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Five takeaways from the Nebraska, West Virginia primaries

Nebraska and West Virginia held high-profile primaries that served as tests of former President Trump’s lingering sway among GOP voters. 

University of Nebraska Regent Jim Pillen won the GOP nod over businessman Charles Herbster, who ran with Trump’s endorsement, and state Sen. Brett Lindstrom, who cast himself as a more pragmatic Republican. In West Virginia, hard-liner Rep. Alex Mooney (R) defeated Rep. David McKinley (R) in an incumbent-on-incumbent primary sparked by redistricting. 

Here are five takeaways from the primary results. 

Trump suffered his first big loss this cycle… 

Trump notched a prominent loss in Nebraska as Pillen dispatched his chosen candidate, whom the former president had made an eleventh-hour push to boost. 

Pillen ended up defeating Herbster despite Trump’s endorsement, a victory that was in part due to a late wave of accusations by several women accusing Herbster of sexual misconduct. Of the women, two came forward publicly to say that Herbster groped them at a political event in 2019.     

Herbster repeatedly denied the claims and looked to tie his accusers to Pillen and his political benefactor, Gov. Pete Ricketts (R), saying in an ad the allegations are “built on lies.”     

While a GOP gubernatorial primary in a deep-red state might sometimes not make headlines, the allegations — along with Trump’s endorsement — shot the race to national prominence and raised the stakes for the former president. 

Rather than leaving Herbster out to dry, Trump put extra effort in, appearing at a rally in Nebraska to defend his candidate’s reputation. 

“Charles is a fine man, and he’s innocent of these despicable charges,” Trump said at the rally. 

Herbster’s defeat marks the first Trump-endorsed candidate to fall short in the midterm cycle. But more than that, it indicates how hard it could be for other candidates accused of sexual misconduct to run. 

Herbster’s loss could serve as a warning sign to other candidates — like Missouri GOP Senate candidate Eric Greitens — who are accused of sexual impropriety. 

…but the night wasn’t all bad for him 

Trump still racked up a win Tuesday night, with Mooney defeating McKinley by a comfortable 18-point margin in West Virginia.

Trump and Mooney both worked to cast McKinley as a squishy centrist over his votes last year for the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the creation of a bipartisan panel to investigate the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. 

Trump in one ad for Mooney said McKinley “supported the fake infrastructure bill that wasted hundreds of billions of dollars on the Green New Deal” and promoted a “phony narrative” about Jan. 6.  

Mooney has also called the infrastructure bill “Biden and Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s spending masterplan.”   

Trump held a tele-rally last week for Mooney and had him speak at another event in Pennsylvania just days later. 

The former president’s support will likely be credited with helping Mooney overcome several obstacles, including that the newly drawn 2nd Congressional District overlaps more with McKinley’s old seat than Mooney’s and that Mooney only moved to West Virginia shortly before his 2014 House bid. 

Mooney’s win also gives Trump some cover after Herbster’s loss and ahead of a tough stretch of primaries where Trump’s endorsed candidates in Pennsylvania, Idaho and Georgia are struggling to break out. 

Infrastructure was no electoral savior 

Mooney’s victory also showed that running on last year’s infrastructure legislation is not necessarily a political boon. 

McKinley made the law a cornerstone of his campaign. West Virginia is one of the poorest states in the nation, and its infrastructure earned a “D” grade from the American Society of Civil Engineers. Under the law, West Virginia is anticipated to get $6 billion in federal funds. 

The legislation is precisely the kind of bring-home-the-bacon accomplishment that lawmakers could traditionally count on to give them an edge, but in these current polarized times, primary voters cared less about roads and bridges and rewarded a conservative hard-liner who voted against the bill. 

McKinley’s defeat also flashes a warning sign for Democrats. 

President Biden and candidates running in swing states and districts have forecasted that the infrastructure bill will feature prominently as a chief accomplishment for Democrats. McKinley’s loss serves as one data point for why that may not be as effective as the party hopes. 

Governors had a mixed night 

Besides Trump, governors also had a mixed night Tuesday. 

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice — as well as Sen. Joe Manchin (D), a former West Virginia governor himself — had backed McKinley. Meanwhile, Ricketts scored a win with Pillen’s victory. 

The results indicate a waning influence for top state executives — Herbster’s defeat is likely due to the sexual misconduct allegations at least as much as Rickett’s backing of Pillen. And in West Virginia, ideological purity and Trump’s support overrode the endorsements from Justice and Manchin, two lawmakers who themselves remain overwhelmingly popular in their state. 

To be sure, endorsements from governors will continue to hold sway. Tuesday’s results just indicate they’re no golden ticket to a win. 

Few tea leaves emerged

Overall, Tuesday’s primaries offered few easy-to-read tea leaves for the general election and beyond.

Trump’s status as kingmaker was dented with Pillen’s win, but his role in the GOP will not be seriously challenged just because of the unusual Nebraska race. Mooney’s win indicated that the Trump-aligned wing of the GOP remains dominant, though it may be tough to draw parallels to a rare incumbent-on-incumbent race. 

In one positive sign for the GOP’s establishment flank, Lindstrom performed well in urban and suburban areas, winning counties including and surrounding Omaha and Lincoln. 

Still, upcoming primaries where Trump has backed candidates, including in Pennsylvania, Idaho, North Carolina, Georgia and more, will offer a fuller view of where the GOP grassroots lies and how well Republicans can expect to fare in November. 

Tags Alex Mooney Alex Mooney Charles Charles Herbster Charles Herbster David McKinley Donald Trump Jim Pillen Pete Ricketts West Virginia

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