Former President Donald Trump, right, listens as Nebraska gubernatorial candidate Charles Herbster speaks during a rally in Greenwood on May 1, 2022.
Omaha, Nebraska CNN  — 

Allegations of sexual misconduct by eight women against Nebraska Republican Charles Herbster, and former President Donald Trump’s defense of him, have brought national attention to the candidate’s quest for the state’s governorship in Tuesday’s primary.

But like many of the more than 50 voters CNN spoke with here, most of whom are Republicans, 59-year-old Lisa Ketcham said she has “mixed” feelings about the allegations, amid fierce pushback from the businessman and farmer/rancher, who has denied them. Ketcham, a Republican from Omaha, said the allegations raised concerns for her but neither the controversy nor Trump’s endorsement would be the driving factors when she casts her ballot.

The Nebraska Examiner’s mid-April accounts of seven women who said they were groped by Herbster at political events or beauty pageants, and an additional woman who accused him of kissing her forcibly, injected a jolt of uncertainty into the GOP primary to succeed term-limited Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts. The Examiner said that all eight accounts were corroborated either by witnesses or people who spoke to the women about what happened immediately afterward.

It’s already been an unpredictable three-way race in this heavily Republican state between Herbster; hog farmer and University of Nebraska Board of Regents member Jim Pillen, who has Ricketts’ support; and state Sen. Brett Lindstrom. And earlier this month, Trump – whose endorsement is widely sought in GOP primaries – traveled to Nebraska to shore up Herbster at a rally where he dismissed the women’s accounts.

In an interview with CNN, Herbster also dismissed the allegations as a “politically-timed smear.”

“They did it to Donald J. Trump. They did it to Brett Kavanaugh,” Herbster said, alluding to sexual assault allegations against the former President and current Supreme Court justice.

Trump arrives at the rally for Herbster, where he defended the gubernatorial candidate.

Herbster’s vociferous denials, his targeting of one of his accusers in an ad, his rapid move toward litigation against her and his apparent disinterest in reflecting on how some of his past interactions with women may have created discomfort are all reminiscent of how Trump unapologetically navigated similar accusations against him during his 2016 campaign. For years afterward, Trump portrayed himself as a “victim” as he railed against what he viewed as the targeting of men during the height of the reckoning around sexual harassment known by the viral hashtag #MeToo.

As it was for Trump, that aggressive strategy appears to be helping Herbster weather the accusations. In interviews with Nebraska voters in recent days, there was little evidence that the sexual misconduct accusations have played a major role in swaying their opinions one way or another.

Ketcham, the 59-year-old from Omaha whom CNN met at the Village Pointe shopping center, said she plans to do her “research” on Herbster, “as far as what he can do for Nebraska,” but is leaning toward Pillen, Herbster’s chief rival. Still, she said she wants to see the women’s claims investigated more deeply: “If (Herbster) wants to have any kind of clout, he needs to clear up those allegations.”

But conversations with voters suggested that Ricketts’ support of Pillen could ultimately carry greater weight on Tuesday than Trump’s backing of Herbster. Though Trump won Nebraska 58% to 39% over now-President Joe Biden and remains enormously popular among GOP voters, Ricketts has actively campaigned against Herbster, a longtime political rival whom he has said is not qualified to be governor.

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, seen here in 2018, is supporting Jim Pillen for governor.

Many voters in the state said they were supporting Pillen, in part because of Ricketts’ faith in him and his focus on economic issues, while others said they were backing Lindstrom because they think he has been less negative. Some voters expressed distaste for the negativity of Herbster’s ads, as well as an overall exhaustion with the “mudslinging,” as one voter put it, at a time when Nebraskans are facing pressing economic concerns such as inflation.

“World issues are affecting us like anybody else. … Gas is up, ag is up, fertilizer. We can’t get fertilizer to farmers, and we’re an ag community,” said Vicky Ewin, a 64-year-old Republican who works for an agriculture supply, maintenance and distribution company. “Those farmers are suffering.”

Allegations against Herbster

The public scrutiny of Herbster’s conduct with women began with the mid-April Nebraska Examiner report detailing the accounts of the eight women. The only one who agreed to be named at first was Republican state Sen. Julie Slama, who said Herbster sexually assaulted her by reaching up her skirt and touching her without consent at a 2019 GOP dinner.

Declaring the allegations to be “false and malicious lies,” Herbster sued Slama in the District Court of Johnson County, claiming “Slama’s false statements” led to “grievous harm to his reputation.”

In her April 25 countersuit alleging sexual battery, Slama said she was “shocked, mortified and traumatized by Herbster’s actions” at the GOP dinner in 2019 – when she was 22 years old – and said she “was also frightened of retribution that could occur if she came forward because she knew Herbster was a multi-millionaire and a major donor for the Republican Party in Nebraska.”

In late April, Elizabeth Todsen, one of the eight women who spoke to the Nebraska Examiner, also identified herself publicly. In a statement provided to CNN by her attorney, Todsen said Herbster “sexually groped” her while greeting her table at that same GOP dinner and that the decision “to come forward with my story has been extremely difficult due to my fear of repercussions” from Herbster, whom she called “a powerful voice in Nebraska politics.”

