Trump bets his brand on 2 elections

Former President Donald Trump had an unblemished winning record last week: all 22 candidates that he endorsed in Indiana and Ohio won their Republican primaries.

The dirty little secret is that he padded his numbers by endorsing lots of incumbents who had no opponents, or who faced political nobodies. Still, there’s little doubt that the May 3 primaries were a Trump flex: In the most closely watched race of the day, the former president spent real political capital and powered J.D. Vance to the GOP nomination in a crowded Ohio Senate field.

Now comes Trump’s next test. He’s taken sides in the two biggest contests in the ballot Tuesday in West Virginia and Nebraska. The former president gave his blessing to Rep. Alex Mooney (R-W.Va.) over Rep. David McKinley (R-W.Va.) in a face-off between two Republican House incumbents. And in Nebraska, Trump backed agribusiness owner Charles Herbster — and remained steadfast in his support despite the recent revelation that eight different women accused Herbster of sexual assault.

We’ve asked six of our top political reporters to outline the biggest races on the May 10 ballot and explain the stakes for Trump today. Here’s what they had to say.

1. What are you watching for today?

ALLY MUTNICK, Campaign reporter: I think the member-vs-member primary in West Virginia between McKinley and Mooney is the most interesting one of the cycle. No matter who wins on Tuesday, some big rule of politics will be broken. Either Trump’s endorsed candidate (Mooney) loses, or he wins despite voting against bringing millions of federal dollars to rebuild the state’s crumbling infrastructure.

ALEX ISENSTADT, National political correspondent: I’m looking to see how Herbster fares in the Nebraska governor’s race. Trump has gone in big for Herbster, flying in to host a rally for him and holding a conference call on his behalf. But it’s a risk for Trump: Herbster has been accused of sexual assault by eight women, and if he falls short it would mark one of the first major defeats for Trump in a Republican primary.

ZACH MONTELLARO, State politics reporter: The big statewide race today is in Nebraska, where Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts is term-limited. The race has been a proxy battle between former President Donald Trump and the outgoing governor, who have endorsed candidates on opposite sides in this contest. Trump is backing longtime ally Herbster — memorably described in a POLITICO headline as a “bull semen baron” — while Ricketts is behind Jim Pillen, a member of the University of Nebraska board of regents. Those two men, alongside state Sen. Brett Lindstrom, are all viable candidates to win the party’s nomination (and effectively the governorship, because solid-red Nebraska won’t be competitive in November.).

DAVID SIDERS, National political correspondent: Nebraska’s the first place we might see Trump take a hit this year, after the 22 candidates he endorsed in Indiana and Ohio all won their primaries last week. But in Nebraska, the gubernatorial race is a toss-up. We know how Trump will respond if his endorsed candidate, Herbster, wins: He’ll take credit, and rightfully so. I’m more interested in how Trump and his loyalists respond to a loss — whether in Nebraska tonight or in races in Idaho and Georgia later this month, where some of Trump’s candidates are running far behind.

The other thing worth watching in Nebraska is the effect of party-switching on the primary. The GOP has gained more than 8,000 voters in the state in recent months, roughly corresponding to the number of voters Democrats and independents have lost. That’s a lot of party switching in a state where the Republican primary in the last open gubernatorial election, in 2014, was decided by a little more than 2,000 votes. Democrats and independents intent on sinking Trump-aligned candidates in other heavily Republican states are talking a lot about the effect they could have on Republican primaries if they switch over. Nebraska will be the first good test of that approach.

MERIDITH McGRAW, National political correspondent: Post-Ohio, things are about to get a little more challenging for Trump. In Nebraska, the governor’s race is tight. After Trump has given so much support, what happens if Herbster loses? How does Trump respond?

And in my home state of West Virginia, I’ll be paying close attention to what happens in the 2nd District congressional race. Two sitting GOP congressmen, McKinley and Mooney, are squaring off against each other after redistricting in the state clumped their districts together. [Full disclosure, I interned for McKinley, who represents my home district, on Capitol Hill when I was in college.] Mooney is endorsed by Trump, who is wildly popular in the state, but McKinley is backed by other well liked figures in the state — Republican Gov. Jim Justice and Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The temperature in the already heated race has been cranked way, way up in recent weeks. Will Trump’s endorsement trump other factors at play, like an ethics investigation into Mooney, or McKinley’s support for the popular infrastructure bill? What can we glean from the results about support for Trump in the state?

