OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Republican businessman Jim Pillen was elected Nebraska’s next governor on Tuesday by defeating Democratic state Sen. Carol Blood to extend the GOP’s 24-year string of success in the conservative state.
Nebraska hasn’t elected a Democrat as governor since 1994, and Pillen was the clear favorite after emerging from a contentious primary in the spring over eight other candidates. Pillen is a hog farm owner and veterinarian from Columbus who also serves on the University of Nebraska Board of Regents.
Pillen will replace Gov. Pete Ricketts, who couldn’t run for reelection because of term limits.
Pillen said he believes his calls for smaller government, fewer mandates and lower taxes resonated with voters.
“Every Nebraskan wants the governor to run our state like a business, so that’s what we’re going to do,” he said.
In the primary, Pillen defeated fellow businessman Charles Herbster, who was endorsed by former President Donald Trump.
The primary highlighted divisions in the Republican Party between activists who support Trump and want to take the party further to the right and more moderate members who backed Pillen, Most top GOP leaders in the state endorsed Pillen, including Ricketts, former Gov. Kay Orr and former University of Nebraska football coach and congressman Tom Osborne.
Those party divisions were on display again this summer when Republicans voted to fire their longtime party chairman at their state convention, and Herbster still hasn’t endorsed Pillen. But Pillen still received broad support from registered Republicans, who account for nearly 49% of the state’s voters. Democrats represent 28% of Nebraska voters, and the remainder aren’t affiliated with either party.
Pillen’s business background appealed to voters such as 70-year-old Ron Brown, of Omaha,
“He’s a businessman. He’s actually run a business,” said Brown. “He’s hired people and fired people and made all the budget decisions the state should be making.”
Concerns about the economy and and the soaring price of everything at the grocery store drove Dan Schafer’s vote. He said Pillen’s promise to limit government spending was attractive.
“What it really came down to was money,” the 49-year-old Schafer said after voting in northwestern Omaha. “It was really just the economy and to me.”
Blood, who represented the Omaha suburb of Bellevue in the Legislature after serving on its City Council, focused her campaign on what she saw as the need for change after such a long period of Republican control. She called for the state to invest in upgrading its roads and bridges by issuing bonds and taking on a larger share of education funding while reducing the unfunded mandates it places on cities and counties throughout Nebraska.
But Pillen prevailed while arguing that Nebraska is thriving after emerging from the pandemic and continuing to recover from historic flooding in 2019. He pledged to cut government spending while working to expand access to broadband internet service statewide and reduce regulations, particularly on agricultural businesses. He also stressed the need to try to persuade more young people to remain in the state instead of moving away.
The topic of abortion wasn’t a major issue in the campaign even after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade in June. Blood said she supported Nebraska’s current ban on abortions after 20 weeks of gestation but opposed further restrictions, while Pillen said he would support a ban on abortions starting at 12 weeks.
Pillen refused to debate Blood during the fall, much like he avoided debates during the primary. His campaign has said Pillen preferred to reach out to voters directly.
One of the first big decisions likely to face Pillen will be deciding whom to appoint to replace U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse, who is expected to resign if the University of Florida chooses him to be its next president. Ricketts, who could be a candidate for the Senate job, said he would leave that decision to his successor.