Analysis: Breaking Down the Nebraska 2022 Primary

May 11, 2022, 4 p.m. ·

Pillen Victory Speech
Jim Pillen addresses his supporters Tuesday night in Lincoln after winning the Republican primary race for Governor (Photo by Will Bauer, Nebraska Public Media News)

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Now that the primary elections are over and the dust has settled, Nebraska Public Media News reporter William Padmore speaks with University of Nebraska-Lincoln Political Science Professor John Hibbing about how the gubernatorial contest ended and what it could mean for the future of Nebraska politics

William Padmore: So Professor, it had been quite the night. I'll ask you first off, what do you think of the results?

Professor John Hibbing: What was interesting, you know, to see Lindstrom ahead when the returns from the eastern part of the state were in was kind of interesting. Then of course the candidates perceived to be further to the right, Herbster and Pillen, did better as we moved west. I think we've always seen that in Nebraska race in the general election, as the Democrats do worse as we move west. So it's kind of interesting to see that same kind of thing with regard to internal Republican politics – that the slightly more moderate candidate, perhaps did better in Lincoln and Omaha.

William Padmore: We’ll get to Pillen who, of course, got the gubernatorial nod. But first I want to talk about Herbster and Lindstrom. It was a three-way race for a long time leading up to election night. Where do you think the Herbster and Lindstrom campaigns fell short in the end?

Hibbing: Well, of course, the big question with regard to Herbster’s campaign was how damaging the revelations were about inappropriate sexual contact. You know, that's a counterfactual, so we'll never know. But certainly, that didn't help Herbster at all. He may have been trending down in the polls anyway, but that was definitely a hit to the solar plexus and I think really did benefit both Pillen and Lindstrom. As to Lindstrom, you know, I think it was always a little bit of a challenge for him not to have either the endorsement of Donald Trump or outgoing Governor Pete Ricketts. So for him to, you know, to get what, 26% of the vote, I think was really a very solid and impressive performance. And to do that, while running a very positive campaign, I think there's hope.

Padmore: About the Lindstrom campaign, a lot of talk was being made in the run-up to the election that Democrats were switching their party affiliation in order to vote for Lindstrom, who many saw as the most pragmatic candidate of the three. I actually spoke to a Democrat who was present at the Lindstrom party who said that, well, he didn't admit to switching his party affiliation. But he did say that he had encouraged other Democrats to do so. Is that a trend that you see continuing? Was this sort of a one-off “nothing burger” as they say?

Hibbing: You know, I don't think it's the first time that there has been some strategic maneuvering. In other words, the Democrats might switch their party registration for a short period of time, just to get the opportunity to vote in the Republican primaries since the winner of the Republican primary has, in the last few decades at least, really been the individual who's going to win the governorship. So you know, if you want some input, then you need to vote on the Republican primary. And I'm sure that was on the minds of those eight or nine-thousand Democrats and nonpartisan individuals who switched to Republicans.

Padmore: Herbster made a strong showing in the end. Do you think we divine right now, if former President Donald Trump still has the sway over Nebraska Republicans as he seems to win other states? Is that still present? We saw many people show up for his rally for Herbster, but then again, he did fall short.

Hibbing: Right, I suppose you can look at that two different ways. On the one hand, Trump was endorsing a candidate with some pretty serious flaws- I'm speaking specifically of the allegations by the eight women. So, you know, you might guess, if you were Trump, you'd probably say, look, we got 30% of the vote in a very crowded field, so Herbster didn't do that badly. And maybe Trump's endorsement helped. On the other hand, Trump really did go all-in on this. He visited the state when just, what, eight or nine days before the election, his son was out here. He didn't mince any words, even after the allegations. So, you know, Trump has been doing fairly well with the candidates. He's endorsed nationwide, but this is clearly one of those instances in which his endorsement was not sufficient to secure the nomination.

Padmore: And, of course, that leaves us with the victor of the night, Jim Pillen. So what did Pillen get right here? This is obviously a win for the Nebraska GOP establishment, him being their preferred candidate. He shirked the debates, he called, called them distractions, did not engage, really and he still walked away with the nod. What does this say for the future of politics in Nebraska? Big question. I know.

