The Memo: Nebraska offers latest test of Trump’s power

Former President Trump will face the latest test of his sway over the Republican Party when Nebraska holds its gubernatorial primary Tuesday. 

But Trump’s admirers and detractors alike caution that the race is so unusual that the result may not send a crystal-clear message. 

The latter stages of the race have been dominated by allegations of sexual misconduct against Trump’s pick. On top of that, the race is seen by some as a proxy war between Trump and the billionaire Ricketts family, owners of the Chicago Cubs. 

Trump has endorsed wealthy businessman and rancher Charles Herbster in the primary. Herbster was Trump’s lead adviser on agriculture during the 2016 presidential campaign. 

Polling has been scant, but Herbster appears to be locked in a tight three-way race with Jim Pillen, a farmer who also serves on the University of Nebraska Board of Regents, and state legislator Brett Lindstrom. 

Eight women, two of whom have revealed their identities, have accused Herbster of groping them or, in one case, kissing her forcibly. The candidate has vehemently denied those allegations, which he and his allies contend are politically motivated. Herbster has filed a lawsuit against one of his accusers 

Meanwhile, incumbent Gov. Pete Ricketts (R) has backed Pillen and been adamant in his opposition to Herbster.  

Ricketts’s family has often been at odds with Trump. Politico noted in a 2021 story that, back in 2016, “Ricketts’ parents, Joe and Marlene, donated $5.5 million to a super PAC devoted to stopping Trump from winning the Republican nomination.” 

The governor has acknowledged trying to persuade Trump to stay out of this year’s gubernatorial primary. It was only after Trump backed Herbster that Ricketts in turn endorsed Pillen.  

The incumbent governor’s move sparked a Trump-like response from Herbster, who complained that the governor was “supporting a candidate who has a weak record on illegal immigration, who failed to stop Critical Race Theory from seeping into public universities and then voted to fund it with taxpayer dollars.” 

Trump held a May 1 rally in the state for Herbster, during which the former president complained that his candidate had been “badly maligned.” In a subsequent campaign conference call last week, Trump advocated voting for Herbster to “give a stinging rebuke to the RINOs,” a derogatory term meaning Republican in name only. 

The primary will show whether Nebraska can be marked down as another state in which the GOP has been remade in Trump’s image. 

“There is certainly a camp that is sort of the Donald Trump Party, and then there is a strong group — I’d say equal in number — of traditional Republicans,” said Randall Adkins, a professor of political science at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “I think Donald Trump would characterize them as RINOs, but they see themselves as traditional Republicans.” 

Trump has made a huge number of endorsements in the current election cycle, but most of the attention has been focused on a few high-profile races. Those contests are widely seen as referenda on Trump’s heft within the GOP. 

The former president won a key victory last week when his pick, author J.D. Vance, won the GOP Senate primary in Ohio with relative ease. Another Trump choice, Rep. Ted Budd (R-N.C.), has overcome a sluggish start to move into a comfortable polling lead over former Gov. Pat McCrory in North Carolina’s Senate primary, which takes place next week. 

But it’s a different story in the Georgia gubernatorial contest, where former Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) badly lags behind incumbent Gov. Brian Kemp. Trump had been desperate to knock off Kemp for resisting his demands to overturn the result of the 2020 presidential election in his state. A grand jury was recently seated to examine whether Trump’s post-election meddling in Georgia merits criminal charges. 

In Pennsylvania, Trump has endorsed TV personality Mehmet Oz, better known as “Dr. Oz.” But questions about Oz’s past positions on hot-button issues such as abortion, guns and fracking have left him in a close race with businessman David McCormick and conservative commentator Kathy Barnette. 

There is no question that Trump would love to see Herbster triumph in Nebraska, adding another feather to his cap and defying the naysayers. 

But some Nebraska Republicans contend that state-level issues and even regional loyalties may end up being as important as Trump’s imprimatur.  

Lindstrom, the most moderate of the three leading candidates, will have to run up big margins in and around the eastern cities of Omaha and Lincoln if he is to stand any chance of offsetting backing for Herbster and Pillen in the more rural territory of central and western Nebraska, for example. 

A Republican media strategist in the state, Ryan Horn, acknowledged that Trump’s endorsement was powerful with many conservative voters. They would be reassured that any candidate with the former president’s backing must share their values, he said. 

But Horn also emphasized that “Nebraska is its own state,” expressing irritation with the tendency of national media to view every Republican primary through the lens of Trump. 

“Does anyone doubt that if you were a Democrat running for Senate in Massachusetts and you got Barack Obama’s endorsement, that would be a big deal? Of course it would. It’s good to be endorsed by your party’s most recent president!” 

Be that as it may, there’s no question that Tuesday’s primary will indeed be seen as a reflection of the extent of Trump’s power — most of all by the former president himself. 

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

Tags Charles Herbster David McCormick Donald Trump Mehmet Oz Nebraska Pete Ricketts

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