This is an unusual turn of events: incumbent governors rarely step into the countryside to succeed them. But Ricketts – who seeks to maintain his influence over the home state while fueling speculation he could run for president in 2024 – isn’t giving Herbster a thumbs up.
The clash illustrates a broader challenge facing Trump’s list of associates seeking employment in 2022, a growing list that spans from former ambassadors and former staff to major donors . While their loyalty to Trump will almost certainly help them attract his staunch supporters, they also face the reality that their electoral fortunes may depend on more local factors – in this case, a governor bent on thwarting someone he considers it an antagonist. .
“It’s an open secret in the Nebraska GOP that Governor Ricketts has no lost love with Charles W. Herbster,” said Ryan Horn, a Republican state strategist.
The fight could turn into a financial arms race, pitting two powerful forces in Republican donor circles. Herbster has donated more than a million dollars to outfits that supported Trump’s re-election effort, and Ricketts comes from a billionaire family, who own the Chicago Cubs, who have donated huge sums to the GOP. The 56-year-old governor has a long history of fundraising candidates in Nebraska he has been approved.
Who wins the battle may well be decided by their common ally: Trump, whose backing is certain to have significant clout in a state he has won by nearly 20 percentage points.
In an interview, Herbster insisted he had no animosity towards Ricketts and said he was baffled by the governor’s decision to speak out against him. He said he voted for Ricketts in his two general elections, contributed to his first campaign and made a donation at his inauguration in 2015. Herbster recalled that shortly after taking office, Ricketts invited him to lunch and asked for a contribution to a death penalty initiative, which Herbster agreed to.
“I have nothing against Governor Ricketts, I have nothing against the Ricketts family,” Herbster said.
But he added: “If I were governor of a state and I was the leader of the Republican Party of that state, I would stay out of this race. I would focus on my role as governor. I wouldn’t focus on … choosing who I would like to be governor. “
Ricketts did not respond to an interview request.
Nebraska Republicans date back to 2013, when Herbster donated millions of dollars to a main Ricketts opponent, then-senator Beau McCoy. McCoy saved Ricketts, calling him at one point a hypocrite for opposing gay marriage while being part-owner of the Chicago Cubs, which McCoy described as a “gay-friendly” team. The attack was seen as deeply personal: Ricketts’ sister Laura is gay. (Herbster, who briefly introduced himself before giving up and endorsing McCoy, insisted he had nothing to do with McCoy’s criticisms and disagreed with that.)
Herbster’s then alliance with incumbent Republican Governor Dave Heineman, whom Herbster invited to serve on his company’s board, complicated matters. Shortly before the 2014 primary, Heineman endorsed Ricketts’ opponent Jon Bruning, whom Ricketts ultimately narrowly beat for the GOP nomination. The Ricketts-Heineman feud would continue for years to come, with Ricketts’ team later retaliating by posting documents describing Heineman as embarking on numerous out-of-state trips during his tenure. (Heineman is now considering participating in the 2022 Governors’ Race himself, according to several people familiar with his thinking.)
But Republicans across the state say there’s another reason Ricketts may be so determined to stop Herbster: Having someone he sees as an enemy in the governor’s mansion, they say, could become a puzzle if Ricketts chooses to run for president. The governor has taken steps to cultivate a national profile in recent weeks, repeatedly attacking President Joe Biden on social media and attending a Fox News town hall event hosted by Laura Ingraham.
Ricketts began his assault on Herbster last week, holding a press conference the same day the candidate launched his campaign where he accused him of moving his company headquarters out of state – a claim which Ricketts repeated in a TV interview.
Herbster called the review “fake news,” insisting he “never took a job far from Nebraska.”
“I’ll be honest, I was very disappointed when he scheduled a [press conference] down the road from where I got my ad, ”Herbster said,“ and shot me with a statement that was false. (An aide to Ricketts said the press conference was planned long before and described the moment as a coincidence.)
Herbster, 66, is known as a colorful figure in Nebraska circles: he owes part of his fortune selling bull semen and talks about slapping Trump-themed license plates on his fleet of vehicles.
It is not known whether Ricketts will attempt to use his influence with Trump to dissuade him from supporting Herbster. But Herbster – who said he had not spoken with Trump about an endorsement – appeared to throw a brush at the governor, noting that the governor’s parents donated millions of dollars to an anti-super PAC. Trump in the 2016 Republican primary. Trump at the time issued a vague threat in response, tweeting that the Ricketts family have “a lot to hide!”
Herbster compared it to what he described as his unwavering support for the former president, whom he said he befriended in 2005. He recalls being there when the campaign kicked off. Trump in 2015, spending the following months flying across the country to support his candidacy and becoming one of his first major backers.
Herbster, who chaired a Trump campaign farm advisory committee that year, said he rejected calls to drop Trump after the release of the obscene “Access Hollywood” video in which he spoke in sexually graphic terms of women.
Herbster’s loyalty continued unabated. He attended the pro-Trump rally on Jan.6 that preceded the deadly attack on Capitol Hill, although he said he was not present for the riot and condemned the violence that took place. He was recently quoted in a local newspaper as saying, “If this is the difference between being disloyal to President Trump or becoming governor of Nebraska, I will not be disloyal to the 45th President.”
The Ricketts family, meanwhile, have grown closer to Trump. Right after Trump became the alleged GOP candidate in 2016, he traveled to Omaha for a rally where Pete Ricketts expressed his support.
In the 2020 election, the governor’s parents were among the former president’s most generous contributors, donating millions of dollars to pro-Trump organizations. Todd Ricketts, the governor’s brother, was appointed assistant secretary of commerce in the Trump administration before stepping down. He was then appointed finance chairman of the Republican National Committee.
But Herbster does not forget the Ricketts family’s initial opposition to the former president.
“I was loyal from day one, I can assure you,” Herbster said. “I spent two years supporting Donald Trump as the Ricketts family tried to do everything they could [to make sure] that he would not be elected.