Trump-backed candidate loses in Nebraska in possible preview of setbacks to come

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Donald Trump’s pick for governor of Nebraska was defeated in Tuesday’s Republican primary there, but in a showdown between two congressional candidates in West Virginia, the former president’s choice won handily.

Trump remains the GOP’s dominant figure, although his decision to endorse a host of candidates in competitive primaries this year is putting his influence among rank-and-file Republican voters to the test. The success or failure of Trump-backed candidates is being watched closely by GOP donors and other Republican politicians, including those considering their own campaigns for the presidency in 2024.

In Nebraska, Trump took his first major loss of the 2022 primary season. And there is at least one more defeat likely to come later this month.

Businessman Charles Herbster was Trump’s chosen candidate for governor in Nebraska. But on Tuesday he lost to University of Nebraska Board of Regents member Jim Pillen, who received 34% of the vote to Herbster’s 30%, with 95% of the vote counted. A third candidate, moderate state Sen. Brett Lindstrom, was in third place with just under 26% of the vote.

Nebraska Republican gubernatorial candidate Charles Herbster.
Nebraska Republican gubernatorial candidate Charles Herbster gives a concession speech on Tuesday. (Justin Wan/Lincoln Journal Star via AP)

Trump won Nebraska by 19 points in the 2020 election, and yet some of his supporters in the state insisted that those results were unfair. Nebraska is one of two states that divide their Electoral College votes, and Joe Biden won one of those votes despite Trump’s strong showing.

Two Republican candidates for Nebraska’s secretary of state — the office that oversees elections in the state — have claimed without evidence that Nebraska’s elections have been tainted with fraud.

Republican Secretary of State Robert Evnen, who oversaw the 2020 election, investigated the claims by his two Republican rivals for the job, and published a 19-page document showing there was no substance to them. Yet the two hard-core Trump candidates, Robert Borer and Rex Schroder, have continued to make their baseless claims.

Nebraska Republicans rejected the two conspiracy-promoting candidates and renominated Evnen, who received 44% of the vote to Borer’s 32% and Schroder’s 24%. Trump has put a priority on secretary of state races across the country this year, saying in January that “sometimes the vote counter is more important than the candidate.” However, Trump did not make an endorsement in Nebraska’s secretary of state contest.

In the governor’s race, Herbster was endorsed by Trump last fall. He donated more than $1 million to Trump’s reelection campaign in 2020 and attended the rally on Jan. 6, 2021, that preceded the violent assault on the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters, who were attempting to block the certification of election results. Herbster spent part of that day with top Trump advisers, including the then president’s two adult sons.

Charles Herbster with former President Donald Trump.
Herbster with former President Donald Trump at a campaign rally on May 1 in Greenwood, Neb. (Kenneth Ferriera/Lincoln Journal Star via AP)

But in mid-April a Republican state senator, Julie Slama, and seven other women said Herbster had groped or inappropriately touched them. Slama said Herbster had reached up her skirt at a political event in 2019. Other women have also spoken out on the record backing the claims against Herbster, as have men who allegedly witnessed the incidents. One of the women said Herbster had forcibly kissed her.

However, Trump went to Nebraska on May 1 to campaign with Herbster and declared him innocent. “I have to defend my friends, I have to defend people that are good. These are malicious charges to derail him long enough that the election can go by before the proper defense can be put forward,” the former president said.

Herbster not only denied the allegations, he attacked Slama in a 30-second TV ad and sued her for defamation. Herbster’s ad did not mention Slama by name but claimed that his “accuser” invited him to her destination wedding. Slama said the invitation was sent by mistake over email and has countersued Herbster.

Slama’s lawyers have said that Herbster is engaged in a “frivolous and bad faith attempt to bully a sexual assault victim into silence.”

Herbster claimed he was the victim of a political witch hunt driven by Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts, who was supporting Pillen. Ricketts and Pillen both dismissed Herbster’s claims.

Jim Pillen.
Jim Pillen, the winner of the Nebraska Republican gubernatorial primary, at an election night party on Tuesday. (Kenneth Ferriera/Journal Star via AP)

And ultimately, so did Nebraska voters, which included about 8,000 people who switched their registration from Democratic to Republican to vote in the GOP primary. Pillen is favored to win the fall election over Democratic nominee Carol Blood.

“It sure looked like the Trump endorsement didn’t deliver as many rural counties for Herbster as you’d expect. The Nebraska Farm Bureau endorsement of Pillen really helped him in rural areas, it appears, along with Gov. Rickett’s assistance,” wrote Paul Hammel, a reporter for the Nebraska Examiner, on Twitter.

Meanwhile, in West Virginia, Rep. Alex Mooney defeated Rep. David McKinley in Tuesday’s Republican primary for the state’s Second Congressional District. Mooney, a former state senator from Maryland, has been in Congress since 2015. McKinley has been a congressman since 2011.

But after the 2020 census, West Virginia lost a congressional district, and the redrawn map combined parts of Mooney’s and McKinley’s districts. Both candidates were conservative, but McKinley had a record of bipartisan cooperation as well.

Rep. Alex Mooney.
Rep. Alex Mooney at a campaign rally in Greensburg, Pa., on May 6. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)

Trump backed Mooney, in part because McKinley supported an independent commission to investigate the Jan. 6 insurrection. Republican Gov. Jim Justice backed McKinley, as did Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. After a brutal primary in which both candidates ran numerous negative ads, Mooney defeated McKinley by almost 20 points, 54% to 35%.

West Virginia is perhaps the most pro-Trump state in the country; the former president won there by nearly 40 points in 2020. But the rest of the month looks uncertain and potentially bumpy for Trump’s endorsements.

In Pennsylvania, where Republicans will hold a primary a week from now, TV personality Dr. Mehmet Oz has climbed in the polls after Trump endorsed him. Oz is locked in a tight three-way contest with former hedge fund CEO David McCormick and conservative commentator Kathy Barnette, who is surging in the polls and leaning hard into her anti-abortion views and personal story.

Dr. Mehmet Oz and former President Donald Trump at a campaign rally.
Dr. Mehmet Oz and Trump at a campaign rally in Greensburg, Pa., on May 6. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)

And in Georgia, where Republicans will hold a primary on May 24, Trump’s vendetta against Republican Gov. Brian Kemp has seemingly backfired.

Trump has tried to get Kemp tossed out of office because Kemp refused to go along with Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 election. But Georgia Republicans appear poised to nominate Kemp a second time and to reject Trump’s choice for the nomination, former Sen. David Perdue.