Charles Herbster, a Trump-backed agricultural executive, was accused by eight women touching them inappropriately; two publicly told the Nebraska Examiner that Herbster did so at a fundraiser in 2019. Herbster, who has denied the allegations, turns up in a crowded field that includes a candidate backed by incumbent Governor Pete Ricketts (R), who is time-limited, and much of the Republican establishment in the state, Regent Jim Pillen of the University of Nebraska.
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The Nebraska primary is one of two closely watched races in which Trump is pitted against local Republican leaders. The former president is also backing Rep. Alex Mooney (RW.Va.), a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus who faces a primary against a colleague who ran far more money into his home — traditionally an asset in the state – Rep. David B. McKinley (RW.Va.).
The contests are two of many primaries this month that will show how much GOP primary voters have invested in Trump’s endorsements 16 months after he left office. Trump-endorsed candidate in Ohio’s Republican primary for the U.S. Senate, venture capitalist and author JD Vance, prevailed last week, an early show of strength for the former president. Some Republicans have warned that Trump could face tougher dynamics in upcoming contests.
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In Nebraska, a Republican state senator accused Herbster of lifting her skirt at a local GOP fundraiser in 2019. Another woman, who is a former aide to a state senator , said Herbster grabbed her butt after she stopped to wave at her table at the same time. Event. Trump, who himself has denied multiple allegations ranging from sexual harassment to rape over the years, recently traveled to Nebraska to campaign for Herbster and defend his former farm policy adviser and campaign donor.
“He’s the most innocent human being,” Trump said, embracing Herbster at an eastern Nebraska fair. “He’s the last person to do all of this.”
Trump’s endorsement of Mooney, who was dragged into a new district with McKinley after the state lost a House seat, was less personal. McKinley had voted for last year’s bipartisan infrastructure bill and to create a congressional commission to investigate the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol by a pro-Trump mob. Last year, Mooney sat down with Trump for an hour, sharing a 15-page memo on the race with the former president and walking away with an endorsement.
“My opponent is a total RINO,” Mooney said during a rain-soaked rally with Trump in western Pennsylvania on Friday, not far from West Virginia’s 2nd congressional district. “For our party to succeed, we need to eliminate these RINOs in the primaries,” he added, repeating the derogatory acronym of “Republican in Name Only.”
Mooney, whose potential use campaign funds for personal expenses are being investigated by a congressional ethics committee, represented far less from the new district than McKinley. Republican Gov. Jim Justice (R) backs McKinley.
Trump won West Virginia in a landslide in 2020, and national Democrats do not plan to aim for the seat in November. Sen. Joe Manchin III (DW.Va.) offered bipartisan support for McKinley last week, appearing in a TV ad to help him refute bogus attack ads that confused the infrastructure bill with a larger set of social spending that the senator helped block in the past year, says the “Build Back Better” plan.
“For Alex Mooney and his out-of-state supporters to suggest that David McKinley supported Build Back Better is an outright lie,” Manchin said. “David McKinley has always opposed reckless spending because it doesn’t make sense for West Virginia.”
McKinley defended his infrastructure vote at the track, backed by groups such as the state Chamber of Commerce, which also backed him. He sought to steer his own vote for a Jan. 6 bipartisan Labor commission away from panel-appointed Democrats, though ads from conservative groups such as the Club for Growth have used him to try to tie him to the Liberals.
“Who were the culprits here? What was the real genesis of this problem? McKinley said in an interview, explaining why it was believed a bipartisan committee was needed. “I don’t learn of this through Nancy Pelosi’s select committee.”
Mooney and his allies outspent McKinley, but internal polls for both candidates found a close race. Party strategists will be watching closely when the polls close at 7:30 p.m. EST.
Nebraska’s gubernatorial race has been costlier and more divisive for Republicans, with Democrats hoping to take advantage in November. Asset approved Herbster six months ago, even though Ricketts advised against it, and in January the governor backed Pillen.
“No one has run a grassroots campaign like us,” Pillen said in an interview. “Neighbors talking to neighbors, eyeball to eyeball, win votes. It has always mattered in Nebraska.
The endorsements set up an uphill battle between Herbster and Ricketts. Members of the governor’s family spent big on opposing Trump in the 2016 presidential primary.
Ricketts strongly criticized Herbster, support announcements of a political action committee called Conservative Nebraska who called the candidate a “Missouri millionaire.” Last month, when the Nebraska Examiner reported for the first time of the women who said Herbster groped them, Ricketts said he believed the accusers.
Herbster quickly denied the allegations, adopting a defiant posture similar to that Trump has often adopted. He compared himself to conservatives who he said had been sullied by false attacks, including Trump and Supreme Court justices Clarence Thomas and Brett M. Kavanaugh.
“They’re trying to scare me away from this race and it’s not going to happen,” Herbster said at the May Day rally with Trump. “We’re going to take Nebraska back.”
Other candidates are trying to gain an advantage amid attacks and counterattacks. Former state senator Theresa Thibodeau entered the race after a brief stint as Herbster’s running mate, concluding the wealthy executive should not be governor. State Sen. Brett Lindstrom, a conservative with moderate views on issues such as medical marijuana legislation, hoped to benefit from the split, though the Nebraska conservative also sued him.
“At first, to be honest, we saw a pretty narrow path,” Lindstrom said in a recent interview after walking past Herbster and Pillen at Nebraska City’s annual Arbor Day Parade. “That path has widened because the other two sides are fighting pretty hard. We were able to fly under the radar and get the job done.
Nebraska is a heavily conservative state where Democrats haven’t held the governorship in Lincoln since the 1990s, but they say they see an opportunity in the messy Republican primary. State Senator Carol Blood, who won in a district Trump carried twice, had co-signed a bipartisan statement of female senators backing Herbster’s accusers. If the GOP focused on national politics instead of Nebraska’s needs, she said, the Democrats could win.
“I look at the Republican Party and I don’t recognize it anymore,” Blood said in an interview. “I am not a sacrificial lamb. Nobody told me about that. I don’t run for anything unless I think I can win.
Voters in eastern Nebraska will also choose candidates for Congress, with four Republicans vying to replace former Republican Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, who resigned after being found guilty of lying to federal investigators about contributions illegal in the countryside. Republican Sen. Mike Flood and Democratic Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks are running in both the primary and a June 28 special election to fill Fortenberry’s term.
In the Omaha-based 2nd congressional district, one of the few to have re-elected a Republican in 2020 while supporting Joe Biden for president, two Democrats are vying to take on Republican Rep. Don Bacon. Bacon also has a challenger: Steve Kuehl, a roofer who has criticized Bacon for supporting the infrastructure bill.
Trump stayed out of the Bacon-Kuehl race, although he previously noted that Kuehl was in the crowd at a rally and called him a “nice guy.” During his rally in West Virginia, he did not go into details of the McKinley-Mooney race, but said the stakes were high.
“Alex is in for a big ride,” Trump said. “This is one of the races that they keep saying, ‘Is Mooney going to win because Mooney is backed by Trump?’ ”