percent). The survey shows that 19 percent of Republican primary voters who were contacted are undecided.
When WPA Intelligence coordinated a survey from April 26 to April 28, the results had Pillen with 24 percent, followed by Herbster (23 percent), and Lindstrom (20 percent), with 24 percent of voters remaining undecided.
Ricketts has clashed with Trump. The Ricketts family spent millions of dollars to prevent Trump from gaining the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. At the time, Trump said the family had better “be careful.”
Ricketts asked Trump to not endorse a candidate in the current GOP gubernatorial primary. When Trump ignored the request, Ricketts wrote a harsh statement about Herbster and then announced his support of Pillen, who is also backed by former Republican Gov. Kay Orr and legendary former University of Nebraska football coach and Congressman Tom Osborne.
On May 3, all 22 of Trump’s chosen candidates in the Indiana and Ohio primaries won, including J.D. Vance, who surged in the GOP U.S. Senate polls after Trump’s endorsement on April 15.
In March, all 33 names who received a stamp of approval from Trump in Texas won their race or advanced to a runoff.
Trump is 55-0 in selecting candidates this year.
Will Trump’s endorsement of Herbster carry more weight than Ricketts’ backing of Pillen? Will Lindstrom, who is considered more moderate than the strongly conservative Herbster and Pillen, get enough votes from Democrats and moderate Republicans to produce an unexpected victory?
Speculation has been rampant about those questions for months.
Chris Peterson is a Republican campaign strategist in Nebraska who is not affiliated with any of the gubernatorial candidates. He believes that Herbster’s association with Trump is a positive for his campaign.
“Without question, the Trump endorsement has value,” Peterson said. “What we’ve seen over the last few months is that most Republican primary voters already associate Herbster with Trump, so that’s largely factored into their calculus.”
On May 9, all three of the leading candidates made one last campaign push.
Pillen flew around the state and visited Omaha and Lincoln, Nebraska’s second-largest city, along with multiple smaller communities, including his hometown of Columbus.
Herbster had a telephone town hall with former Trump White House adviser Kellyanne Conway and made a stop in Byron, a village that has fewer than 100 residents.
Lindstrom wrapped up his quest to overtake Herbster and Pillen by stumping in Grand Island, Hastings, Lincoln, and Omaha, which is where he lives.
Nebraska election officials are anticipating a high response statewide.
Nebraska Secretary of State Bob Evnen predicted a turnout of 35 percent. The record for a statewide turnout in a primary is 40.5 percent in 2020. The best response in a gubernatorial primary happened in 2006 with 35.1 percent.
One factor that could determine the outcome is the voter registration switch from Democrat to Republican by thousands of Nebraska Democrats leading up to the May 10 GOP primary.
The Nebraska Secretary of State’s office reported that there were around 6,400 more registered Republicans at the beginning of May compared to the start of April.
The number of registered voters increased by approximately 400 people. The number of registered Democrats dipped by about 4,000 and non-partisan registered voters saw a decrease of 2,000.
This indicates that Democrats changed their registration to participate in the GOP gubernatorial primary.
In Nebraska, citizens registered as nonpartisan are allowed to vote in the Democratic primary. Republicans do not permit nonpartisans to vote in its primary without registering with the GOP.
“Unlike when Republicans who left their party after the insurrection and never came back, some Democrats temporarily have left the party in hopes to stop the worst of the radical Republicans running for governor,” said Jane Kleeb, chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party
“We are confident they will be back as Democrats the day after the primary,” Kleeb added.
The last time Nebraska elected a Democrat as governor was 1994, when Gov. Ben Nelson was re-elected in a landslide.
University of Nebraska-Lincoln political science professor John Hibbing believes it makes sense that Democrats and nonpartisans would prefer to vote in the contentious and visible GOP primary.
“I don’t think it means they’re being disloyal,” Hibbing said. “The odds are extremely strong that the winner of the Republican primary is going to be the next governor.”
Nebraska has 93 counties. Only two–Douglas, which is home to Omaha; and Lancaster, where the state capital of Lincoln is located–voted for Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election. Omaha, which sits on the Nebraska-Iowa line, has a population of 480,871 while 291,082 call Lincoln home.
In 2020, Trump received 58.2 percent of the vote (556,846) in Nebraska compared to Joe Biden’s 39.2 percent (374,583).
Lincoln is 55 miles west of Omaha. Most residents of rural counties outside of the Omaha-Lincoln corridor are staunch conservatives. Those areas are favorable for Herbster and Pillen, who each claim they are the most conservative candidate in the race. Lindstrom could be helped by Nebraskans in Omaha and Lincoln since he is considered the more moderate choice.
A Neilan Strategy Group poll conducted April 19 and April 20 found that Lindstrom was ahead with 28 percent support followed by Herbster (26 percent), Pillen (24 percent), and former state Sen. Theresa Thibodeau (six percent). The survey indicated that 16 percent of the respondents were undecided.
“This race is still a toss-up among three candidates,” said Perre Neilan, owner of Neilan Strategy Group. “The only number that really matters here is the 16 percent undecideds.”
The winner of the GOP gubernatorial primary will likely face state Sen. Carol Blood, who is expected to easily get the Democratic party nomination.