Tuesday’s Republican primaries in Nebraska and West Virginia were a test with mixed results for former President Donald Trump’s endorsement power.
He fared better in West Virginia, where his pick in a hotly contested GOP House primary cruised to victory in a battle of Republican incumbents – one backed by the former President, the other endorsed by the state’s GOP governor and Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin – drawn against each other by the state’s congressional mapmakers.
While Trump’s hold on the Republican Party remains strong, the result in Nebraska shows it is not complete – especially when he endorses a candidate like wealthy businessman Charles Herbster, who is facing multiple allegations of sexual misconduct (all of which he has denied).
The clear winner in Nebraska, though, was the state’s Republican establishment.
University of Nebraska Board of Regents member Jim Pillen, CNN’s projected winner in the primary, was endorsed by term-limited Gov. Pete Ricketts, and incumbent GOP Rep. Don Bacon, who had taken some flak from Trump, also won renomination. Former Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, a Republican who resigned earlier this year after being convicted of a federal crime but remained on the ballot, was blown out by a Ricketts-backed candidate.
Here are four takeaways from Tuesday night’s primaries – and a look ahead to more stress tests for Trump in the coming week.
Trump’s winning run stalls in Nebraska
Trump’s midterm election streak ended Tuesday night in Nebraska.
A week after the former President swept into the state and spoke for two hours at a rally for Herbster in the Republican governor’s primary, a wide majority of voters rejected his advice and instead chose Pillen, the contender backed by the GOP establishment.
Trump has presided over an era where all politics is increasingly nationalized, but an age-old adage prevailed in the fiercely competitive gubernatorial primary: All politics is still local.
In one of the most expensive and vicious political campaigns in recent Nebraska memory, it was the endorsement from Ricketts that mattered most. Ricketts not only supported Pillen and guided his campaign from the start, he also invested millions of his own money to defeat Herbster.
Trump implored voters to ignore sexual misconduct allegations against Herbster, saying the claims from eight women were “malicious.” At a rally on May 1, Trump declared, “He’s been badly maligned and it’s a shame. That’s why I came out here.”
In the end, the former President’s words of support and his visit to Nebraska did not save Herbster, a wealthy agribusinessman with close ties to the Trump family. He fell short to Pillen, but appeared to receive more votes than an alternative Republican candidate, state Sen. Brett Lindstrom.
For Trump, it was not his only failure of the night.
Nebraska GOP gets the matchups it wants in House races
Rep. Don Bacon, a Republican who drew the former President’s ire for supporting the bipartisan infrastructure plan, easily won his primary on Tuesday night, despite Trump’s calls to defeat him.
Bacon had been mildly critical of the former President over the January 6, 2021, riot at the US Capitol and voted for Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure legislation. Trump, at his speech in Nebraska earlier this month, called Bacon a “bad guy” and shouted out his challenger, businessman Steve Kuehl.
“Good luck, Steve,” Trump said, “whoever the hell you are.”
In the end, even those kind words weren’t enough. Trump did not endorse in the race and Bacon now has a November date with CNN’s projected winner in the Democratic primary, state Sen. Tony Vargas. Highly regarded in Democratic circles, Vargas is expected to lodge a legitimate challenge to Bacon in a district, centered in Omaha, that Biden won in the 2020 presidential election.
While Trump carried Nebraska with 58% of the vote in 2020 – and would almost certainly win again if he decides to run for President in 2024 – the outcome of the state’s primary showed the limits of the power of his endorsements. And even bigger tests for Trump are still to come this month in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Georgia and beyond.
Meanwhile, the political fate of former Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, who resigned in late March after being convicted of lying to the FBI, was sealed by Republican primary voters in the state’s 1st Congressional District.
Fortenberry didn’t mount a campaign, but Trump publicly defended him and his name was locked into the ballot – and, should he have won, would have set off a complicated process for the GOP in a reliably red district. In the end, though, state Sen. Mike Flood, endorsed by both current Gov. Pete Ricketts and former Gov. Dave Heineman, easily won the nomination, CNN projected on Tuesday night. He’ll be a heavy favorite against Democrat Patty Pansing Brooks in the general election.
Trump tops Justice, Manchin in West Virginia primary
If Nebraska mostly ignored the former President, at least for a night, West Virginia doubled down on Trump’s advice.
Rep. Alex Mooney, the Trump-backed candidate in the first incumbent-vs.-incumbent primary of the year, topped Rep. David McKinley in the GOP primary for West Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District on Tuesday night. The race quickly became one of the most vicious in the country, with Mooney attacking McKinley for voting in favor of the bipartisan infrastructure plan and McKinley accusing Mooney, who previously ran for office in Maryland, of being a carpetbagger.
A bipartisan group of West Virginia power centers tried to save the more pragmatic McKinley, including Republican Gov. Jim Justice and Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin. But in a state that backed Trump by nearly 40 percentage points in 2020, Mooney making the former President’s endorsement the focal point of his campaign was too much for McKinley to overcome.
The win further strengthens Trump’s hold on the Republican Party and for his desire for vengeance. Trump backed Mooney primarily as a vehicle to oust McKinley, who drew the former President’s ire for backing the infrastructure legislation, which gave President Joe Biden a win, and for supporting a bipartisan inquiry into the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol before Senate Republicans killed the idea.
Even still, Trump remains largely the only endorsement that matters in Republican primaries, forcing candidates, especially those in contentious races, to continue to run campaigns that appeal to him.
Democrats with big decisions ahead and a key Trump test to come
The first few rounds of 2022 primaries have doubled as a proving ground for Trump’s ability to bend the Republican Party to his will. That theme will continue into next week’s slate, especially in Pennsylvania, where his endorsed Senate candidate, Dr. Mehmet Oz, is locked in what’s shaping up to be a three-way race, with David McCormick and Kathy Barnette, for the GOP nomination.
Trump is also looking to flex in North Carolina, where his endorsed GOP Senate primary candidate, Rep. Ted Budd, has led former Gov. Pat McCrory, former US Rep. Mark Walker and Marjorie Eastman in the polls.
But the May 17 primaries will also ask big questions of the Democratic Party, which will select its own nominee for the open Senate seat in the Keystone State. Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, a progressive stalwart, is the favorite in that contest, with moderate Rep. Conor Lamb his closest competition, according to recent polls.
Pennsylvania, Oregon and North Carolina are also home to a handful of Democratic House primaries that pit progressives against moderates who, in a handful of races, have been boosted by remarkable sums of outside spending.
Most of the contested primaries are for open seats, but in Oregon’s redrawn 5th Congressional District, Rep. Kurt Schrader is facing a tough challenge from Jamie McLeod-Skinner, whose local supporters have clashed with Democratic leadership in Washington.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated the congressional district where Rep. Alex Mooney defeated Rep. David McKinley in the Republican primary on Tuesday. It was West Virginia’s 2nd District.