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What the allegations against Herbster mean for the governor's race

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Take a look at the candidates who have announced for the 2022 Nebraska governor's race.

Charles Herbster received blunt condemnation from many Nebraska political leaders last week after reports that he allegedly groped multiple women, something the candidate vehemently denies.

But with Herbster showing no signs of leaving the governor’s race and the state GOP saying it will stay out of the primary, it appears voters will ultimately determine the gravity of the claims.

Charles Herbster

Charles Herbster

The Nebraska Examiner reported allegations from eight women who said Herbster, a Republican megadonor and CEO of Conklin Co. and other businesses, touched them inappropriately. Among the accusers: State Sen. Julie Slama, who has confirmed the Examiner’s reporting that Herbster reached up her skirt without her consent and touched her inappropriately at a political event in 2019.

The Examiner did not name the other seven accusers and the Omaha World-Herald did not independently corroborate those accounts.

Herbster has denied the allegations, threatened legal action, and called the story a “dirty political trick” being carried out by one of his chief competitors in the race, Jim Pillen, and Pillen’s most notable backer, Gov. Pete Ricketts.

The campaign did not release any additional information Friday, but Herbster took to social media and, for at least the second time, drew parallels between his situation and that of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and former President Donald Trump.

Condemnation of Herbster came quickly from many powerful figures across Nebraska’s political spectrum, including from his competitors in the governor’s race, every female state legislator, former Gov. Kay Orr, Ricketts and Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert. Like Ricketts, Slama and Orr have endorsed Pillen, while Stothert has endorsed state Sen. Brett Lindstrom.

Nebraska GOP Chairman Dan Welch called the allegations “serious” in a statement Friday.

“Without casting judgment in this matter, the NEGOP condemns all forms of sexual assault and believes any allegation must be investigated appropriately,” Welch said. “Per the NEGOP Constitution, the party remains neutral in the governor’s primary. Republican voters will examine these allegations as they weigh all the candidates in the race as the May 10th primary approaches.”

But the party is poised to support Herbster, if he does win.

“The NEGOP will support our nominees for the general election,” Welch said.

Another dark money group is funding Lindstrom attack ads
Report on Herbster groping allegations sparks firestorm of bipartisan condemnation

Herbster, a Falls City businessman, and Pillen, a Columbus hog producer, were seen as early front-runners for the GOP nomination, each touting big war chests and prominent endorsements. Trump is Herbster’s most prominent endorser. That support has largely defined Herbster’s campaign since he received it.

But perception of the primary has gradually shifted among some observers and insiders, who now see a three-way race between Herbster, Pillen and Lindstrom. Polling from two campaigns in mid-March showed Herbster with a lead over Pillen, whose lead over Lindstrom appeared to be narrowing — the percentage of undecided voters and the margin of error in those polls suggested an open race.

Scandal is never a good thing for a candidate, but it’s “particularly damaging” when it’s late-breaking, like this one, said Dona-Gene Barton, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln political science professor who has researched the lifespan of political scandals. The effects of scandals tend to fade pretty rapidly, she said, but it still takes time.

Counties were able to start mailing early voting ballots for Nebraska’s primary earlier this month. In-person early voting started Monday, and election day is May 10.

Some voters have already mailed in their ballots. As of Friday, the Douglas County Election Commission had accepted 15,170 completed ballots, according to spokesperson Valerie Stoj. That's out of a total of 357,561 voters who were registered in the county.

No political scientist or observer who spoke to the World-Herald on Friday said it’s a sure thing that the allegations reported last week will take Herbster out of the running, but many left that door open.

“We got our October surprise,” political consultant and lobbyist Perre Neilan said. “This widens the path for Lindstrom and Pillen.”

The allegations against Herbster are serious, said Paul Landow, retired political science professor and former executive director of the state Democratic Party.

“This is a very big, serious deal,” he said. “And it’s gonna be difficult for him to overcome it.”

It doesn’t take a lot of voters to change what appears to be a close race, said John Hibbing, a UNL political science professor.

Barton said in general elections, where people have stronger attachments based on partisanship, they may be more likely to discount the information — though, in a primary, voters may have already formed attachments to the candidates.

Herbster continues to bankroll his campaign for Nebraska governor
Donald Trump Jr. joins Herbster at three stops in Nebraska

Certain voters could treat the allegations differently.

“I’m sure that people who are strong Trump supporters, especially given Trump’s history with regard to women, will not be turned off by this,” Hibbing said. “But it’s not at all clear that (Herbster) can win the primary with just those individuals.”

Political consultant Chris Peterson said in a text message that he doesn’t think it will change Herbster voters’ minds, and it could even harden their support.

“There are still tens of thousands of persuadable voters up for grabs — enough to decide the election,” he said. “If those voters haven’t sided with Herbster before now, after he’s spent almost $10 million, the sexual assault allegations probably solidify their view of him. This doesn’t mean Herbster can’t still win, but, unless he effectively portrays himself as the victim, his path may have narrowed.”

That has to make Pillen and Lindstrom feel better about their positions, Hibbing said, and maybe even the leading Democrat, state Sen. Carol Blood.

“Especially if the Republicans should go ahead and nominate Herbster,” he said. “I think that would open up opportunities for the Democrats, which rarely happens in a statewide race in Nebraska.”

2022 Primary Voter's Guide

The Lincoln Journal Star reaches out to candidates in contested local primary races and asks them to participate in our annual Voter's Guide by providing biography information and answering questions relevant to the offices they seek.

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