Pillen wants to bring small town sensibility to Nebraska’s politics

Oct. 7, 2022, 5 a.m. ·

Jim Pillen stands with two Nebraskans at a Fam Bureau event in Grand Island
The Nebraska Farm Bureau endorsed Republican candidate for governor Jim Pillen early on the election cycle. Pillen speaks at many of the organization's events across the state, including Grand Island's Husker Harvest Days this September. (Photo courtesy Pillen for Governor)

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Nebraska's Republican candidate for governor has been campaigning non-stop for the past 20 months. It's possible that some voters have missed Jim Pillen because he’s not holding big rallies or debating his opponent in prime time.

His approach is more “boots on the ground” and involves many smaller stops in various communities across the state.

“We have extraordinary support for our strategy of ground game, grassroots campaigning,” he said.

Pillen knows he’s drawn critics for not debating his opponent, state Sen. Carol Blood of Bellevue. But the Columbus-area pig farmer and University of Nebraska Regent said he doesn't need to debate to deliver his message.

A senior adviser to Pillen’s campaign called debates “political theater” soon after the campaign acknowledged Pillen wouldn’t debate.

“The people who care about debates are political insiders and members of the media,” the adviser, Matthew Trail, said. “And Jim is not running a popularity contest with members of the media or with political insiders.”

Pillen and his campaign said it’s that low-key style of campaigning – question and answer sessions in small town community centers and Nebraska Farm Bureau-sponsored town halls – will propel the Republican to a November win.

Pillen’s campaign boasts 500 stops in all 93 counties.

“That's why we won in May, and we believe that's why we'll win in November,” Pillen said.

The lowkey style of campaigning was evident at a Sept. 26 Right to Life event in Lincoln.

Dressed in his trademark checkered blue sport coat, off-white dress shirt and a dark pair of blue jeans, Jim Pillen talked abortion with slightly older crowd.

“It’s really, really important that we get a lot of red sweaters across the finish line in the next 42 days,” Pillen told the crowd.

His goal is to help elect 35 to 36 red sweaters – or Republicans – to Nebraska’s Legislature for the next session. The minimum number of seats that Pillen and the GOP want to win is 33 senators, which gives the GOP a filibuster-proof majority – one big enough to ensure the success of Pillen's agenda which includes passing a stricter abortion ban.

“Reach out and get a lot more people out [to vote],” he said at the event. “If we get a great turnout, we will win. And then we can celebrate, and we can answer a lot of prayers.”

Abortion is just one of Pillen’s four big priorities if Nebraska voters send him to the Governor’s Mansion. The other priorities are reversing brain drain, shrinking government and aiding agriculture.

Jim Pillen speaks at a Lincoln Right to Life event
Jim Pillen, the Republican candidate for governor, speaks at a Nebraska Right to Life event in Lincoln on September 26, 2022. (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

Furthering abortion restrictions

When asked how many weeks into a pregnancy a person should be allowed to get an abortion, Pillen told Nebraska Public Media News that 12 to 15 weeks isn’t enough of a restriction.

“When we start talking about a few weeks, we need to save every baby that's grown in a mother's womb – irregardless of the weeks,” he said.

He would, however, like to carve out protections for an ectopic pregnancy where the health and life of the mother is at risk.

“This is not about in-vitro fertilization. This is not about embryos. This is not a medical essay. It's not about preventative prophylactics,” Pillen said. “It is simply about stopping babies who are growing in mothers wombs from being murdered.”

Making government smaller

Gov. Pete Ricketts, one of Pillen’s key endorsers in the primary cycle, said during his tenure that he wants Nebraska’s state government to function more like a business, serving Nebraskans in an efficient manner. Pillen wants to continue that goal by keeping the government small.

Pillen said he’d like Nebraskans who work for the state’s government to see those jobs as public service, rather than government bureaucracy.

“When you're a public servant, that means you're working for the greater good of the people of the state,” he said. “And your job is to bring value and help Nebraskans lives, whatever that might be.”

For example, in law enforcement jobs, he said that public service means keeping the community safe. When working on Nebraska’s roads, it means “we're going to make sure that we're working hard and not leaning on shovels, and we're putting a full day's work in so that we have the best roads in the country,” Pillen said.

