The Trailer: Nebraska, West Virginia primaries another test of Trump’s influence

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In this edition: Primary Day for former president Donald Trump, yet another House special election and the candidate running on tear gas.

We always appreciate it when members of Congress resign before deadline, and this is The Trailer. 

NEBRASKA CITY, Neb. — Charles W. Herbster raced back and forth across Central Avenue, shaking hands with voters, followed by a Chevy pickup truck that transported a plastic Republican elephant down the Arbor Day parade route. Wearing a cap with the presidential seal, and a jacket embroidered with his farm’s logo, Herbster took photos, talked about running for governor, and occasionally shared advice.

“Don’t believe all that crap they say about me,” Herbster told one family. The camera clicked, and he jogged across the street.

Herbster will face the rest of Nebraska‘s Republican voters today, in a race that’s pitted the state’s outgoing governor against former president Donald Trump — and that was before nine women, including a Republican state senator, accused the first-time candidate of groping them. It’s one of two tests today of Trump’s ability to swing a GOP primary toward the candidate he prefers, both of them facing opponents backed by their states’ Republican governors. 

“Charles W. Herbster will never bend to the RINOs, the media, or the radical left,” Trump said last week at a rally with Herbster in Greenwood, Neb., the day after the parade. “That’s why they’re doing everything they can to stop him. Malicious charges to derail him long enough that the election can go by before the proper defense can be put forward, but he’s already got the proper defense. He doesn’t even know about this stuff.”

Trump has also endorsed in one of today’s West Virginia primaries, where the loss of a congressional district last year forced Rep. Alex Mooney (R-W.Va.) and Rep. David B. McKinley (R-W.Va.) into the same seat, stretching across the state. McKinley angered Trump with a vote to create a bipartisan commission to look into the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection, and with his support for last year’s bipartisan infrastructure bill. 

But the race in Nebraska has broader implications. Herbster has compared himself to Trump, Supreme Court Associate Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, and other conservatives who he says were falsely accused of sexual misconduct by the political establishment whose power they threatened. He classifies Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts (R) as part of that establishment, suggesting that the outgoing governor’s campaign against him — including the claim that Herbster would be a “horrible” governor, and donations to a PAC opposing him — is part of a larger anti-MAGA effort.

“It doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Herbster told reporters at a virtual news conference last month, after most of the allegations had been made. State Sen. Julie Slama (R) has said that Herbster reached up her skirt without her consent and touched her inappropriately in 2019. Herbster noted at the news conference that the claim did not “come to the forefront until everyone knows that I am the front-runner for the next governor of the state of the Nebraska.” An ad from the Herbster campaign portrays the facts of the allegation as blocks in a Jenga tower, built to resemble the state capitol building in Lincoln, which topples after they’re plucked out.

Herbster has led in some polls, and loaned his campaign nearly $5 million, but local Republicans see a competitive race unfolding today. Shortly after Trump endorsed Herbster, Ricketts got behind Jim Pillen, a farmer and University of Nebraska regent. 

Both men have run as ardent conservatives, with Pillen endorsing “a trigger law that will fully outlaw abortions” if Roe v. Wade is overturned, and Herbster promising to ban “critical race theory” not just from K-12 schools, but on college campuses. In a brief interview, Pillen said that he was not overly focused on the allegations, but wasn’t convinced when Herbster compared himself to Trump or Kavanaugh.

“As a veterinarian and pig farmer, I call that hogwash,” he said.

Six other Republicans are on the ballot, and two have put together real statewide campaigns. Former state Sen. Theresa Thibodeau launched her own bid for governor after briefly serving as Herbster’s running mate and determining that he wasn’t ready for the job. In an interview, Thibodeau said that Herbster sometimes told her they should flip the ticket, putting her on top.

“Voters are looking for that fresh, new voice,” said Thibodeau. “Voters like President Trump, and they like Gov. Ricketts. But they’re also sick of our politicians telling us what to do.”

A fourth Republican candidate, State Sen. Brett Lindstrom, has polled high enough to be included in televised debates — and to face negative ads from Say No to RINOS, another PAC supported by Ricketts. Lindstrom, who’s been endorsed by the Nebraska State Education Association, has broken with Ricketts on some issues, including the governor’s veto of a gas tax increase and his refusal to implement a voter-passed ballot initiative that would have banned the death penalty.

