WASHINGTON — Polls have closed in West Virginia, where former President Donald Trump is hoping to further demonstrate his power in GOP primaries Tuesday, the third round of nominating contests this year before the midterm elections in November.
Polls close at 9 p.m. ET in Nebraska, where Republican voters are selecting a nominee in a gubernatorial primary that Trump has also waded into.
The two contests Tuesday, unlike last week’s marquee Ohio Senate battle, have flown under the radar nationally, but come after vicious campaigns that have seen Trump-backed candidates use the former president’s endorsement as a shield against accusations of carpetbagging and sexual impropriety.
According to Trump’s political advisers, he has so far endorsed 168 Republicans across the country in local, state and federal races; 55 have won and none have lost, although many faced token opposition at best. Trump advisers openly acknowledge that at least one of his candidates will likely lose a contest in the coming weeks as the races get more competitive.
In West Virginia, two Republican members of Congress are competing against each other after the state lost one of its congressional seats in the redistricting process because of declining population.
Trump supported Rep. Alex Mooney while Rep. David McKinley had the backing of West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice — a former Democrat who switched parties under Trump — and Sen. Joe Manchin, the moderate Democrat who took the unusual step of crossing party lines to endorse.
McKinley’s campaign labeled Mooney a carpetbagger (he served in the Maryland state Senate and was chairman of the Maryland GOP before moving to West Virginia to run for Congress in 2014) and called him a “political prostitute” (he has faced several ethics investigations).
Mooney in ads accused McKinley of being a “liberal,” “sellout,” and “known loser.” Trump attacked McKinley for supporting the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the creation of a commission to investigate the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, saying in a tele-rally last week that the congressman “betrayed Republican voters in West Virginia and the great people of West Virginia.”
McKinley’s campaign noted that, according to vote tracking analysis by the data website FiveThirtyEight, McKinley voted with Trump 92 percent of the time while Mooney voted with him 86.7 percent of the time.
Public polling has been limited, but a recent MetroNews poll showed Mooney ahead. Mooney also has more money, spending $5.1 million to McKinley’s $1.9 million, according to Open Secrets, while outside groups have spent $1.3 million on Mooney’s behalf and $950,000 for McKinley.
In the West Virginia’s other congressional district, Republican Rep. Carol Miller cruised to victory in her GOP primary, NBC News projects, easily defeating several lesser-known candidates in a district that covers the Southern portion of the state.
Meanwhile, in Nebraska’s primary for governor, Trump supported wealthy businessman Charles Herbster, who has been accused of sexual harassment, in a GOP primary against University of Nebraska Regent Jim Pillen and state Sen. Brett Lindstrom.
Term-limited Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts is backing Pillen and bankrolling an outside group to support him. Lindstrom has the backing of some Omaha officials, including its mayor and police chief.
The Nebraska Examiner reported that eight women — including a Republican state senator — accused Herbster of groping, accusing him, for example, of reaching under their skirt, grabbing their behinds or forcibly kissing them against their will — all of which Herbster has denied.
A Pillen ad attacked Herbster as a “tax-dodging,” carpetbagging liar. A Ricketts-backed outside group tried to capitalize on the allegations against Herbster in a recent, saying he served as a judge at numerous beauty pageants “so he could judge countless young women and teenage girls.”
Herbster ran an ad comparing himself to Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh, who were accused of sexual impropriety that they also denied.
And in another television spot, Herbster tied Pillen to “critical race theory,” a legal construct that has become shorthand for Republican criticism of the discussion of race and racism in schools, saying that, as a university administrator, he had allowed “millions of your tax dollars to teach students racist, hateful views of our nation.”
Limited public polling in the race showed a toss-up, with an April survey showing all three leading candidates within the margin of error of one another and 1 in 6 likely voters still undecided.
Trump drew thousands to a speedway outside Lincoln, Nebraska, last week for a rally to help promote Herbster, known for his signature cowboy hat and three-piece suit.
“Charles is a fine man and he is innocent of these despicable charges,” Trump said. “I have to defend my friends, I have to defend people that are good. These are malicious charges to derail him long enough that the election can go by before the proper defense can be put forward.”
Jessica Flanagain, Pillen’s campaign manager, said Trump’s campaigning for Herbster — along with get-out-the-vote efforts by the former president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., and Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz — tightened the race.
“It’s a barn burner,” she said.
Operatives in both parties are also watching the Omaha-based 2nd Congressional District, the only competitive one in the state, where Trump has criticized moderate Republican Rep. Don Bacon.
No serious Republican challengers heeded Trump’s call to challenge Bacon, who is facing only token opposition in Tuesday’s primary, but the margins could nonetheless be instructive as Bacon prepares to run for re-election in a district Democrats have targeted in recent years.