by Paul Hammel, Nebraska Examiner
November 8, 2022
LINCOLN — Riding the coattails and pocketbook of Gov. Pete Ricketts, University of Nebraska Regent Jim Pillen coasted to victory Tuesday in the race to be the next governor.
Pillen, a veterinarian and hog farmer from Columbus, was outdistancing his Democratic rival, State Sen. Carol Blood of Bellevue, by a 56-41% margin.
In comments at his Election Night party, Pillen said he was incredibly humbled by his election and asked Nebraskans to “put special interests aside and work not for what’s in the best interest of me, my corner or my community” but for the state as a whole.
‘It’s time …’
“It’s time, once and for all, to fix the property tax problem,” he said, echoing pledges of past governors.
To loud applause from an overflow crowd at Lincoln’s Marriott Cornhusker Hotel, Pillen pledged to protect “innocent life,” the right to bear arms and to “put faith back in the public square where it’s always belonged.”
Tuesday’s election marked a continuation of the Republican dominance of all Nebraska constitutional offices that began in 1998. On Tuesday, the GOP retained control of the governor’s office, as well as the offices of attorney general, secretary of state, state treasurer and state auditor.
A Democrat has not served in a constitutional office since 1999, when then- Gov. Ben Nelson left office due to term limits.
Blood said her campaign “energized a lot of Nebraskans” and did not try to “buy our way into office,” a reference to being outspent by nearly a 20-to-1 margin.
“We were told from the very beginning we didn’t have a chance in hell,” she said.
“What we loved about our campaign is we brought hope to people who thought that their voices had not been heard in decades. So to those people, I say, don’t give up hope. We hear you. We are going to keep fighting for you. That’s never going to change,” Blood said.
“This is a red state, friends. We are proud of our numbers, and I got to make a lot of new friends across Nebraska.”
Pillen, a 66-year-old former Nebraska football player, was boosted by early and lucrative support from Ricketts, a millionaire member of a family that owns the Chicago Cubs and founded TD Ameritrade.
Ricketts poured nearly $1.3 million, and his parents added $250,000, into a political action committee that attacked Pillen’s major GOP major rivals in the spring primary, Falls City businessman Charles Herbster and State Sen. Brett Lindstrom of Omaha. Ricketts also gave $100,000 directly to the Pillen campaign.
Most expensive governor’s race
It was a contentious, heavyweight bout in the spring, with former President Donald Trump stumping for Herbster — who spent more than $10 million of his own money on the race in 2022 — against Pillen, who was backed by Ricketts and his family, who are major, national donors to GOP causes.
By primary’s end, it was already the most expensive gubernatorial race in state history.
Pillen picked up a rare, primary endorsement from the state’s largest agricultural group, the Nebraska Farm Bureau, which mobilized its members to put up signs and tout his candidacy.
Mark McHargue, president of the Farm Bureau, said Tuesday night that it was huge that a farmer will occupy the governor’s office. His election is expected to continue Ricketts’ strong support for corn-based ethanol.
“He will hit the ground running,” McHargue said of Pillen.
Former State Sen. Jim Scheer of Norfolk said he was impressed when he has worked with Pillen in the past. Pillen, he said, was a good listener who was always “looking for the right answer,” not just for someone to agree with his opinion.
There was also controversy in the race, as the Nebraska Examiner reported that eight women, including a current state senator, said they had been inappropriately groped by Herbster. All eight accounts were corroborated by witnesses or people the women told what happened immediately afterward.
As is often the case, the winner of the Republican primary has gone on to win the governor’s office in Nebraska, where the GOP enjoys a 606,967-to-345.292 voter registration advantage over Democrats statewide.
Pillen, according to his last state campaign spending report, had spent nearly $9.3 million this year to gain the governor’s post, which compared to $506,000 spent by Blood, a nearly 19-to-1 advantage.
No gubernatorial debates
Remarkably, the general election campaign included no debates between the Republican and Democratic candidates for governor. Pillen began turning down debates during the primary, calling them political theater.
Blood tried to capitalize on Pillen’s reluctance to engage in a live debate, but it failed to move the needle much. Nor did Blood’s attempts to paint the Columbus agri-businessman as a candidate without a plan.
Farmer as governor
Pillen, the first farmer to serve as governor in Nebraska in at least six decades, based his campaign on his conservative credentials, and support for gun rights, his opposition to abortion rights and “health standards” proposed by the State Board of Education, and a stance against the teaching of critical race theory in the state’s K-12 schools and universities.
As an NUregent, Pillen proposed a resolution to block teaching of CRT at NU, but the resolution was defeated 5-3 after students and faculty objected, saying that it was a theory that was important for students to debate.
Pillen also campaigned on commitments to “modernize” the state’s tax system and to revamp the state’s aid formula to K-12 schools, by distributing aid on a per-student basis instead of a formula that attempts to equalize aid between tax-poor and tax-rich school districts.
A Lincoln-based think tank, the Open Sky Policy Institute, was critical of the per-student switch, saying that the state’s largest school districts, which educate 78% of the state’s students, would lose about $270 million in state aid, forcing painful increases in local property taxes.
Other statehouse races
Re-elected Tuesday, against token opposition, were Secretary of State Bob Evnen and State Treasurer John Murante.
State Sen. Mike Hilgers of Lincoln, the current Speaker of the Legislature, was elected attorney general. And voters returned Lt. Gov. Mike Foley to the office of state auditor, a post he’d held from 2007-15.
Nebraska Examiner senior reporter Cindy Gonzalez contributed to this report.
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