“Sen. Lindstrom is a liberal,” Ricketts explained when asked about the donation. In an interview, Lindstrom said that he was getting support from “both ends of the spectrum,” and that his path to victory widened as Pillen and Herbster attacked each other.

“I think that our positive message is resonating with people,” said Lindstrom. “They’re saying, we’d rather have somebody that represents us who we may not always agree with, but we know that we can have a conversation with them. “I’ve worked with senators on the political left, right, everywhere in between. They’re saying, well, I may not agree with him 100 percent of the time, but he’s at least willing to sit down and talk and build a coalition.”

Nebraska Democrats, who have not won a race for governor since 1994, are expected to nominate state Sen. Carol Blood, who has one little-known competitor in the primary and has already picked a former GOP legislator as her running mate. In an interview, she pointed to her record winning elections in a district carried by Trump as evidence that should could win a race where Republicans had fought more about endorsements and national issues than Nebraska issues.

“When I talk to my friends that happen to be Republicans, I say: Are you happy with what’s been going on the last 20 years in Nebraska, as far as the government goes?” she said. “Consistently, they say: No, my property taxes are way too high.”

Democrats are not fielding candidates in any other statewide races — attorney general, secretary of state, auditor and treasurer — which will ensure that the winners of today’s GOP primaries win in November. Like several other Republicans in charge of election management, Secretary of State Bob Evnen is facing a challenge from two activists who say that the state’s voting is not fraud-proof. Trump carried Nebraska by 19 points in 2020.

In the 1st Congressional District, which includes Lincoln, state Sen. Mike Flood (R) is running for the party’s nomination to replace ex-Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R), who quit after a federal jury convicted him of taking illegal campaign contributions; state Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks (D) is the favorite for the Democratic nomination. 

In the Omaha-based 2nd Congressional District, one of a handful of districts across the country that reelected a Republican member of Congress in 2020 while supporting Joe Biden for president, state Sen. Tony Vargas (D) and mental health counselor Alisha Shelton are running for the Democratic nomination. Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) is facing a primary challenge from Steve Kuehl, a roofer who was praised by Trump at the May 1 rally, though the ex-president said he had only just met him.

Trump is more invested in the West Virginia race, where Mooney has built his reelection campaign around the ex-president’s endorsement. Ads and lawn signs show the two men giving a thumb’s up, after Mooney met with Trump at Mar-a-Lago and made his pitch — that he’d remained aligned with the MAGA movement, while McKinley had repeatedly taken votes Trump didn’t like.

The race is the first this year that pits two incumbent members of Congress against one another, and McKinley, who’s run on the money for infrastructure and opioid treatment that he brought home, entered it with other advantages. He’s represented most of the new district since 2011; Mooney, who relocated to the state from Maryland to run for Congress, has served a smaller section of the district since 2015. Gov. Jim Justice (R-W.Va.) has endorsed McKinley, as has the state Chamber of Commerce.

“If we win back the majority, I’ll either be chairman of the environment committee or the energy committee,” McKinley told a gathering of Republican women at a campaign stop last month. “That affects us every day in West Virginia.”

Mooney has run as a reliable “America First” conservative, blasting the bipartisan infrastructure bill on Trump’s terms — as a giveaway to liberals — and getting air cover from the Club for Growth. And he has brushed off a House Ethics Committee investigation into his campaign finances, which McKinley has turned into a negative attack.

“Being endorsed by President Trump matters to a lot of people,” Mooney said in an interview. “I’ve had folks come up to me and ask about the attacks. I tell them: Do you think, if that was true, President Trump would have endorsed me?”

Democrats are not targeting either of West Virginia’s congressional districts in November, but they will pick their nominees in both today. Polls close across West Virginia at 7:30 p.m. Eastern time, and close across Nebraska at 8 p.m. Central time.

“In Wisconsin, a complex debate on crime foreshadows a midterm fight,” by Cleve R. Wootson Jr. 

The political legacy of the Kenosha riots.

“Restorative injustice,” by Ryan Grim

Lessons from the collapse of a democratic socialist’s campaign.

