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The West Virginia And Nebraska Primaries Will Be The Latest Test For Trump’s Endorsement

West Virginia and Nebraska are not swing states, which means that today’s Republican primaries will (for the most part) decide who wins the 2022 elections in them.1 And as has already been the case in multiple GOP primaries this cycle, the biggest question tonight is whether voters choose the candidates who are more or less aligned with former President Donald Trump. According to our research,2 Trump has personally endorsed just four candidates running for House or governor today, but at least nine candidates for those offices have embraced or flirted with his “Big Lie” conspiracy theory, which falsely claims that the 2020 election was stolen. On the flip side, we found at least eight who acknowledged President Biden’s victory, albeit not always with confidence.

Two of those election doubters look set to cruise to victory today, while two election affirmers also look likely to prevail. But there are also several primaries where the winner is uncertain, including two absolute barnstormers. So without further ado, here’s a complete guide to today’s races.

West Virginia

Races to watch: 2nd Congressional District

Polls close: 7:30 p.m. Eastern

One of only three states to lose population between the 2010 and 2020 censuses, West Virginia lost a House seat when districts were reapportioned last year, which meant that at least one of the state’s three Republican representatives would find themselves out of a job. Today we find out who that star-crossed statesman will be, as incumbent Reps. David McKinley and Alex Mooney face off in West Virginia’s newly drawn 2nd District

As FiveThirtyEight wrote earlier this year, it’s the first incumbent-vs.-incumbent primary of 2022, and based on the geography of their old districts, McKinley started with the advantage: 66 percent of the 2nd District overlaps with his old turf in northern West Virginia, while only 34 percent overlaps with Mooney’s old Eastern Panhandle-and-central-West Virginia seat.

However, Mooney has Trump’s endorsement, the holy grail in any Republican primary but especially in West Virginia, which was Trump’s second-best state in the 2020 presidential general election. Mooney is a die-hard Trump follower who voted not to certify the results of the 2020 election; McKinley, meanwhile, is more of a bridge builder, both literally (he voted for Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure package) and figuratively (he voted in favor of a bipartisan commission to investigate the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol).

McKinley’s infrastructure vote has been a major bone of contention in the race, too, with Mooney and his allies at the anti-government-spending Club for Growth using it as a line of attack. But on the campaign trail, McKinley has actually leaned into his vote, given that West Virginia is slated to receive at least $6 billion from the bill over the next five years, although he has still tried to tie himself to Trump in his campaign ads. McKinley, a seventh-generation West Virginian, has also repeatedly dinged Mooney, a former Maryland state senator, for carpetbagging into West Virginia last decade to run for Congress, as well as attacking him over an ethics investigation into whether Mooney spent campaign funds for personal use.

It’s Mooney’s messages, though, that have gotten more airtime. As of April 20, Mooney had spent more than $5.1 million on the race, while McKinley had spent less than $2 million. It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that an April 27-May 4 poll conducted by Research America on behalf of West Virginia MetroNews gave Mooney a lead over McKinley, 48 percent to 33 percent. With 13 percent still undecided, though, and the fact that both House polls and primary polls have wide margins of error, Mooney doesn’t have this sewn up yet.

Nebraska

Races to watch: Governor; 1st and 2nd congressional districts; attorney general; secretary of state

Polls close: 9 p.m. Eastern

If you thought last week’s Senate primary in Ohio was a nail-bitingly close race between a Trump proxy and other ambitious wings of the party, just wait until you hear about the Republican primary for Nebraska governor. With the retirement of term-limited Gov. Pete Ricketts, the job is open for the taking, and the winner of the Republican primary will be all but guaranteed of election in this deep-red state. 

Accordingly, there are many contenders for the crown, and they hail from three major wings of the party (Trumpist, old-guard establishment and moderate). Last year, Trump endorsed businessman Charles Herbster, a loyalist who has supported Trump’s political ambitions from beginning to end: He claims to have been at Trump Tower when Trump announced his presidential bid back in 2015, and he also attended Trump’s rally that preceded the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. However, this endorsement sat very poorly with Ricketts, who has seen Herbster as a political rival ever since Herbster funded Ricketts’s opponent in his first gubernatorial campaign, in 2014. Ricketts even took the rare step of slamming Trump’s endorsement, attacking Herbster for allegedly moving his agricultural company out of state. A few months later, in January, Ricketts endorsed University of Nebraska Regent Jim Pillen, a wealthy pig farmer with ties to the state’s agriculture industry.