Keeping Nebraska’s kids home

Nebraska high school students need to have the options for job training to fill some of the state’s needed blue-collar jobs, Pillen said. From there, he’d like to implement public-private partnerships that keep those skills in the state for a five to seven year commitment.

“Our future is incredibly bright,” he said. “We just have to be inspired to do things a little bit differently, to do business differently, to compete, so that we keep our kids home.”

Helping agriculture

On the top of Pillen’s mind is energy independence. He said he would advocate for gas stations to sell a 20% ethanol blend, which would provide some extra cash in corn farmers' pockets. His second priority for agriculture is food security.

“We saw some things really, really close to becoming catastrophic during the pandemic when you couldn't process animals and turn pigs into pork chops,” he said.

Pillen said he plans to continue to increase access to water. He’d like to continue Gov. Ricketts’ fight to divert South Platte River water from Colorado to Nebraska. He’ll need to convince the Nebraska Legislature to fund that project – known as the Perkins County Canal – if a cost-benefit study agrees it’s worth it.

“It's one of those things, as I say, every drop of water matters,” Pillen said. “And that's an investment into the future over generations. That's not a spend – that's an investment.”

Aligning priorities with new GOP leadership

A handful of GOP members expressed resentment toward former state party leadership after a heated primary where Pillen beat Republican rivals Charles Herbster and Brett Lindstrom.

That resentment came to fruition this summer when much of the state leadership, aligned with the Ricketts wing of the Republican party, were either ousted from leadership positions or quit after a contentious statewide meeting in Kearney.

“From our seat, it's not any different before or after,” Pillen said. “We've been 100% focused on the electorate of the state of Nebraska.”

As of now, Pillen and the GOP’s goals still align – even after the primary cycle, according to Eric Underwood, the new chairman of the Nebraska GOP, who was elected that day in Kearney.

“I still think there's still some hurt feelings that come out of that there,” Underwood said. “But what I've now seen move forward is that there needs to be an understanding, as Republicans, we fully believe that we're going to have a Republican governor.”

Jim Pillen sits at a University of Nebraska Regents meeting in April 2021
Jim Pillen was elected to the Board of Regents first in 2012 and re-elected in 2018. He served as the board's chairman in 2020. (Photo by Dylan Widger)

Jim Pillen, the regent

Pillen’s goals aren’t new. He’s brought those conservative goals to the University of Nebraska Board of Regents since first elected in 2012.

When asked what he was most proud of during his tenure as regent, Pillen touted not hiking tuition for the university system and building connections between the four campuses.

“We've been able to decrease spending and make education more accessible, and I'm really, really proud of that,” he said.

Reversing brain drain is an issue he wishes the regents could have addressed further. If he’s not elected to be the next governor, Pillen said he’d like to make the University of Nebraska Regents scholarship more attractive for competitive high school students who may otherwise consider leaving the state for college.

Pillen caught many Nebraskans’ attention when he introduced a resolution for the university system to oppose "any imposition" of critical race theory last year. The regents voted 5-3 against Pillen’s resolution.

Regent Elizabeth O’Connor of Omaha, along with several public testifiers, didn’t mince words about Pillen’s failed resolution last summer. At the meeting where the issue was discussed, O’Connor said the language of Pillen’s proposal didn’t make sense.

Regent-Elizabeth-OConnor headshot
Elizabeth O'Connor (Photo courtesy University of Nebraska)
Bob-Phares headshot
Bob Phares (Photo courtesy University of Nebraska)

“At the end of the day, it’s not the job of the university to teach that the world is fair and that race doesn’t matter,” she said. “It's up to the university to teach how the world actually is and how race has shaped our history as a nation.”

Regent Bob Phares of North Platte, who represents much of western Nebraska, also disagreed with Pillen on that vote. Critical race theory has been taught for over 30 years, Phares said, adding that each campus has a way for students to report if they have been politically pressured in the classroom.

“We haven't had any complaints about it,” said Phares, who’s serving as the regents chairman in 2022.

Despite the disagreement on the hot-button issue, Phares said he thinks Pillen will make a good governor.

“If we have different points of view, we ought to feel free to share it,” Phares said. “And when we're done, we ought to be able to sit down and have a cup of coffee together.”

To read about Pillen's opponent, Carol Blood, click here.