Republican voters in Nebraska on Tuesday rejected a candidate for governor accused of sexually assaulting multiple women, nominating University of Nebraska regent Jim Pillen over Charles Herbster, an agribusiness executive supported by former president Donald Trump.
The mixed results for the former president came in contests pitting him against local Republican leaders. They served as the latest test of his influence on the selection of GOP nominees in the midterms. Herbster’s defeat in Nebraska, after a nasty and expensive intraparty battle, dealt Trump a rare blow in a conservative state he won handily twice.
With most of the vote tallied in both contests, the Associated Press called the races for Mooney and Pillen. McKinley’s loss also meant the ouster one of the few House Republicans who voted for President Biden’s infrastructure bill.
Herbster, who was endorsed by Trump, has been accused by eight women of touching them inappropriately; two have spoken on the record to the Nebraska Examiner about Herbster doing so at a Republican fundraiser in 2019. Herbster has denied the allegations.
Pillen was endorsed by term-limited Gov. Pete Ricketts (R) and much of the state’s Republican establishment. State Sen. Brett Lindstrom, a conservative with some moderate views on issues such as medical marijuana legalization, had hoped to benefit from the split in support between his two rivals, but fell short.
“We’re going to make sure all our kids know the grass is greenest in Nebraska,” Pillen said after declaring victory.
In the West Virginia race, the candidates charted different courses during their time in Congress. Mooney is a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus. McKinley directed far more money back home — traditionally an asset in the state.
“Donald Trump loves West Virginia and West Virginia loves Donald Trump,” Mooney told voters at his victory party Tuesday night.
The contests are two of several primaries this month that will show how much stock GOP primary voters put into Trump’s endorsements 16 months after he left office. Trump’s endorsed candidate in Ohio’s Republican primary for U.S. Senate, venture capitalist and author J.D. Vance, prevailed last week, which was an early show of strength for the former president. Some Republicans have warned that Trump could face more challenging dynamics in upcoming contests.
In Nebraska, a Republican state senator has accused Herbster of reaching up her skirt at a local GOP fundraiser in 2019. Another woman, who is a former aide to a state senator, said Herbster grabbed her buttocks after stopping to greet her table at the same event. Trump, who himself has denied multiple allegations, from sexual harassment to rape over the years, recently traveled to Nebraska to campaign for Herbster and defend his former agricultural policy adviser and campaign donor.
“He’s the most innocent human being,” Trump said, rallying with Herbster at a fairground in eastern Nebraska. “He’s the last person to do any of this stuff.”
After conceding defeat at a party in Lincoln, Herbster pointed to strategists Cory Lewandowski and David Bossie, who he’d hired for his campaign, and urged the audience to watch “Rigged,” a Bossie-produced movie which alleges that the 2020 election was stolen. Post-election audits have not found evidence of fraud that would have changed the outcome.
Trump’s endorsement in West Virginia of Mooney, who was drawn into a new district with McKinley after the state lost a House seat, was less personal. McKinley had voted for last year’s bipartisan infrastructure bill, and to create a congressional commission to investigate the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol by a pro-Trump mob. Last year, Mooney met with Trump for an hour, sharing a 15-page memo on the race with the former president and coming away with an endorsement.
“My opponent is a total RINO,” Mooney said at a rain-soaked western Pennsylvania rally with Trump on Friday, not far from West Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District. “In order for our party to be successful, we need to take these RINOs out in primaries,” he added, repeating the disparaging acronym for “Republican in name only.”
Mooney, whose potential use of campaign funds for personal expenses is under investigation by a congressional ethics panel, represented far less of the new district than McKinley has. Republican Gov. Jim Justice (R) supported McKinley.
Trump won West Virginia in a landslide in 2020, and national Democrats are not planning to target the seat in November. Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) offered some bipartisan support for McKinley last week, appearing in a TV ad to help him rebut false attack ads that conflated the infrastructure bill with a larger package of social spending that the senator helped block last year, known as the “Build Back Better” plan.
“For Alex Mooney and his out-of-state supporters to suggest that David McKinley supported Build Back Better is an outright lie,” Manchin said. “David McKinley has always opposed reckless spending because it doesn’t make sense for West Virginia.”