“A 49-year crusade: Inside the movement to overturn Roe v. Wade,” by Michael Scherer, Josh Dawsey, Caroline Kitchener, and Rachel Roubein

A victory that came after plenty of false starts.

“Suburban Phoenix is cautionary tale for Democrats hoping to galvanize voters on abortion,” by Tim Reid

The GOP’s inflation-over-abortion messaging in practice.

“GOP’s midterm bet: Voters will care more about inflation than abortion,” by Mike DeBonis and Josh Dawsey

Polling that backs up a post-Roe election strategy.

“Professional losers: The transformation of the Democratic electorate,” by Matthew Thomas.

The rise and rise of the PMC.

“Trump’s smackdown of David McCormick shows the risks for Republicans trying a MAGA makeover,” by Jonathan Tamari and Anna Orso

An $11 million “America First” ideology transplant.

“With high court in spotlight, Democrats push judicial ethics overhaul,” by Jacqueline Alemany

Another idea from the Warren presidential campaign returns.

“Ohio’s redistricting mess threatens a smooth election in November,” by Carrie Levine

Who knew that unconstitutional maps had a downside?

Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.) announced his retirement more than a year ago, and on Tuesday, he announced that he was quitting early. 

“After almost 12 years in Congress, today is my last day,” Reed said on the House floor. The news that Reed was leaving to join Prime Policy Group, a D.C. lobbying firm, was first reported by Punchbowl News.

Reed’s decision sets up a political rarity — a race to fill out the term of an incumbent whose district won’t exist next year. Reed’s 23rd Congressional District, which connects liberal Ithaca to conservative parts of western New York, was redrawn by Democratic legislators, whose own map was thrown out in court. A special election to replace Reed will fill his expiring seat for a few months.

It gets more complicated. Democrats, with no better options, agreed with the court’s order to split up the state’s primaries. Statewide elections will be held on June 28, as scheduled; primaries in seats for the new House districts, which haven’t been mapped yet, will take place on August 23. Western New Yorkers who already had two elections scheduled this year will get to vote in a third.

The date of that election isn’t set yet. State law requires a special election to fill a House vacancy if it occurs before July 1 of an election year; Reed’s decision, effective today, qualifies. The new election must be announced within 10 days of the vacancy being created, and be held between 70 and 90 days after. Even if Gov. Kathy Hochul were to wait as long as possible to call the election, it can’t be merged with the June 28 primary — too soon — or the Aug. 23 primary — too late.

That makes another midsummer special election inevitable, with any Republican favored in a seat Donald Trump carried by 11 points. There will likely be a special election in the 19th Congressional District, too, where Rep. Antonio Delgado (D-N.Y.) is resigning to serve as lieutenant governor, but he has not resigned from the House yet.

Cory Mills for Congress, “Soldier. Conservative. Outsider.” Mills, a veteran and Bronze Star Medal recipient who’s never run for office before, founded PACEM Solutions eight years ago. Last month, Politico reported that a PACEM subsidiary’s anti-riot bullets were used to suppress protests in Hong Kong, while the company’s tear gas was used to quell Black Lives Matter protests. The latter fact is the focus of this ad; Mills, posing with a rifle, smiles after a few clips of tear gas being deployed in 2020. “If the media wants to shed some real tears, I can help ‘em out with that,” says Mills, who’s running in Florida’s 7th Congressional District after a new GOP map turned it into a safe Republican seat.

Dave McCormick for U.S. Senate, “True Country.” It’s a standard tactic: If Trump hasn’t endorsed you, find a photo or quote that makes it look like he has. McCormick, a Republican running for Senate in Pennsylvania whose wife served in the Trump administration, starts this ad with a low-fi clip of Trump praising him into an Oval Office speakerphone — “you’ve served our country in so many ways” — and adds two photos of the candidate and ex-president standing together. It’s another way for McCormick to talk about his Gulf War service.

Nelson for Wisconsin, “On Your Team.” Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson got into the Democrats’ U.S. Senate primary early last year, but wealthy self-funding candidates moved ahead of him in public polls. Nelson’s responses: Tripling down on his ordinary guy-ness, which continues in this ad that puts him in Milwaukee Bucks gear so he can condemn the transfer of taxpayer money to the team’s new stadium. (Alex Lasry, one of the self-funders, is a Bucks vice president.) “Go Bucks,” says Nelson, “but let’s end these crooked political deals.”

