LINCOLN — Former Husker defensive back Jim Pillen knows how to pull victory from the clutches of defeat. He did it in 1978, recovering a fumble to help Nebraska beat Oklahoma.
He did it again Tuesday, snatching Nebraska’s GOP nomination for governor from Charles Herbster, the primary race favorite who had been endorsed by former President Donald Trump.
Pillen notched a narrow win with help from much of the state’s Republican establishment, including Gov. Pete Ricketts, former Gov. Kay Orr, and Pillen’s former coach and U.S. Rep. Tom Osborne.
The University of Nebraska regent had 33% of the vote as of midnight. Herbster, the CEO of Conklin Co., was second with about 30%. State Sen. Brett Lindstrom was running third with about 26%.
“It’s been an extraordinary journey,” Pillen said Tuesday night, speaking at the Embassy Suites Hotel in Lincoln.
He thanked Ricketts, who responded from the crowd, shouting, “You’re gonna be a great governor, Jim.”
Pillen says his top priority is helping young Nebraskans know “the grass is greenest in Nebraska” and said he will work daily to help kids get the education and training they need.
He said he will be the first farmer in the governor’s mansion in about a century. It is important, he said, that Republicans come together on Wednesday to work together and make Nebraska the best place to live.
“I love public service. I love making a difference,” Pillen said. “You know, I’m guilty. I love Nebraska.”
Pillen, speaking to state senators, said, “Together, we are going to carry it across and end abortion in Nebraska.”
Herbster called the race one of the “nastiest campaigns for governor in the country.”
“That’s sad,” he said, adding that it likely played “a very, very significant role in the results.”
“This is what I’ve said all along, this was in God’s hands,” Herbster added. “I don’t know the reason. There is a reason.”
His concession speech at the Lincoln Grand Station was spiced with many thanks to campaign workers and supporters, including Corey Lewandowski, who called it a “dirty, nasty campaign.”
One Herbster supporter, Lt. Gov. Mike Foley, said he was puzzled by Tuesday’s voting. Recent polling, he said, had Herbster winning, but that didn’t happen.
“I’m surprised,” said Foley, who easily won the GOP primary to reclaim his old job as state auditor.
Lindstrom thanked the crowd gathered at A View on State in northwest Omaha. “I want to take it in for just a minute.”
He said he called Pillen to congratulate him shortly before 11 p.m.
His campaign took him to all of Nebraska’s 93 counties in his quest to take the governor’s seat, he said.
“We put in the work,” he told his supporters. “Who knows what the future holds, right?”
“I hope he doesn’t give up. I hope this isn’t the end,” said Lindstrom supporter Emily Oxley. She and another Lindstrom friend, Tara Chickinell, refused to sulk and stuck around after race had been called.
As the last few party-goers left, Lindstrom said in an interview that he plans to “take a little break,” spend time with his wife and kids and figure out his next moves.
“We’ll reassess and see what the future holds,” Lindstrom said.
Tuesday night was the first time he had gotten to visit with many good friends, he said, as he’s been campaigning so much in every county of the state. He said he owes his wife a few trips.
He congratulated Pillen and said he will endorse him, despite the negative comments along the way. “It’s part of politics,” he said, taking the high road.
Events in every county
Pillen won by campaigning in small groups across the state, hosting more than 400 events in all 93 counties, including about 30 hosted by the Nebraska Farm Bureau.
At those events, including one in North Platte, he handed out his policy prescription, the “Pillen Playbook.” He stressed the need to educate and keep young people in the state.
He also proposed capping school spending growth so state property tax relief funds make a bigger dent.
His campaign offered Christian conservatives safe harbor from Herbster controversies over late tax payments and allegations of groping by eight women.
Negative third-party ads
Pillen kept his campaign advertising positive early in the campaign but hit back later after facing attacks from Herbster on his environmental impact as a farmer and his voting record as an NU regent.
Pillen also benefited from Ricketts and other Pillen supporters running negative third-party ads against Herbster and Lindstrom, questioning where Herbster lives and criticizing him for doing business out-of-state. Other ads hammered Lindstrom’s record on his voting record.
This fall, with twice as many registered Republicans as Democrats, Pillen will be the favorite against State Sen. Carol Blood, who won the Democratic primary race Tuesday.
Blood said Tuesday that voters are “sick and tired of the negative political rhetoric and business as usual coming from the Republican Party.”
“Nebraskans are ready for NEW BLOOD to create effective change and grow our state in a direction that makes it a place where people of all ages — no matter what they look like or what is in their bank account — can count on a better and more prosperous future,” Blood said in a statement. “Every Nebraskan has a voice and deserves a seat at the table, that is exactly what I will do as the next governor.”
Pillen won the election by eclipsing Herbster’s support in many parts of Nebraska’s sprawling, largely rural 3rd Congressional District, which often decides open primaries for governor with higher turnout.
Smaller cities, rural areas
Pillen cemented his advantage in the smaller cities and rural areas of the 1st Congressional District, including Columbus, where Pillen lives and runs a massive hog operation.
Pillen outperformed what was expected of him in Lancaster County, which includes Lincoln. While he trailed Lindstrom and Herbster in Douglas County, he beat both of them in Lancaster County.
The three top contenders emerged from nine GOP candidates, including former State Sen. Theresa Thibodeau, who finished fourth with 6% of the vote.
In the end, it may have been Pillen’s investment of time and money in campaign foot soldiers in 93 counties that helped him turn out enough of his voters to win.
Nebraska Examiner senior reporters Paul Hammel and Cindy Gonzalez contributed to this report.