Meet Nebraska's Republican Candidates for Governor

April 22, 2022, 6 a.m. ·

Nebraska Public Media News Campaign Connections 2022

Nine Republicans are hoping to win their party's nomination in the governor's race. Nebraska Public Media News asked each candidate what their top priority would be if elected to the seat for four years.

Donna Carpenter

Carpenter did not respond to repeated requests for comment on this story.

Michael Connely poses for a headshot in a red dress shirt, black tie and leather vest

Michael Connely

Party: Republican

Age: 61

Occupation: Part-time educational adviser

When asked about one mission he wants to complete as governor, if elected, Connely said he would like to restructure the state’s legislative body.

"As time goes on, Lincoln and Omaha will have more and more representation," Connely said. "At this rate, I can see in 20 years, the Legislature declaring beef to be illegal, and we have to eat only artificial meat. I can see a bill like that actually popping up in 20 years if we keep getting less representation in the west and more in the east. If I cannot reform the unicameral and make it a hybrid House of Representatives and the Senate, then I will push to make it a bicameral. Now, I prefer to keep a unicameral and make it a hybrid system, which limits the representation that any counties can have."

Connelly, a Marine Corps veteran and now educational adviser, believes that will help push his other top priorities, such as expanding gun ownership rights, removing the State Board of Education and eliminating thirty percent of state government agencies in his 30 by 30 plan.

"I would like to make Nebraska, permanently, the most conservative state in the United States," he said. "I want to make this the heartbeat of conservative Christian values here in Nebraska, and it is impossible without restructuring the unicameral. Restructuring the unicameral would be the top one. Then making Nebraska the number one most gun friendly would be a secondary."

Charles Herbster headshot

Charles Herbster

Party: Republican

Age: 68

Occupation: Agri-businessman

Another conservative candidate in the race has the endorsement of former President Donald Trump and other national Republican political figures. Herbster announced his campaign nearly one year ago. The agriculture businessman is facing sexual assault allegations from eight women – including State Sen. Julie Slama. Herbster denies the allegations, calling them “100-percent false libelous accusations” generated by the Republican “establishment machine.”

Herbster pulled out of an interview with Nebraska Public Media News the same day the Nebraska Examiner published an article of the allegations. In Nebraska Public Media's March debate, Herbster hit on national issues that are popular talking points in conservative circles.

“America is in trouble, and if America is in trouble, Nebraska is in trouble," he said. "America is Nebraska, and Nebraska is America. Going forward in 2022, governor elections in all of the states will be the most important governor you’ve possibly ever voted for in your entire life. Governors moving forward will have two jobs: to lead their state and to pushback against government overreach that’s coming out of Washington like a tsunami.”

The agriculture businessman said he wants to completely rebuild the state’s entire tax system, eliminate inheritance taxes and consider implementing consumption taxes.

This isn’t the first time Herbster has run for office. He launched a gubernatorial campaign in 2014, but withdrew when his wife became ill and later died. He endorsed former state senator Beau McCoy in the race that Gov. Pete Ricketts eventually won.

Brett Lindstrom poses for a headshot

Brett Lindstrom

Party: Republican

Age: 41

Occupation: Financial adviser

State Sen. Lindstrom represents the District 18 in the Legislature, which covers parts of western Omaha. He helped pass an estimated $900 million tax-cutting bill. It included his priority legislation to end social security taxes. One of Lindstrom’s targets in his campaign is addressing Nebraska’s staffing crisis that’s bleeding into hospitals and Nebraska’s classrooms.

“I think growing Nebraska would be the thing I'd like to hang my hat on, which then equates all the way across the board with economic development, workforce and putting Nebraska in a situation that just gets us into a competitive situation," Lindstrom said.

Dark money ads are targeting the state senator for appearing as a moderate Republican and picking up endorsements such as Nebraska’s largest teacher union. Online social media posts indicate some Democrats and non-partisan voters are jumping into the Republican party to vote for him in the primary election. Lindstrom said a common thing he hears from western Nebraskans is high farm property taxes and the lack of road and internet infrastructure.

“One of the big things that stands out is expansion on the roads," he said. "I [want to] look back and say we took a lot of the two-lane highways and made them four and say every community that wants connectivity, the outside world has that ability.”

Lela McNinch poses in a pink sweater outside for a headshot

Lela McNinch

Party: Republican

Age: 57

Occupation: Adjunct professor

McNinch brings a background of public safety, corrections and education. She previously served in emergency management and public safety roles in the state — and now teaches criminal justice courses as an adjunct professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. If elected, McNinch said her primary focus would be focusing on restructuring Nebraska’s schooling.

