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.”