STEVE SHEPARD, Senior campaigns and elections editor: While the Nebraska governor’s race and the McKinley-Mooney match-up rightfully get top billing on Tuesday, both are going to be snooze-fests in the general election. That’s why I’m watching Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District on Tuesday. You might remember it from 2020, when now-President Joe Biden won its electoral vote by 7 percentage points — but GOP Rep. Don Bacon still won reelection by 5 points. Never one to be upstaged — and undoubtedly miffed by Bacon’s support for the infrastructure law — Trump targeted Bacon as part of his GOP primary revenge tour. “Anyone want to run for Congress against Don Bacon in Nebraska?” Trump asked in a January press statement.

The answer to Trump’s question was essentially no one. Bacon does have one token challenger in Tuesday’s primary who has barely been able to raise $5,000. But if there is latent dissatisfaction with Bacon, a stalwart of the governing wing of the GOP, it will show up in votes for his opponent. On the Democratic side, state Sen. Tony Vargas is the favorite in his primary, setting up a top-tier contest against Bacon we have rated as “Lean Republican” in POLITICO’s Election Forecast.

2. The marquee House race today is West Virginia’s 2nd District, which features one of 5 member-vs-member contests this year that were caused by redistricting. Tell us about the two Republicans, Reps. David McKinley and Alex Mooney, who are running against each other.

ALLY: There are a lot of ways to contrast the two. Mooney is a former Maryland state GOP chairman and state senator who moved across the state border shortly before running for Congress in 2014. McKinley is a former West Virginia state GOP chairman and state delegate whose family has lived in Wheeling — a city in the state’s northern panhandle — for seven generations. Another way to look at it: McKinley is a relative moderate who voted for the creation of a bipartisan commission to investigate the Jan. 6 attacks and ignored Trump’s warning to vote against Biden’s infrastructure plan (out of a desire to bring federal funds to crumbling roads and bridges.) Mooney, an ultraconservative member of the House Freedom Caucus, snagged a Trump endorsement after voting no on the $1.2 trillion package.

MERIDITH: McKinley has represented West Virginia’s 1st District since 2011, and Mooney has represented West Virginia’s 2nd District since 2015. The congressmen have voted the same 87 percent of the time in Congress, per ProPublica, and both Mooney and McKinley have shown support for Trump. But McKinley clearly crossed the line with Trump for two votes — his support for the creation of a Jan. 6 commission to investigate the riots on Capitol Hill, and his vote for the bipartisan infrastructure deal. The very day McKinley backed the infrastructure bill — which, I will add, was supported by GOP Sen. Shelley Moore Capito and Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, and is popular in the state — Trump endorsed Mooney.

Mooney has a leg up in the state with a Trump endorsement, but he’s been dogged with allegations he’s a carpetbagger and is currently facing ethics investigations. McKinley, meanwhile, has touted his lifelong ties to the state and has worn his vote for infrastructure as a badge of honor when campaigning, even though it cost him any chance of a Trump endorsement and opened the door to attacks from the MAGA base.

STEVE: One more note on Mooney: It’s an open secret he’s interested in running for Manchin’s Senate seat in two years — whether the Democratic incumbent seeks reelection or not. Obviously, that would be a non-starter if Mooney goes down on Tuesday.

3. Both candidates are conservatives. Why would Trump choose to weigh in here in a contest between two conservatives?

MERIDITH: Trump vowed to go after Republicans who voted for the infrastructure deal, has called them “RINOs” or “Republicans in name only,” and claimed infrastructure is a political gift to Democrats. When it comes to Trump’s motivations, don’t overthink it! Things are pretty black and white: McKinley voted for infrastructure, so Mooney got his endorsement. Ally has some great reporting on the behind the scenes drama over that here.

ALLY: I agree with Meridith that infrastructure was a driving factor here. McKinley said that a person in Trump’s orbit called him the night before the vote and told him if he went ahead with his plan to support it, Trump would endorse his opponent. McKinley said he believed Trump was upset that Biden had accomplished something he set out to do — and he was perhaps jealous. Mooney also notes that Trump had other reasons to eschew McKinley. He voted for the Jan. 6 commission and to certify both Pennsylvania and Arizona’s electors. (Mooney only voted to certify one.)

4. Donald Trump has put a lot of political capital into the Nebraska governor’s race, and recently appeared in the state for a rally. What explains his interest in this race, and why is he supporting Charles Herbster?