Nida for NC, “What’s at Stake.” “Last year,” says Durham County Commissioner Nida Allam (D), who is running for Congress, “I had an abortion that saved my life.” It’s rare to hear that in a campaign ad, but Allam is running in a new, safer version of an already-safe Democratic seat. The images and messaging here are pitched to liberal Democratic voters, including a transition from Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-Mass.) speech at the Supreme Court last week to Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) smiling next to Allam.

J Street Action Fund, “Real Democrat.” The American-Israeli Policy Committee’s new super PAC has played a big role in safe-seat Democratic primaries, and liberal groups are starting to fire back. This spot in North Carolina goes after state Sen. Don Davis, a conservative Democrat running for Congress, for casting antiabortion votes in Raleigh, then promotes former state Sen. Erica Smith as a “pro-choice leader” who supports “expanding Medicaid.” (Smith supports Medicare-for-all, not mentioned here.)

USA Freedom Fund, “The Real Dr. Oz.” For months, this PAC tried to stop J.D. Vance from winning the GOP’s U.S. Senate primary in Ohio. When that didn’t work, it adopted a new mission: stopping Mehmet Oz (R) from winning in Pennsylvania. This is the second ad to attack Oz for hosting an episode of his TV show about transgender children, using positive quotes about it from LGBTQ rights groups to paint Oz as a dangerous phony. “If Dr. Oz celebrates transgender kids,” it asks, “how can he protect ours?”

Kelly Schulz for Governor, “Parental Rights.” Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) is ending his two terms with high approval ratings, and Schulz is the only member of his administration running to replace him. She mentions that here while pitching a “parental bill of rights,” language that Republicans have embraced more tightly after last year’s wins in Virginia — though, Schulz eschews talk of Critical Race Theory to focus on school choice and not keeping schools closed. 

Brad Little for Governor, “Chain Saw.” Idaho Gov. Brad Little (R), running for a second term, has mostly ignored a group of conservative challengers that include Lt. Gov Janice McGeachin (R). She’s gotten an endorsement from Trump and attacked Little over the state’s 2020 pandemic restrictions, and he’s changed the subject. Here, he talks about cutting “95 percent” of burdensome regulations in four years, and promises more in a second term.

Conservative Nebraska, “Unusual.” The PAC created by Charles W. Herbster’s foes in Nebraska closed out with a little light smearing — suggesting that Herbster’s involvement with teen beauty pageants was a form of perversion. “Herbster joined pageants from Nebraska to Ohio to Bangkok, Thailand, all so he could judge countless young women and teenage girls,” says a female narrators. Herbster’s campaign condemned the ad, which doesn’t mention that he’s been accused of groping multiple women, but relies on the possible damage those accusations did to his image.

“How would you feel about Congress passing a law to establish a nationwide right to abortion?” (CNN/SSRS, May 3-5, 800 adults)

It’s been a week since Americans learned that the Supreme Court’s conservatives will likely overturn Roe v. Wade, and public opinion on abortion rights hasn’t moved. A full ban on the practice is unpopular; support for turning the decision into some kind of law is fairly high. Just a third of the adults polled here support Roe being overturned; two out of five oppose a federal abortion rights law. It’s still true that some support for keeping Roe intact is based on a misunderstanding, that throwing it out would ban abortion across the country overnight. But there’s majority support, overall, for keeping abortion legal. The upside for Republicans: This doesn’t seem to be driving votes, and some of the same voters who oppose an abortion ban say they support electing Republicans in 2022.

“If the primary election for the U.S. Congress in your district were being held today, would you vote for… (West Virginia Poll, April 27-May 4, 350 registered Republican voters)

Alex Mooney: 48%
David McKinley: 33%
Mike Seckman: 3%
Rhonda A. Hercules: 2%
Susan Buchser-Lochocki: 1%

This is the last poll we’ll get on the GOP primary in West Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District, and one of the best we’ve seen for Mooney, who… come on, you read the top of the newsletter, you don’t need another explainer. While McKinley represents more of the new district, Mooney has higher favorable ratings, and fewer voters view him negatively. That’s despite even higher levels of support for two McKinley supporters, Democrat-turned-Republican West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice and Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.). A supermajority of Republicans who can vote in today’s primary approve of both men, but just 9 percent approve of President Biden. That’s why linking McKinley’s infrastructure vote to Biden has worked, even with surrogates like Justice defending McKinley.

