By Michael Warren, CNN
Donald Trump will head to Nebraska next week to hold a rally to boost his endorsed candidate for governor, Charles Herbster, who faces allegations he inappropriately touched women, ahead of a contentious Republican primary that has pitted the former President’s influence against that of the state’s term-limited GOP governor.
Trump announced his April 29 rally in Greenwood just days after the Nebraska Examiner reported that seven women, including Republican state Sen. Julie Slama, had accused Herbster of groping them at political events or beauty pageants, with an additional woman accusing him of kissing her forcibly. In six cases, at least one eyewitness corroborated the women’s allegations, the publication reported. Herbster has denied the allegations, calling them “100% false.”
Slama told the Examiner, which identifies itself as “independent, nonprofit and nonpartisan,” that Herbster groped her at a local Republican dinner in 2019, shortly after she had been appointed to Nebraska’s unicameral legislature. On Tuesday, the Examiner followed up its initial report with three on-the-record witnesses claiming to have seen Herbster touch women inappropriately, or were told about his action immediately after, including the specific incident with Slama.
In a Wednesday news conference, Herbster said, “I have never and never will act in the way that these accusations last week were leveled at me.”
Pressed by CNN about the allegations and the eyewitnesses who claim to have seen him, Herbster repeated his denial.
“I have never, ever done any of the allegations,” he said. “They’re 100% false.”
He suggested to reporters that sitting Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts was behind the allegations, saying it was “out of the Democratic playbook.”
When asked about Herbster’s comments by CNN, Ricketts said he had “nothing to do” with the article.
“It is ridiculous to suggest that I or anyone else conspired to talk (to) eight women and even more witnesses to make up stories about Charles Herbster. It’s just not plausible,” Ricketts said in a statement.
During his Wednesday press conference, Herbster also told reporters he has not discussed the allegations with Trump. A Trump spokesman did not respond to CNN when asked for comment on the allegations.
Herbster stated that since the alleged incident in 2019, Slama has met with him multiple times, sought political donations from him, received a $10,000 donation from him and even invited him to her wedding. Asked for comment about the allegations and Herbster’s response, Slama provided a statement to CNN.
“I was scared and felt obligated to meet with my attacker, Charles Herbster, because he is my constituent, a Republican mega-donor, and leading candidate for Nebraska Governor. I was terrified that in addition to sexually assaulting me, he would try to ruin my public reputation- which is exactly what he is trying to do now,” Slama said.
A person close to the state senator also directed CNN to an April 14 radio interview with Slama.
In the interview, Slama said that she received the donation from Herbster after winning her race in 2020 and that she had not asked for that specific donation. She also said her wedding invitation to Herbster was one of several invitations sent to donors to the campaigns of both Slama and her husband, a former state senator — and that the invitation list was “auto-populated” from their list of political supporters.
“I was horrified when he RSVP’d and said that he’d be coming to the wedding,” she said.
The May 10 gubernatorial primary in Nebraska is one of several upcoming tests for the influence of Trump’s endorsement in GOP primaries. Candidates backed by the former President are facing competitive primaries for House, Senate, and governor’s races in May in several states, including Ohio, West Virginia, North Carolina, Idaho, Pennsylvania and Georgia.
Republicans take sides
The political fallout from much of the Nebraska political establishment has not been favorable to Herbster. Ricketts, who is supporting Republican Jim Pillen in the May 10 gubernatorial primary, issued a statement condemning Herbster. So did former Gov. Kay Orr, the first Republican woman elected governor in the country.
And all 13 female members of Nebraska’s legislature, including Slama, issued a statement in support of the women, calling Herbster’s alleged behavior “completely unacceptable for anyone” and saying those alleged actions “render him unfit to serve.” While the Nebraska legislature is officially nonpartisan, state senators are affiliated with one of the two major political parties, and the group of signatories was bipartisan.
“Nobody even hesitated,” said Lou Ann Linehan, a Republican state senator who said she helped organize the statement by calling her colleagues after the Examiner published its story. “We know Julie. She wouldn’t lie.”
But other Republicans supporting Herbster’s campaign, including Gov. Kristi Noem of neighboring South Dakota, have stuck with the agribusinessman.
“The Governor and her family have known Charles for several years and have never known him to act in the manner he has been accused of,” said Joe Desilets, a senior adviser to Noem’s campaign.
And Trump’s announcement of his rally is a clear statement of support for Herbster, an ardent supporter of the former President.
The gubernatorial primary has become a proxy war of sorts between Trump and Ricketts, who is ineligible for a third term but remains a powerful political force in the Cornhusker State.
Late last year, shortly after Trump had endorsed Herbster, Ricketts said he had urged Trump to “stay out of the race.” In January, Ricketts endorsed Pillen, a farmer and veterinarian who also sits on the University of Nebraska’s elected Board of Regents.
The Republican gubernatorial primary also includes state Sen. Brett Lindstrom. State Sen. Carol Blood is the front-runner in the Democratic primary, but Democrats have not won a governor’s race in deep-red Nebraska since 1994.
Herbster is not the first Trump-supported candidate this cycle to face allegations of mistreatment of women. In Ohio, House hopeful Max Miller is facing allegations of abuse from an ex-girlfriend, former White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham. Former football star Herschel Walker, who is running for Senate in Georgia, has been accused of threatening multiple women over the course of a decade. Miller has denied the allegations and has filed a defamation suit against Grisham. Walker has spoken of his struggles with mental illness, and his campaign has noted that he has gotten help since the allegedly violent incidents in the early 2000s. He has denied allegations of threats made in at least two cases.
And Trump had endorsed Sean Parnell for Senate in Pennsylvania before the candidate dropped out of the race in late 2021. Parnell had lost a custody fight with his estranged wife, who had accused him of committing abusive acts against her. Parnell has denied the allegations.
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