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5 things to watch in the Nebraska and West Virginia primaries

By Gregory Krieg, Jeff Zeleny and Dan Merica, CNN

Another primary day, another test of the force of former President Donald Trump‘s grip on the Republican Party.

On Tuesday, a proxy battle over the governor’s office in Nebraska will be decided between a candidate backed by the state’s top Republican, term-limited Gov. Pete Ricketts, and Trump’s choice, a wealthy businessman facing a slew of sexual misconduct allegations.

In West Virginia, a clash of sitting Republican members of Congress — drawn against each other by mapmakers during redistricting — also pits a candidate armed with the former President endorsement against another supported by Republican Gov. Jim Justice and Democratic US Sen. Joe Manchin.

The House nominating contests in Nebraska could also presage some November drama, as Democrats try — again — to flip a swing district that Joe Biden won in the 2020 presidential election and Republicans, defending a much safer seat, try to make sense of a ballot that includes a candidate who resigned earlier this year after being convicted of lying to the FBI. (They’ll also have to decide on who is going to fill his seat for the rest of the current Congress.)

Here are five things to watch in Tuesday’s primaries in West Virginia and Nebraska:

Is a Trump endorsement all that matters in a Republican primary?

That is the question on the ballot in the incumbent-vs.-incumbent Republican primary between Reps. Alex Mooney and David McKinley.

Because of West Virginia’s shrinking population, the state lost a seat in Congress, forcing the longtime colleagues to run against each other. The race has become one of the most vicious in the country, with Mooney running almost entirely on his Trump endorsement and slamming McKinley for his support of the bipartisan infrastructure package.

McKinley, a seventh generation West Virginian with deeper ties to the district he is seeking to represent, has argued his infrastructure vote helps the people of his state. He is labeling Mooney, who moved to West Virginia from Maryland in the last decade, a carpetbagger and is leaning on support from Justice and Manchin.

Still, even with McKinley’s structural advantages, Trump remains deeply popular in the state — the former President won every county in both 2016 and 2020, carrying more than 68% of the vote against Biden in 2020 — and his influence is seen everywhere.

If Mooney ousts McKinley on Tuesday, it will be yet another sign that Trump is the only endorsement that matters in the GOP.

Ricketts v. Trump in Nebraska

Their names are not on the ballot, but their family prestige is.

Ricketts, the GOP governor, and Trump are on different sides of the state’s Republican gubernatorial primary on Tuesday. Ricketts is not only strongly backing Jim Pillen, a member of the University of Nebraska board of regents, but he’s aggressively campaigning against Charles Herbster, an agribusinessman who won Trump’s endorsement.

The Ricketts family, whose patriarch Joe Ricketts founded TD Ameritrade, is among the most influential donors in the Republican Party.

The governor personally asked Trump to stay out of the primary, people familiar with the conversation told CNN, but the former President ultimately rejected those appeals and endorsed Herbster.

It’s been a scorched-earth campaign ever since, with Ricketts investing more than $1 million into an outside group, Conservative Nebraska, to attack Herbster.

While Trump has not contributed such a robust sum, he visited the state on May 1 to headline a rally for Herbster in a race that will test his sway among the Republican base in state he won in 2020 with 58% of the vote.

An even deeper shade of red

Nebraska is one of the most Republican states in the country. Heading into Tuesday’s primary, it’s an even deeper shade of red.

Over the last two months, the Republican Party has gained nearly 8,500 registered voters, according to the Nebraska secretary of state, including about 6,400 in April alone.

The state’s Democratic Party has lost nearly the same number, confirming speculation that Democrats are so eager to weigh in on one of the state’s most fiercely competitive elections in years that they have switched parties to take sides in the GOP governor’s primary.

A whisper campaign among local Democrats steadily grew in recent weeks, urging voters to change parties to support state Sen. Brett Lindstrom of Omaha, a Republican who is seen by some as a more acceptable conservative alternative to Herbster, the Trump-backed candidate, or Pillen, the choice Ricketts.

Nebraska has not elected a Democrat to the governor’s office since Ben Nelson won a second term in 1994, so Democrats are well aware that their best ability to influence the race comes by voicing their views in the Republican primary.

While 8,500 new voters may not seem like much in a state with more than 600,000 registered Republicans, the last time Nebraska saw a competitive primary for governor, in 2014, Ricketts won by only 2,300 votes.

Trump and Democrats try to sandwich Don Bacon

Republican Rep. Don Bacon won reelection to his seat in the 2nd Congressional District in 2020 despite Trump’s defeat there at the top of the ticket. (Nebraska awards two electoral votes to the statewide winner in presidential races and three more to district-level winners.)

This year, Bacon is expected to face a stronger Democratic challenger in the general election. State Sen. Tony Vargas and Alisha Shelton, a mental health therapist, are squaring off for the Democratic nomination. Vargas has raised more money and carries, most notably, the endorsement of CHC Bold PAC, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’ campaign arm.

Bacon, meanwhile, is defending a seat he first won in 2016, then successfully defended twice against progressive Democrat Kara Eastman. His competition for the nomination, businessman Steve Kuehl, is a longshot. But he’s received a shoutout from Trump, who has been critical of Bacon after the congressman criticized Trump following the January 6, 2021, US Capitol riot and voted for Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure package.

After calling Bacon a “bad guy” during his speech in Nebraska earlier this month, Trump said he thought Kuehl would “do well” in the primary and, though stopping short of endorsing, offered his best wishes: “Good luck, Steve,” Trump said, “whoever the hell you are.”

The curious case of Nebraska’s 1st Congressional District

Former Rep. Jeff Fortenberry is out of Congress, having stepped down after being convicted of lying to the FBI, but he remains on the primary ballot for his seat in Nebraska’s 1st Congressional District this Tuesday.

There’s nothing barring Fortenberry, should he win, from keeping the nomination and running for and winning his seat once more in November. The House could vote to expel him, though the odds of that, if the GOP gains a majority, would appear slim. Trump has publicly defended Fortenberry at least twice, lamenting in April that, “In a great state Nebraska, a congressman is being put in jail over a few dollars that he possibly didn’t know anything about.” (Fortenberry will be sentenced in June, but has promised to appeal.)

Fortenberry could make life simpler for his party if he turns down a potential nomination. But if he doesn’t, other Republicans might choose to run write-in campaigns in the general election.

The state GOP establishment would very much like to nip this thorny business in the bud and its choice, with endorsements from Ricketts and former Gov. Dave Heineman, is state Sen. Mike Flood. Curtis D. Huffman, Thireena Yuki Connely, and John Glen Weaver are also on the Republican ballot.

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