"I believe since education is the foundation of democracy, education and religion, my focus would be on education — rebuilding the Department of Education to focus on core curriculums, without unfunded mandates, without political agendas," McNinch said.

The Lincoln resident wants to enhance initiatives for people to become teachers to help fight the slim supply of teaching staff right now. She said she wants to appeal to eastern Nebraska educators to make the shift west to fill classrooms across the state.

"If we focus on education, and really build and develop skills for people, it fixes almost everything," she said. "It fixes the tax system because we'll have less inmates in prison. It fixes jobs because people will be educated when they get out of school and be able to work in the workforce. We can figure out the taxes that go along with that if we can bring more people into Nebraska. It broadens the tax base, lowers the tax burden on people. And people can can work and stay here and live."

Jim Pillen stands outside for a headshot with his hands crossed across his chest

Jim Pillen

Party: Republican

Age: 65

Occupation: Pig producer

Pillen has been a front runner in this race since he started. When asked about his signature issue, Pillen, currently a University of Nebraska regent, said he’s largely campaigning on four things: Nebraska's kids, less government, agriculture and pro-life values. In terms of less government, property taxes are at the top of the list – like many of the candidates.

"I'm a believer that how we assess property tax based on market value," he said. "It just keeps feeding [government spending]. Everything keeps going up. That creates more tax government spends. I think we have to go away from the market appraisal system. I would work really hard with the unicameral to have an income-based approach, so that it's more business-approach, and it stops feeding the machine of creating more government."

Also a Columbus area hog farmer, Pillen touts much of the state's Republican political backing – including Governor Pete Ricketts, former Governor Kay Orr, Tom Osborne and a slew of state lawmakers. He’s been criticized for ditching invitations to televised debates, but his campaign has held events in all 93 counties.

Breland Ridenour headshot

Breland Ridenour

Party: Republican

Age: 33

Occupation: Information technology manager

Ridenour said, if elected, he wants to be known as the governor who protects the rights of the people. In contrast with Pillen, Ridenour is a backer of replacing property and income tax reliance with a consumption tax. The plan is called EPIC – or eliminates property, income and corporate taxes.

"I would work closely with our legislators to be able to get to have our Legislature prioritize property, [change] our tax structure, convince them and help them understand why the EPIC plan, so far, is the best solution available to us," Ridenour said. "It's not perfect, but it is the best for a number of different reasons. I believe that what we really need in Nebraska is just to overhaul the system, change it once and for all, put a system in there, though, that is going to be sustainable."

In the Nebraska Public Media News' debate, Ridenour said consumption taxes would benefit partnership like the 4,000-acre lake that's proposed near Ashland.

Theresa Thibodeau poses for a headshot

Theresa Thibodeau

Party: Republican

Age: 46

Occupation: Small business owner

Theresa Thibodeau has consistently polled in fourth place in the crowded GOP primary. She said her main priority, if elected, is achieving true tax reform within the next four years.

"As well as making a huge impact on our education system," Thibodeau said. "Those go hand-in-hand, because how we fund our education, will also determine how that much-needed tax reform happens as well."

Thibodeau recently made a trip out to northeast Colorado to learn more about Gov. Pete Ricketts’ plan to construct the Perkins County Canal. The Legislature recently appropriated $53 million toward the project, which, eventually, is expected to cost more than half a billion dollars. Thibodeau said the state of Colorado may not be Nebraska’s lead opponent on water rights.

"Part of that research was meeting with ranchers in northeast Colorado to listen to their concerns," she said. "They are concerned about Denver taking their water as well. And as I met with them, it became very apparent that, if we build the canal, there still is no water there by the time Nebraska is able to access it. And that a better approach may be how we can work with northeast Colorado to protect Nebraska water as well as protect their water so that they can run their farms and ranches."

Troy Wentz takes a selfie

Troy Wentz

Party: Republican

Age: 59

Occupation: Farmer

Wentz wants to alter Nebraska’s property tax system to base taxes solely on the size of property, not market value. He supports voter ID laws and a consumption tax. Overall, Wentz said his primary objective is to shrink the state government's operation.

Wentz said he opposes a few major water projects that were recently approved funding in the Nebraska Legislature, including the Perkins County Canal and the plan for a proposed lake near Ashland. Wentz said he’s largely against those projects because they would use eminent domain to acquire private land from property owners.

"That's like the governor and people in the unicameral being more like communist dictators," Wentz said. "I've had relatives when they built a Wahoo lake who lost their land. Fought against it, and fought against it. [They saw] their land get taken away. I actually want to abolish eminent domain. So that's one of my things because I just don't like it when the government takes land away from people."