LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska Republicans struggled to put the bruising campaign for governor behind them on Wednesday as a rally that was intended to highlight party unity instead showed division following the first major loss for a candidate endorsed by Donald Trump in this year’s midterm elections.
Fissures remained evident in the hours after the primary was called for Jim Pillen, a University of Nebraska regent backed by Gov. Pete Ricketts and other prominent Republicans.
Charles Herbster, the Trump-backed candidate who finished second, appeared briefly at the event but left immediately afterward without taking questions or endorsing Pillen. Herbster, a businessman and cattle breeder who faced groping allegations from eight young women during the campaign, has a lawsuit pending against one of his accusers, a Republican state senator.
Another top contender, state Sen. Brett Lindstrom, did not attend the post-election unity gathering, as is customary for losing candidates. He endorsed Pillen on Tuesday night after conceding the race.
Regardless of any lingering hard feelings, Pillen will be a strong favorite against Democrat Carol Blood, a state senator, in November. Nebraska, a Republican stronghold, has not elected a Democrat as governor since 1994. Ricketts is prevented by term limit laws from running again.
“I know when you or your candidate is on the losing side, sometimes it becomes pretty darn difficult to come together,” Dan Welch, the state Republican Party chair, said in a speech at the rally. He added: "But if you think about what brings us all together as a party, it’s not the candidates. What brings us together are our conservative ideologies, our conservative principles and our philosophies.”
The discord highlights the dangers for Republicans of Trump wading into primary contests where other GOP leaders have endorsed different candidates. The stakes will only get higher later this month for Trump in primaries in Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Georgia as he seeks to reward allies and punish enemies before a possible run for the White House in 2024.
Trump lashed out at Ricketts in a statement Wednesday that referred to him and others as a “RINO,” short for “Republican in Name Only.” The former president had defended Herbster during in-person and telephone rallies with Nebraska voters, saying the allegations against the candidate were politically motivated. Trump has previously denied sexual assault allegations of his own using similar language.
Pillen struck a unifying tone in his speech at the rally.
“I think that what’s important today is we focus on tomorrow,” he said, adding, “I will work very, very hard to earn the rest of the Republican votes, eyeball to eyeball, handshake to handshake, all across the state.”
During the campaign, Herbster and Lindstrom both faced television attacks from Conservative Nebraska, a political action committee heavily bankrolled by Ricketts, a wealthy former executive and the son of billionaire TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts. The family has spent millions of dollars over the years to help their chosen candidates and causes.
Herbster denied allegations from eight women, including state Sen. Julie Slama, that he had groped them, and he accused Ricketts and Pillen of conspiring to spread the story; both men denied that. Herbster has filed a defamation lawsuit against Slama, who responded with a suit of her own accusing him of sexual battery.
A Herbster campaign spokesperson did not respond to a message Wednesday asking whether Herbster still planned to pursue his suit and whether he would endorse Pillen. Slama's lawyer did not immediately reply to email and phone messages.
After the race was called for Pillen, Slama tweeted, “God Bless Nebraska” with an American flag emoji.
State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan, who helped form a legal fund to defend Herbster's accusers, said her group had not decided yet whether to disband. “He lost. We need to move on,” said Linehan, a Pillen supporter.
Ricketts, in an interview, said it was important for Republicans to come together against Blood and any other Democrats running in November. He said Pillen had a better ground game and message that resonated with voters.
“Endorsements only carry you so far, especially endorsements from outside the state,” Ricketts said. “What Nebraskans want to know is what you're going to do, and one of the things Jim Pillen did was have the best grassroots campaign to get around the state and tell people directly. That's why he won.”
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Grant Schulte, The Associated Press