Hibbing: Yeah, that is and you know, I hope it is not an indication of what's going to happen in the future. You know, I'm a believer in debates, we need to exchange ideas. That’s great that Pillen was out, you know, going around the state and meeting everybody. That needs to be done as well. But I still think you could carve out time for a debate or two. I was disappointed, to be honest with you, not just in Pillen, but in the general tenor of the campaign. There wasn't sufficient attention to issues in Nebraska. I'm sure the candidates will dispute me on that, but you know, (there are) a lot of things going on that I thought could have been addressed a little bit more specifically, rather than talking about, you know, these broad national issues, and then just kind of vague things like making the state more welcoming so that we don't have a brain drain.

Padmore: I don't want to underscore this too much, but do you think this signifies a shift in how things will operate now that the Nebraska GOP pretty much has a solid hold on elections? I believe Mike Flood also won his election, Adrian Smith, of course, walked away with his. So yeah, is this does this change things going forward? Are we going to see a more combative, more national-focused elections in Nebraska?

Hibbing: I think the answer is probably yes. Just I guess I say that largely, because of the fact that if you look around the country, you see those same kinds of things happening. Tip O'Neill, former Speaker of the House decades ago, was famous for saying '"all politics is local." And with all due respect to Tip O'Neill, I think that may no longer be true. You know, we do see a very heavy influence of kind of national issues, whether it be immigration or abortion, filtering into states like Nebraska. And, you know, I, I'm afraid I have to say that I think that trend will probably continue.

Padmore: The Republicans were not the only ones to hold primary elections last night, of course, the Democrats made their showings. Carol Blood walked away with her nomination, Patty Pansing Brooks beat Mr. Zakaria, for that nomination. And that's all very well and good. But I got to ask straight up: When you are a Democrat running an election in Nebraska, your chances are not good, right?

Hibbing: Well, yeah. Certainly, recent history suggests that's the case. In the last three or four decades, Democrats just have not had much luck, especially in statewide races. So you know, there's no way to sugarcoat this, we are a red state. And if you look at the party registration numbers, even before, you know some of those parties switching for strategic reasons, it really is a daunting situation for Democrats. They're way behind Republicans in registration. We have a large number of individuals in Nebraska registered as non-partisans and it seems to me that those individuals have always tended to tilt toward the right as well. So even though they're not registered Republicans, takes quite a bit for them to vote Democratic. So yes, this is why there's so much attention to the primaries last night because what happens in the Republican primary in the last three or four decades has really been what happens in the state overall.

Padmore: And so that leads us to November and we should say that the general elections have not yet been held, so anything could happen. From your perspective, what can Democrats do, if anything, to walk away with one or all of these races come November?

Hibbing: You know, it would have been interesting if Herbster had received the Republican nomination, what would have happened in the general election for Governor. Because then I think Carol Blood might have had a chance (with) I think, a lot of independents who might not have been pleased with the Herbster allegations and other things. But that didn't happen, as you know. I think all the Democrats can do is nominate quality candidates and they are. Carol Blood is a quality candidate. Patty Pansing Brooks is a quality candidate. That doesn't mean you're going to win, but you know, that's all you can do. (All they can do) is keep slugging and I guess from the Democrats' point of view, hope that that, you know, significant parts of the state maybe change their minds about some of the things that Republicans have done. It hasn't been a good stretch for Republicans between Mike Groene, Charles Herbster, and Jeff Fortenberry. You know, there have been some things that, you know, it's doubtful that that's going to be enough to allow the Democrats to have a string of victories in Nebraska.

Padmore: We talked about the major races, but were there any other races that I didn't mention that caught your eye?

Hibbing: You could give a tip of the hat I suppose to the race for Secretary of State. That's where the incumbent, Bob Evnen was challenged by a couple of individuals. I didn't follow his campaign closely but I think these individuals are motivated largely because of some sense that, you know, the election of 2020 was not appropriate, that there was some fraud. Hard to see how that was the case since Trump did so well on the state anyway, but that seemed to be what they were concerned with. But yeah, Evnen was able to beat that back and say, ‘No, elections in Nebraska have always been fair, and they were in 2020’.

Padmore: Right on. Professor Hibbing, once again, thank you for your time. I appreciate it, sir.