McKinley defended his infrastructure vote on the trail, backed by groups such as the state Chamber of Commerce, which also supported it. He sought to distance his own vote for the bipartisan Jan. 6 commission from the work of the Democrats appointed to the panel, though ads from conservative groups such as the Club for Growth have used it to try to link him to liberals. Mooney and his allies outspent McKinley.
“Who were the culprits here? What was the real genesis of this problem?” McKinley said in an interview, explaining why be believed a bipartisan committee was needed. “I’m not learning that through Nancy Pelosi’s select committee.”
The primary for governor of Nebraska was expensive, and more divisive for Republicans, with Democrats hoping to take advantage in November. Trump endorsed Herbster six months ago, even though Ricketts advised against it, and in January, the governor supported Pillen.
“Nobody has run a grass-roots campaign like we have,” Pillen said in an interview. “Neighbors talking to neighbors, eyeball to eyeball, earning votes. That’s always mattered in Nebraska.”
The endorsements set up a bitter battle between Herbster and Ricketts. The governor’s family members spent big opposing Trump during the 2016 presidential primary.
Ricketts sharply criticized Herbster, supporting ads from a political action committee called Conservative Nebraska that called the candidate a “Missouri millionaire.” Conservative Nebraska also went after Lindstrom.
Last month, when the Nebraska Examiner first reported on women who said that Herbster had groped them, Ricketts said he believed the accusers. Herbster swiftly denied the allegations, adopting a defiant posture similar to the one Trump has often taken. He compared himself to conservatives who he claimed had been smeared by false attacks, including Trump and Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Brett M. Kavanaugh.
“They are trying to scare me out of this race and it’s not going to happen,” Herbster said at the May 1 rally with Trump. “We are going to take back Nebraska.”
Other candidates tried to seize an advantage amid the attacks and counterattacks. Former state senator Theresa Thibodeau entered the race after a brief stint as Herbster’s running mate, concluding that the wealthy executive should not be governor.
“Early on, to be honest, we saw a pretty narrow path,” Lindstrom said in a recent interview after marching in front of Herbster and Pillen at Nebraska City’s annual Arbor Day parade. “That path has widened because the other two camps are going at each other pretty hard. We were able to fly under the radar and do the necessary work.”
Nebraska is a heavily conservative state where Democrats have not held the governor’s office in Lincoln since the 1990s. State Sen. Carol Blood, who easily won the Democratic nomination Tuesday, has won before in a district that Trump carried twice. She co-signed a bipartisan statement from female senators supporting Herbster’s accusers. If the GOP focused on national politics instead of Nebraska needs, she said, Democrats could win.
“I look at the Republican Party and I don’t recognize it anymore,” Blood said in an interview. “I’m not a sacrificial lamb. Nobody talked me into this. I don’t run for something unless I think I can win.”
Voters in eastern Nebraska also picked nominees for Congress, with four Republicans vying to replace former Republican Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, who resigned after being convicted of lying to federal investigators about illegal campaign contributions.
Republican state Sen. Mike Flood and Democratic state Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks won their respective party nominations. They are also competing in a June 28 special election to fill Fortenberry’s term.
In the Omaha-based 2nd Congressional District, one of a handful that reelected a Republican in 2020 while backing Biden for president, Rep. Don Bacon (R) defeated primary challenger Steve Kuehl, a roofer who criticized the congressman for supporting the infrastructure bill.
State Sen. Tony Vargas won the Democratic nomination there. Vargas, who represents downtown Omaha in the legislature, has raised more than $1 million, but national Democrats are looking less closely at the district this year after three losses to Bacon.
Trump stayed out of the Bacon-Kuehl race, though he previously noted that Kuehl was in the crowd at a rally and called him a “nice guy.” At his West Virginia rally, Trump didn’t get into the details of the McKinley-Mooney race but said the stakes were high.
“Alex is in a big race,” Trump said. “That’s one of the races they keep saying, ‘Is Mooney going to win because Mooney is being backed by Trump?’ ”
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