Pennsylvania. With no opponent to worry him in the May 17 Democratic primary for governor, Attorney General Josh Shapiro (D) is putting some money behind an ad that portrays state Sen. Doug Mastriano (R) as too pro-Trump — a blatant effort to support a Republican who many in his own party think would lose the general election. “If Doug Mastriano wins, it’s a win for what Donald Trump stands for,” a narrator says, identifying the Republican’s support for an abortion ban and a 2020 election audit as reasons to be fearful.

Mastriano’s opponents, not surprisingly, have argued that the state senator can’t beat Shapiro, and pointed to the ad as proof that Democrats want a weak opponent. 

Nevada. Republican Senate candidates Adam Laxalt and Sam Brown met for their first debate on Monday, disagreeing little on policy. They clashed only near the end of the hour-long Nevada Newsmakers session, when Brown said that Laxalt, the state’s former attorney general, had not done enough to protect the state’s elections.

“Election integrity is one where Adam has failed us, and another is protecting the second amendment,” said Brown.

“I was the chair of the Trump campaign and we sounded every alarm imaginable as the Democrats radically altered our elections,” said Laxalt.

“You knew, as attorney general, that noncitizens were registering to vote, and you did nothing,” Brown shot back. “When President Trump, Nevadans, and Americans, were relying on you to be the one to challenge any sort of issues with the 2020 election, the only thing you did was file a lawsuit that, per your own admission, was late.”

Trump endorsed Laxalt last August, but Brown, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan whose face suffered severe burns after an IED exploded, has raised and spent money fast to promote his campaign — $3.2 million donated, and $2.5 million spent. Laxalt has raised $4.3 million and spent around half of it.

Georgia. In the Georgia governor’s race, former senator David Perdue (R) has less than $1 million to spend ahead of the May 24 primary, according to a financial disclosure he released on Monday. Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, who squared off with Perdue in two bitter debates, entered the final stretch with $10.7 million; Democrat Stacey Abrams, who has no opponent in the primary, had $8 million after burning through nearly $13 million to reintroduce herself to voters.

Hawaii. Rep. Kaiali’i Kahele (D-Hawaii), who is retiring after a single term in Congress, confirmed on Saturday that he’ll run for governor. Kahele told Honolulu’s Civil Beat that he won’t resign from Congress, giving his party some breathing room in Washington — but he can do that, unlike some other Hawaiians who’ve run for governor from federal office, because of the same proxy voting rules that became a source of controversy when he rarely appeared in the Capitol in-person.

Kahele joined a fairly crowded race, in which Lt. Gov. Josh Green (D) enjoyed an early poll lead, thanks to the attention and support that went his way as the leader of the state’s pandemic response.

Minnesota. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) won the endorsement of the state Democratic Farmer-Labor Party on Saturday, after initially falling short of the 60 percent threshold needed to lock it down. She bested Don Samuels, a longtime Minneapolis activist who campaigned against the 2021 ballot measure to replace the city’s police department, which Omar supported — and which voters rejected. 

Samuels will continue to run in the August primary, which isn’t affected by the party endorsement. Local DFL convention votes have skewed left over the last few years, with the party’s official support sometimes going to liberals who lose their primaries. A version of that played out last year, when Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey (D) didn’t get the DFL endorsement, and police abolitionist Sheila Nezhad got the most support from delegates. That November, Frey was reelected, and Nezhad won just 21 percent of first-round votes. (City elections employ ranked-choice voting.)

… seven days until primaries in Idaho, Kentucky, Oregon, North Carolina and Pennsylvania
… 14 days until Texas runoffs, primaries in Arkansas, Alabama and Georgia, and the special primary in Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District
… 32 days until the special House primary in Alaska
… 49 days until the special election in Nebraska’s 1st Congressional District
… 65 days until the special election in Texas’s 34th Congressional District
… 176 days until the midterm elections