Former President Donald Trump’s candidates had mixed success in Republican primaries in West Virginia and Nebraska Tuesday night, underscoring the complicated dynamics between the de facto leader of the GOP and voters who support him but don’t always back his candidates.
West Virginia Rep. Alex Mooney, who made Trump’s endorsement the centerpiece of his campaign in the first incumbent vs. incumbent primary of the year, will win the GOP nomination for the state’s 2nd Congressional District, CNN projects. But Nebraska Republican Jim Pillen, a hog farmer and University of Nebraska Board of Regents member who ran with the support of term-limited Gov. Pete Ricketts, will defeat a Trump-backed candidate for the state’s GOP gubernatorial nod, CNN projects.
Trump had backed Charles Herbster, a businessman, farmer and rancher who is facing allegations of sexual misconduct, which he has denied. The former President traveled to the state earlier this month to defend Herbster at a rally, claiming that he was a “fine man” who “had been badly maligned.”
Trump’s influence has been felt throughout May’s GOP primaries as candidates clamor for his support, especially after his pick won in the Ohio Senate race last week. The candidates he backed in Tuesday’s marquee contests stood beside him throughout his baseless campaign to raise doubts about the 2020 presidential election.
Mooney, a former Maryland state senator, had faced six-term Rep. David McKinley after the Mountain State lost a district in the post-census reapportionment process.
West Virginia, a state Trump has twice won overwhelmingly, tested the significance of his support. Mooney had won Trump’s endorsement in part because he objected to the Pennsylvania electoral count as Congress was certifying Joe Biden’s 2020 victory.
Speaking on Tuesday night, Mooney touted the importance of the former President’s endorsement and said he might have to interrupt his victory speech at any moment to take a call from Trump.
“Donald Trump loves West Virginia and West Virginia loves Donald Trump,” Mooney said. He nodded to Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin’s backing of McKinley, which had included an ad the senator cut attacking Mooney. “We won anyway,” Mooney said.
Mooney teased a potential bid for US Senate against Manchin, who’s facing reelection in 2024. “This is the second time Joe Manchin has done a TV ad attacking me. I’m 2-for-0 against him. Maybe I should make it 3-and-0,” he said to cheers.
McKinley had voted to certify Biden’s win and had backed the formation of an independent commission to investigate the January 6, 2021, insurrection – an effort that was ultimately spiked in the Senate but nonetheless earned Trump’s wrath. He also supported the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure law, which Trump railed against.
Mooney, who was first elected to the House in 2014, had attacked McKinley as “a liberal” for supporting that bipartisan legislation, but there was no subtlety in his ads as he touted the former President’s endorsement.
One of them framed as a “MAGA Alert” accused McKinley of supporting “(House Speaker Nancy) Pelosi’s anti-Trump, January 6th witch hunt.” And a radio ad running throughout the district in the closing days featured Trump calling Mooney “a warrior.”
Mooney described his victory on Tuesday as a win against Pelosi and government officials who he said had overreached with mask and Covid-19 protocols.
Besides Manchin, who had praised McKinley for opposing “reckless spending” that could harm the people of his state, the congressman had the backing of Republican Gov. Jim Justice, a former Democrat who switched his party registration to the GOP in 2017.
McKinley had attacked Mooney as a newcomer to the state who did not grasp the depth of its concerns, drawing attention to the fact that Mooney had moved to the state in the last decade from Maryland, where he had chaired the state GOP.
Manchin alluded to that carpetbagger attack in the ad, stating that Mooney and his “out-of-state supporters” were spreading the “outright lie” that McKinley supported Biden’s Build Back Better plan, which Manchin had killed, citing concerns about the inflation and spending.
“Alex Mooney has proven he’s all about Alex Mooney. But West Virginians know David McKinley is all about us,” Manchin said in the ad.
Nebraska governor’s race
Heading into Tuesday, Trump’s candidate had been in a tight three-way race against Pillen and state Sen. Brett Lindstrom.
While Trump won the state with 58% of the vote to Biden’s 39% in 2020, Ricketts had endorsed Pillen as the candidate who should succeed him and had actively campaigned against Herbster, whom he had described as being unqualified for the job. Recent interviews in the state suggest that the popular governor’s backing could carry as much, if not more, weight for many of the state’s GOP voters than Trump’s endorsement.
Herbster had been contending with the fallout from a mid-April report in the Nebraska Examiner detailing the accounts of seven women who said they were groped by him at political events or beauty pageants, and an additional woman who accused him of kissing her forcibly. The Examiner said that all eight accounts were corroborated either by witnesses or people who spoke to the women about what happened immediately afterward.
Herbster dismissed the allegations in an interview with CNN as a “politically timed smear” and said they were “100% false.” Adopting the aggressive tactics that Trump championed during his own controversies, Herbster sued his first named accuser, Republican state Sen. Julie Slama, who said Herbster sexually assaulted her by reaching up her skirt and touching her without consent at a 2019 GOP dinner. In the lawsuit, he alleged that her statements have done “grievous harm to his reputation” and she filed a countersuit.
As part of his defense, Herbster claimed that his opponents were using the same playbook that they used against Trump in the 2016 campaign and then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh in 2018. Both men were accused of sexual assault – allegations they denied.
This story has been updated with additional information.