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At long last, there is a sign that Donald Trump’s showmanship alone isn’t sufficient to wrestle the Republican Party into submission. All it took was the efforts of another ridiculously wealthy Republican and his well-oiled political machine, and a groping scandal that even Trump couldn’t wave away.
The ex-President on Tuesday endured his first electoral setback since leaving office as his preferred candidate for Nebraska governor, Charles Herbster, narrowly lost the Republican nomination to Jim Pillen, the hand-picked successor of Gov. Pete Ricketts, who is term-limited. The hard-fought—and costly—contest is, in the immediate window, a decision about who will lead Nebraska for the next four years; a Democrat hasn’t won a statewide race there since voters re-elected Sen. Ben Nelson in 2006. More broadly, the outcome suggests that the GOP’s long-running assumption of Trump’s infallibility may be slightly too optimistic for the MAGA crowd.
To be sure, Trump is still on a bit of a streak when it comes to his endorsements. Before Tuesday, he had a perfect record. And Trump’s pick did prevail on Tuesday in a competitive House primary in West Virginia, where redistricting forced two incumbent Republicans into an intra-party face-off. Looking ahead, a number of Trump-backed candidates still are clinging to their red hats as a pathway to victory, even if the aura of invincibility is ever-so-slightly cracked, and maybe even flaking in places like Georgia, Idaho, and Pennsylvania.
Nebraskans selected Pillen, a University of Nebraska regent and veterinarian, over Herbster, a political newcomer and bull-semen baron who faced several allegations of groping. Pillen didn’t entirely dodge all of Trump’s influence over politics; as Trump has done before and stands to do if he runs again in 2024, Pillen skipped televised debates, saying he was running his campaign away from the meddlesome media.
But Herbster, the true mini-Trump in the campaign, wholly adopted Trump’s grievance-driven attitude and vowed to “drain the swamp”—in Lincoln, Nebraska’s capital city. He cast the entire election as a referendum on Trumpism, telling the New York Times the campaign represented “a proxy war between the entire Republican establishment in America against President Donald J. Trump.”
With nearly all the votes counted, Pillen was running ahead of Herbster by about 3.6 percentage points early Wednesday.
Ricketts, whose father founded TD Ameritrade and whose family owns the Chicago Cubs, unsuccessfully sought to keep Trump from the White House in 2016 and, more recently, from playing in his state’s politics. But Trump saw a loyalist in Herbster, who not only attended Trump’s campaign launch in 2015 but also the rally in Washington, D.C., ahead of the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the Capitol that sought to overturn the 2020 election. Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway even helped the Herbster campaign, which deployed much MAGA rhetoric along the way and blamed Ricketts for the sexual assault allegations. Trump economic adviser Stephen Moore visited the state last week as a quasi-celebrity.
Ricketts threw his heft behind Pillen, helping him weather incoming criticism from Herbster and a third candidate, state senator Brett Lindstrom, who was widely seen as the moderate choice in the race. Ricketts, who in ways explicit and subtle has taken ownership of the state Republican machinery, arguably invested more political capital in the race than Trump; where the ex-President spoke for more than an hour at a recent rally in Greenwood, Neb., before even mentioning Herbster, Ricketts dispatched his longtime political adviser to help Pillen pick up where Ricketts left off. And it doesn’t hurt that there’s plenty of chatter in Lincoln that Ricketts, 57, may be positioning himself for a potential presidential run.
Despite the outcome in Nebraska, Never-Trumpers should hold off on the celebrations. The ex-President remains a driving force in Republican politics and still intimidates much of Washington. He has somewhat frozen the field ahead of the 2024 race, although there are sparks here and there about some of his would-be-rivals preparing kindling for their own ambitions. Trump hasn’t done a ton to help the party build its infrastructure capacity, but it also remains true that he has proven that maybe all of those technical capabilities are overrated when stacked against bravado and a well-executed social media rant.
Still, even the slightest fraying of Trump’s lasso around the GOP is a sign that perhaps he isn’t the all-powerful leader of the party many view him to be. Just maybe, he is a political mortal after all.
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