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The MAGA vs. GOP divide in the Republican primaries

Former president Donald Trump walks onstage at a campaign rally for Nebraska Republican gubernatorial candidate Charles Herbster on May 1 in Greenwood, Neb. (Kenneth Ferriera/Lincoln Journal Star/AP)
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The natural assumption for Donald Trump’s endorsed candidate losing the Nebraska gubernatorial primary on Tuesday night is that business executive Charles Herbster’s reputational problems kneecapped his chances.

Herbster is accused of sexually assaulting multiple women, the sort of ethical stain that has hobbled Trump endorsees in the past. Trump wanted Roy Moore to win election to the Senate from Alabama in 2017, but allegations that Moore had molested a teenager spurred his loss. Trump wants Ken Paxton reelected as Texas attorney general, but Paxton’s various ethical challenges likely helped keep him from an outright victory in the state primary earlier this year.

For Trump, who sees his endorsement track record as a point of personal validation, these explanations are useful. There’s always some explanation, of course, and Herbster’s loss can be waved away as a function of the candidate, not the former president. But Trump also attacked the winner of the Republican nomination for the state’s 2nd Congressional District, incumbent Rep. Don Bacon, who’d criticized the president after the riot at the Capitol in 2021.

Meanwhile, in West Virginia, Trump’s candidate in another House primary rolled to an easy win. Rep. Alex Mooney (R) is an incumbent as was his opponent — but Mooney had Trump’s backing.

“Donald Trump loves West Virginia, and West Virginia loves Donald Trump,” Mooney said at his victory party.

And there’s something to that. We’re dealing with small sample sizes here, given how few primaries have been conducted and that they attract only a fraction of voters, but it seems safe to say that there is something structurally distinct between Nebraska and West Virginia that might have influenced the mixed results Trump saw Tuesday night.

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It has been a long time since Nebraska voted for a Democratic presidential candidate. The last time it did so was in 1964, when nearly every state backed Lyndon B. Johnson 12 months after John F. Kennedy’s assassination. But even then, Nebraska only barely preferred Johnson: He won by about 23 points nationally but by only 5 points in Nebraska. In other words, even when Nebraska voted Democratic, it did so by a margin that was about 17 points more Republican than the nation on the whole.

If we extend that measure — vote relative to the national vote — back a century, we see how consistent Nebraska has been in its Republican voting. Since about 1940, the state has been consistently about 25 points more Republican than the country overall.

Now consider West Virginia. It is somewhat unusual in its evolution, flipping from consistently blue to consistently red over a short period of time. From 1996 to 2012, West Virginia when from voting more Democratic than the nation to voting more Republican at about the same margin as Nebraska. Then, with Trump on the ballot in 2016 and 2020, it got much darker red.

Consider what this suggests (as Eric DeBellis pointed out on Tuesday night). Nebraska is a traditional Republican state with traditional infrastructure. West Virginia grew more Republican following a trajectory similar to Trump’s own, going from blue-collar blue to Fox-News red over the span of the past decade or two. (West Virginia’s governor was a Democrat until Trump took office.) It’s a state in which Republicans have built a different sort of power structure with new people over a short period of time — not over the past 80 years.

Call it the GOP vs. MAGA divide. Traditional Republican infrastructure, candidates and power versus a more Trump-inflected iteration that reflects Trumpian outcomes. This is overly simple, certainly. But it echoes elsewhere.

In Ohio, Trump made his riskiest endorsement bet yet, picking venture capitalist J.D. Vance over other Republican candidates — including ones like Jane Timken, the former chair of the state party. It paid off.

What’s happened in Ohio? From about 1960 to 2012, it was a purple state that tended to vote slightly more Republican than the country overall. Then Trump arrived.

Trump’s success in Ohio in 2016 actually overlapped with disruption within the party. His campaign in the state publicly broke with the Republican Party chairman shortly before the 2016 election. By the time Trump took office, Timken had assumed control of the state party — having earned that seat by pledging her loyalty to Trump’s agenda. The state party was overhauled. It went from GOP to MAGA.

Again, we are dealing with a small sample size and it’s easy to over-interpret the tea leaves. Particularly since candidates in Nebraska, like Republicans everywhere else, have not been shy to embrace the former president. But it’s hard not to notice how this correlates: state leadership that’s loyal to Trump, reflecting a base loyalty to Trump that manifests in primary votes.

Perhaps a fluke based on the voting to date. Or perhaps a pattern that will persist over the rest of the year’s primaries.

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