Nebraska loss raises questions about Trump’s endorsement power

Kenneth Ferriera/Lincoln Journal Star via AP, File
FILE – Nebraska Republican gubernatorial candidate Charles Herbster, left, shakes hands with former President Donald Trump during a campaign rally for Herbster, May 1, 2022, in Greenwood, Neb. Nebraska Nebraska Republicans will pick a nominee for governor on Tuesday, May 10, to replace Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts, who’s prevented by term limit laws from running again.

Charles Herbster’s loss in Tuesday’s Nebraska GOP gubernatorial primary is raising fresh questions about the strength of former President Trump’s endorsement.

Jim Pillen’s win marks the first race where a Trump-endorsed candidate lost a primary battle this cycle. Herbster’s case was unique in some ways — he was grappling with multiple sexual misconduct allegations before Trump arrived to rally with him the week before the primary.

But various other Trump-endorsed candidates in states like Georgia and Pennsylvania are potentially facing uphill climbs in the weeks ahead, even with the former president’s backing.

“They humiliated Donald Trump in Nebraska,” MSNBC host Joe Scarborough said on his show “Morning Joe” on Wednesday. “It sends a message to a lot of other Republicans that you can take this guy on, and you can beat him.”

Pillen, a University of Nebraska regent, won the nine-way primary with nearly 34 percent of the vote. Herbster trailed with 30 percent of the vote. Pillen is running to replace current Gov. Pete Ricketts (R), who is term-limited and has endorsed Pillen.

The former president’s endorsement is not only viewed as a seal of approval by various Republicans, but also as a test for his political brand going into 2022 and potentially 2024. Trump hedged his own bets in Alabama’s GOP Senate primary, retracting his endorsement of Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.).

“The problem for the Trump brand is that they’ve created this false reality of undefeated,” one Republican strategist told The Hill.

Trump appeared at a rally with Herbster earlier this month in a push to drag him across the finish line amid the growing furor over the sexual misconduct claims.

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

Trump has yet to publicly comment on Herbster’s defeat, but he did lash out at Ricketts, as well as former New Jersey Gov Chris Christie (R) and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R), for stumping for incumbent Gov. Brian Kemp (R) in Georgia.

In a statement released on Wednesday, Trump referred to Ricketts, Christie and Ducey as “RINOs,” or “Republican in name only.” Trump has endorsed former Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) over Kemp in that primary race.

Tuesday was not a total defeat for the former president. Rep. Alex Mooney (R-W.Va.), who was backed by Trump, won his primary against Rep. David McKinley (R-W.Va.) in the state’s 2nd Congressional District. McKinley was endorsed by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).

And before Tuesday, Trump’s endorsement had already carried a number of Republican candidates over the finish line, including Ohio GOP Senate nominee J.D. Vance and Ohio House nominees Max Miller and Madison Gesiotto Gilbert.

But some strategists argue that the weight Trump’s endorsement or lack of an endorsement carries depends on the race itself.

“I don’t think it’s a death knell for any candidate if Trump endorses against them, I just think it depends on the dynamics of the race,” said Georgia-based Republican strategist Jay Williams.

“He can’t do it by himself. He has to have a good candidate to endorse. They have to have a lot of money. They have to be credible,” he continued. “If he doesn’t endorse a candidate like that, then they’re going to have problems.”

Many election observers also pointed to the fact that Herbster’s campaign was dealing with the fallout over the sexual misconduct allegations from eight women. 

“Is that a full condemnation of the Trump brand? Probably not, but it’s a loss,” the first Republican strategist said regarding Tuesday’s Nebraska primary. “Trump also rolled out there on a Sunday to go out and rally with him, so he put the full force of the brand behind him and he lost.”

Other Trump-backed candidates are facing tough primary battles in the coming weeks. Perdue, despite earning Trump’s endorsement and frequently repeating the former president’s unproven claims about the 2020 presidential election results, appears to have gained little traction in Georgia.

Kemp led Perdue, 53 percent to 27 percent, among likely voters, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll released late last month. On top of that, the incumbent governor is also leading the former senator in the fundraising game. 

“[Perdue] was going to have trouble just because an incumbent governor is incredibly powerful,” Williams said. “So you couple that with the fact that he was actually a pretty good governor on Republican terms, and you’ve got the fact that Perdue has not been a great candidate.”

Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania, Trump-backed GOP Senate candidate Mehmet Oz is facing a nail-biter of a primary against David McCormick and Kathy Barnette. Multiple polls have shown the three candidates to be neck-and-neck. On top of that, conservative outside groups like Club for Growth and Susan B. Anthony List have thrown their weight behind Barnette.

Herbster’s loss could stand to impact Trump’s decision on whether to endorse in Missouri’s Aug. 2 Republican Senate primary. Eric Greitens, arguably the front-runner in that primary, is facing domestic abuse charges from his ex-wife.

While Greitens has denied the allegations, GOP leadership has already begun to distance itself from him, including retiring Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), whom Greitens is running to succeed in the Senate. Blunt said last week that the former governor should drop out. 

“I suspect with an August primary, he [Trump] probably waits regardless,” the Republican strategist said. “I think they’re going to have to make decisions much differently going into those later primaries than they did in these early ones, meaning they’re going to potentially have to stop the negative flow of information about endorsements rather than riding high.”

Tags Brian Kemp Charles Charles Herbster David Perdue Jim Pillen

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