Analysis: 2 winners and 2 losers from the Nebraska and West Virginia primaries

Former President Donald Trump’s sway over Republican voters was tested again this week as primaries took place in both Nebraska and West Virginia.

Given the Republican lean of both states, the most competitive races were in the GOP primaries, particularly Nebraska’s gubernatorial race and a West Virginia House race that pitted incumbent versus incumbent.

Unlike in last week’s primaries, Trump’s endorsement had mixed results this time.

Here are the winners and losers from the Nebraska and West Virginia primaries.

Winner: Donald Trump

After helping propel all 22 of the candidates he endorsed in last week’s primaries to victory, Trump faced another major test of his clout on Tuesday.

Of all his endorsements this week, two were seen as particularly telling: Those of businessman Charles Herbster for Nebraska governor and of incumbent Rep. Alex Mooney in West Virginia. Herbster lost; Mooney won. The fact that nearly all of Trump’s primary picks have won makes him a winner this week. But the Nebraska result is an important reminder that Trump’s endorsement doesn’t guarantee a win.

As returns came in, it quickly became clear that scandal-plagued Herbster trailed his two opponents: hog producer and University of Nebraska regent Jim Pillen, who ultimately won and was backed by term-limited Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts, and State Sen. Brett Lindstrom.

Though Herbster himself had declared the race to be a proxy battle between Trump and the GOP establishment, his loss might not actually reveal much about where the party stands. Rather, it’s the result that might have been expected of a troubled candidate who was openly criticized by a popular Republican governor.

Herbster was accused of groping eight women, which he has denied, framing the accusations as an attack from the Republican establishment. He also faced scrutiny for being with members of the Trump family during the January 6 insurrection. Ricketts went so far as to declare Herbster unqualified for governor.

In West Virginia, Trump’s backing appeared to help Rep. Alex Mooney in a primary for the second congressional district, where he faced off against fellow incumbent Rep. David McKinley. The two were forced into a primary when population loss and redistricting combined their districts.

Trump endorsed Mooney after McKinley voted in favor of a bipartisan infrastructure bill and in favor of setting up an independent commission to investigate January 6. Mooney quickly made the former president’s backing the centerpiece of his campaign, using it to fend off questions about a campaign finance ethics investigation and accusations that he was a carpetbagger (though he’s represented West Virginia since 2015, Mooney once led the Maryland GOP).

Mooney’s win can be read as a sign of Trump’s enduring influence. Still, the fact that Trump went against a popular incumbent Republican governor and lost doesn’t bode well for him in a number of the coming primaries, such as in Georgia where he’s endorsed former US Sen. David Perdue to challenge Gov. Brian Kemp.

–Nicole Narea and Li Zhou

Loser: Bipartisanship

While both Mooney and McKinley are pretty conservative, the latter was known for taking more bipartisan stances than his counterpart. Last year, for example, McKinley was one of 13 Republicans who voted for the bipartisan infrastructure bill and one of 35 Republicans who voted to establish an independent commission to investigate the January 6 insurrection.

McKinley’s record — including his infrastructure vote — also led Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) to not only endorse, but participate in a campaign ad for him.

Polling has shown that most voters, including at least some Republican voters, favor bipartisan governing. But his willingness to take these more bipartisan votes doesn’t seem to have helped McKinley, who ended up losing the primary to Mooney by substantial margins.

During the campaign, Mooney bashed Republicans who backed the infrastructure bill, echoing Trump’s rhetoric and arguing that they were “sellouts.” McKinley, meanwhile, emphasized how much the state’s roads and bridges needed the funding given the extent that West Virginia has historically relied on federal dollars for these projects.

In the end, this type of messaging didn’t appear to resonate with enough Republican voters, suggesting that, in this district at least, Trump’s support was more important than McKinley’s commitment to policy.

– Li Zhou

Loser: “The big lie”

As with many GOP primaries in secretary of state races across the country this year, the focal point of Nebraska’s race was Trump’s 2020 election lies. Incumbent Secretary of State Bob Evnen, who has rebutted Trump’s false claims that the election was stolen, easily fended off two challengers — Robert Borer and Rex Schroder — who wrongly claim that Trump won the 2020 election.

Both accused Evnen of depriving the former president of one electoral vote due to voter fraud in the state’s 2nd congressional district. In actuality, Biden won the district by 22,000 votes, and Evnen has said that his office investigated every instance of alleged voter fraud, finding no “validity or merit to any of them.”

Evnen’s victory isn’t exactly a win for voting rights, however. Like other Republicans who have refused to advance Trump’s election falsehoods, Evnen still sought to mollify the base with his support for what the GOP calls “election integrity” measures. For instance, he backed legislation passed earlier this year that improves ballot drop box security. He has also said that he supports stricter voter ID laws.

– Nicole Narea

Winner: A top Democratic recruit in a top-priority race

Despite what is predicted to be a rough election for Democrats overall, there are some potential bright spots in nine red House districts that Biden carried in 2020. Among them is Nebraska’s 2nd district, which has remained competitive for Democrats after redistricting.

State Sen. Tony Vargas prevailed in the Democratic primary over mental health practitioner Alisha Shelton and will face incumbent Republican Rep. Don Bacon in the fall. The result is keeping Democrats’ hopes of flipping the district alive.

While the Democratic establishment didn’t select a favorite in the race, Vargas was generally seen as the stronger candidate, given that he already has legislative experience in government. He’s served on the Omaha Public Schools Board as well. During the primary, he touted his record of bipartisanship while in the state senate.

Vargas also proved to be a strong fundraiser, amassing over $1 million compared to Shelton’s $300,000.

NE-02 went for Biden by 6 percentage points in 2020, though Bacon also won the district that year, meaning Vargas isn’t likely to have an easy race ahead of him. Still, he’s exiting the primary in a solid position to help Democrats attempt to save their House majority.

–Nicole Narea