But instead of Republicans coalescing behind Herbster or Pillen, this rift has created an opening for a third candidate, state Sen. Brett Lindstrom, who has a strong base of support around Omaha, the state’s largest city. A relative moderate, Lindstrom has earned the backing of even some Democrats, and there are anecdotal reports of Democrats re-registering as Republicans in order to vote for him. (Voter-registration figures show that 8,256 Nebraskans have un-registered as Democrats or independents in the past two months, and almost the same number have newly registered as Republicans. If these people are switching parties to vote for Lindstrom — and that’s a big if — it could give him a small but nontrivial boost in a close race.)

Buoyed by $11.5 million of his own money, Herbster led in the early polls of the race, even those from his rivals’ campaigns. But on April 14, the Nebraska Examiner dropped a bombshell report that eight women had accused Herbster of unwanted sexual advances: six who said he groped their buttocks over their clothes, one who said he forcibly kissed her and one — a Republican state senator — who said he put his hand up her skirt. 

Trump has defended his endorsee — even holding a rally on his behalf last week — but Herbster appears to have lost his front-runner status. The most recent poll not sponsored by one of the campaigns, conducted by the Neilan Strategy Group on April 19-20, showed that the race is now anyone’s game, with Lindstrom at 28 percent, Herbster at 24 percent and Pillen at 24 percent. (A more recent poll from Pillen’s campaign claims he has jumped out in front, with 31 percent, but you know what they say about internal polls.)

Depending on who wins, Nebraska’s next governor — who will co-certify the 2024 election results, including in Nebraska’s swingy 2nd District — will be either a believer in fair elections or something more ambiguous. Lindstrom and Pillen have both accepted Biden’s election in 2020, and Herbster has as well … eventually. He was once a full-throated Big Lie supporter (he said in a January 2021 text message that “this election was truly stolen from us and any one who does not believe that is not true is totally inaccurate”), so it’s fair to wonder how he’d react if a Democrat earns an electoral vote in Nebraska in 2024.

There are also two congressional primaries worth nodding at in the Cornhusker State. A couple months ago, I thought I’d be writing a lot more about the Republican primary for the 1st District, where incumbent Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, who had been indicted for allegedly lying to the FBI about illegal donations made to his campaign, was facing a serious challenge from state Sen. Mike Flood. However, on March 24, Fortenberry was convicted and resigned from Congress shortly thereafter. That left the 1st District an open seat, and though there are four Republicans still in the running,3 Flood looks like the odds-on favorite now; he is the only Republican left in the race who has reported raising any money as of April 20.

Meanwhile, the one notable Democratic primary on today’s ballot is in the Omaha-based 2nd District, the only competitive House seat in either of these two states. Having raised more than $1 million as of April 20, state Sen. Tony Vargas looks like the favorite to defeat mental-health counselor Alisha Shelton, who’s pulled in only about $319,000. Either would make history if they beat Republican Rep. Don Bacon4 in the fall: Vargas would be the first Latino elected to Congress from Nebraska, while Shelton would be the first Black person. 

Finally, we’re also keeping a closer eye on attorney general and secretary of state races this year, given those offices’ power to influence and even help overturn elections. While Nebraska’s Republican primaries for these positions don’t look close on paper, the lack of polling and stark contrast between pro- and anti-democracy candidates still makes them worth watching. For the open attorney general’s office, virtually Nebraska’s entire political establishment has lined up behind state Legislature Speaker Mike Hilgers, but he still faces a challenge from home-school parent Jennifer Hicks, who believes the 2020 election was fraudulent. (As best we could tell, Hilgers has not taken a position on the issue.) And incumbent Secretary of State Bob Evnen, who defended the 2020 election against claims of fraud, faces two challengers who have both questioned the election’s integrity and nodded at the conspiracy theory that voting machines changed people’s votes. 

We won’t be live-blogging the returns as they come in tonight, but don’t worry — we will have a quick analysis in the morning recapping all the results and what they mean for the future of the GOP.

Footnotes

  1. Except in one case. Read on to see which it is!

  2. As of Monday at 5 p.m. Eastern.

  3. Fortenberry’s name will still appear on the ballot, but he is no longer an active candidate.

  4. Assuming he wins his own primary against the underfunded Steve Kuehl.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

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