ALEX: Trump’s decision to weigh in for Herbster is all about loyalty. Herbster gave more than $1.1 million to Trump during the 2020 election, and he was there at the beginning of the Trump era — when he came down the escalator for the 2015 presidential campaign launch — and at the end, at the rally that preceded the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.

DAVID: On top of that, remember that Trump endorsed Herbster all the way back in October 2021, before Herbster looked like a liability. I spoke to one Trump adviser who said the endorsement, more than anything, was “about win-loss record.” Trump looked at Nebraska and saw a state where he could notch a victory. He still might. But there’s no question now it looks like a risk.

ZACH: I agree with Siders — it does now look like a risk! The rest of the month has a whole bunch of other primary races that Trump waded into that aren’t slam dunks, either. Top of the list is probably the Georgia governor’s race, where Trump drafted former Sen. David Perdue to run against Gov. Brian Kemp. But there are others, too: He endorsed against the sitting Republican governor of Idaho in a primary next week, and Mehmet Oz in the open Pennsylvania Senate race. None of those are sure-thing endorsements, either.

5. Herbster has faced explosive allegations recently that he sexually assaulted eight women. That is typically the kind of event that would sink a campaign. Tell us where things stand, and how it’s affecting his chances of winning the nomination. Are there signs that the allegations against Herbster are hurting his campaign? How have his rivals responded?

DAVID: What’s striking about the allegations is that they haven’t sunk Herbster — and it’s unclear how much they will matter, at all. It’s still a toss-up between Herbster, Pillen and Lindstrom.

But there’s something revealing here about the state of Republican Party politics. Herbster isn’t just defending himself from the accusations. He’s attempting to turn them to his benefit, running a TV ad comparing himself to Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh. Their political opponents, he suggests, used “lies … to ruin them,” just like Herbster’s foes are “doing it” to him.

This is exactly the kind of grievance politics that was central to Trump’s presidency — that the media, RINOs or some other bad actors were out to get him. Herbster is urging primary viewers to see him as a victim, too.

ZACH: First, credit to the Nebraska Examiner for breaking this story in April (Herbster denies the allegations against him). The allegations, including from a state senator, led to calls for him to drop out of the race from Ricketts and others, which he obviously did not do. Herbster running TV ads denying the allegations, like the one Siders posted, are a pretty good sign that Nebraskans have heard about them. But his opponents’ campaigns have largely not advertised about it, instead going after him on things like taxes. The closest we get to it is an ad from an outside group called Conservative Nebraska, which doesn’t reference the allegations but tries to paint Herbster as a creep for being a beauty pageant judge.

STEVE: That Conservative Nebraska ad was quite something. But on one level, the fact that Herbster is still locked in a tight three-way race signals that the Trump endorsement can’t make even a majority of Republican primary voters overlook allegations like these. On the other hand: If Herbster wins with, say, between 35 and 40 percent of the vote, it would show the strength of Trump’s ride-or-die base is enough in some of these races.

6. Despite the accusations, Trump has stood by and supported Herbster. He even scheduled his Nebraska rally after the allegations surfaced, when most politicians would have been trying to get as much distance as possible. Why is Trump sticking by Herbster?

ALEX: Trump has a long history of giving backup to loyalists accused of wrongdoing, from Brett Kavavaugh, who was accused of sexual assault after Trump nominated him to the Supreme Court, to political advisers Roger Stone and Paul Manafort, who Trump pardoned during the waning days of his administration. Trump — who has been accused of sexual misconduct by more than two-dozen women — has often taken a skeptical view toward loyalists accused of improprieties, and he backed the idea of Herbster holding a press conference to push back on the charges.

DAVID: If it was clear Herbster was going to lose, Trump might have backed off. He’s dumped endorsed candidates before (just ask Mo Brooks in Alabama). But Herbster may well win, so Trump has a lot of incentive to stick with him.

And then there’s everything Alex has reported — the loyalty factor, the fact Trump is skeptical about accusations of wrongdoing. Part of this is just Trump’s gut — and there are more than a few Republicans who think it’s a mistake.

One Republican strategist I spoke with recently said he’d been impressed recently by many of Trump’s endorsements, believing he was making more calculated decisions to get behind winners in Senate contests. When it came to Herbster, though, the strategist said Trump “may have both moments of clarity and moments of passion.” He’d place sticking by Herbster in the latter bucket.

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