Herbster’s political foes have defended the women. Ricketts, a close ally of Slama – who served as the press secretary for his 2018 campaign and was later appointed by Ricketts to fill a vacancy in the state’s unicameral legislature – called the allegations “beyond horrible,” said Herbster should seek forgiveness from the “women he has preyed upon” and urged him to seek treatment.

Jim Pillen, center, talks about his campaign after receiving an endorsement from Ricketts, right, in January.

Pillen said that “sexually assaulting women should be disqualifying for anyone seeking to serve as a leader” and that he was praying for the women. Lindstrom said he was “disgusted reading the stories of my colleague, Senator Slama, and the other brave women,” adding, “We need to listen to and stand with victims.”

But Herbster, who has already spent at least $11.3 million self-funding his campaign, according to finance reports, has refused to back down.

When asked by CNN whether he could recall the 2019 encounters with Slama and Todsen – and how his recollections differed from theirs – he repeatedly deflected the question by stating that their accounts were “100% false” and noting that he goes to “hundreds and hundreds of events, all the time.”

Herbster compared his situation to that of Trump – who was accused of a range of misconduct by at least 15 women during his 2016 campaign, all of which he denied – and the firestorm that faced Kavanaugh in 2018 after he was accused of sexual assault decades earlier at a high school party, an allegation he denied.

Herbster has taken those arguments to the airwaves. An ad that uses a Jenga set as a metaphor for what the narrator suggests are “lies stacked up” against the candidate decries the allegations as a smear campaign orchestrated by Ricketts and Pillen. Advisers to both men told CNN that claim is absurd.

“It is ridiculous to suggest that I or anyone else conspired to talk eight women and even more witnesses to make up stories about Charles Herbster,” Ricketts said in a statement to CNN. “It’s just not plausible.”

The ad targets Slama, claiming that she stayed in touch with Herbster through texts and calls after the alleged incident in 2019 and “even invited Herbster to her destination wedding,” the narrator intones.

Slama’s lawyer, Dave Lopez, described the ad in a statement to CNN as an attempt “to bully sexual assault victims into silence” and said its “conspiratorial claims” that the allegations were orchestrated as a smear campaign were false. In court filings responding to Herbster’s lawsuit, Slama said that her and her husband’s political contributor lists were used to “generate wedding invitations.”

Her counterclaim acknowledges that Herbster donated $10,000 to her 2020 legislative campaign but denies his claim that she “unilaterally sought out contact” with him “in both professional and social ways” in the years that followed the 2019 dinner. His lawsuit included one text message that he received from Slama in January 2022, to which he responded: “I’m sorry (who) is this I get so many text messages.”

When asked by CNN why he sued Slama, Herbster noted that he has six businesses and said he would do whatever was necessary to clear his name.

Some skepticism of the timing of the accusations

Even among Pillen and Lindstrom supporters, some expressed strong suspicion about the fact that the accusations emerged so close to the primary.

Ewin, the Republican who works for the agriculture company, said she believes the allegations are politically motivated but added that she was already leaning toward Pillen when they emerged. “I’ve been around since 1988 doing political things, so this is what people like to dig up,” she said.

Jon Van Housen, a 69-year-old from Syracuse who said he plans to vote for Lindstrom, wasn’t convinced by the allegations against Herbster: “You never know. That’s politics,” he said.

Some voters said they're backing state Sen. Brett Lindstrom, seen here in 2019, because they think his campaign has been less negative.

Herbster’s voters shared that concern. “Why is it all of a sudden that it’s being brought up now?” asked Shannon Martinez, a 41-year-old Republican from Sarpy County who said she plans to vote for him.

Others are still making up their minds. Jen, a 36-year-old hospice nurse from Omaha who spoke on the condition of only giving her first name, said she had planned to vote for Herbster, but the allegations against him have “thrown a wrench” and are “making it a really tough decision.” While she still thinks she will vote for him, she said she was waiting to see “if anything comes out more.”

Asked what he would say to female voters who want the women to be taken seriously, Herbster told CNN that his grandmother taught him three things: “She said, ‘You always pull out a chair for a lady. You help her take her coat off. You always open the car door.’” He added, “I’ve always been raised to respect and honor all women, all females of any age. And that’s how I’ve lived my total life.”

Herbster said many Nebraskans have approached him in recent weeks to tell him they are praying for him.

“I don’t like to have to use this to be helpful, but I think it’s been helpful to the campaign. I think it’s gotten people energized, got more people out to vote,” he said.

If the allegations have no other political impact, they did bring Trump to the state. Appearing in Greenwood at a recent rally, Trump called Herbster, a major donor to the Trump campaign whom he appointed in 2016 to chair its Agriculture and Rural Advisory Committee, “a fine man” who “had been badly maligned.”

“That’s why I came out here,” the former President said.

While Trump’s endorsement may have created a floor of support for Herbster, it remains to be seen whether his nod can catapult Herbster over the finish line, especially when Ricketts’ backing of Pillen also carries significant weight in this state. Political strategists, meanwhile, see a possibility that Lindstrom could eke out a victory, buoyed by voters who are repelled by the negativity of the other two campaigns.

At a Walmart in La Vista, Zach, a 21-year-old Republican voter, said the allegations against Herbster complicate his decision-making process.

“Originally, I was for sure going to vote Herbster, and after that, I started to look at Pillen,” he said. While he likes Trump, he said Ricketts’ support drew his attention to Pillen.

“When you have the governor endorsing someone different, it splits,” he said.