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GOP’s primary battles in West Virginia and Nebraska chart course for party’s future

GOP Reps. David McKinley and Alex Mooney face off in a West Virginia primary Tuesday night — a rare clash between two incumbents that will also test the political clout of former President Donald Trump.

McKinley and Mooney were thrown into the same district in 2022 after West Virginia lost a seat following the 2020 Census, and the game of congressional musical chairs prompted some of the nastiest and most cutting campaigning of the midterms so far. McKinley aired spots calling Mooney a “political prostitute” because he’s run for office in three states, while Mooney called McKinley a “RINO” for votes cutting against Trump and the GOP, like backing the creation a bipartisan commission to investigate the Jan. 6, 2021 Capitol attacks.

Whoever loses will be the first member of Congress to fall in the 2022 election. The race quickly morphed into a test of Trump’s political clout — one of two big elections Tuesday night, along with the Nebraska governor’s race, where Trump put his political capital on the line

But the West Virginia race also hinges on whether GOP primary voters are willing to reward a representative who brings home federal funding at the risk of appearing ideologically impure.

A debate on the merits of the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package dominated the race, transforming a normally benign issue — investment in highways, broadband and water treatment plants — into a political football.

For McKinley, a civil engineer who carries around an American Society of Civil Engineers report grading West Virginia’s infrastructure as a “D”, his yes vote was easy. To Mooney, a member of the House Freedom Caucus, the bill’s price tag was too exorbitant and filled with too many poison pills.

The bill received the votes of 19 GOP senators, including Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.). But Trump personally whipped against it and vowed to exact revenge on any House Republicans who supported it. Trump endorsed Mooney after McKinley backed the bipartisan infrastructure bill signed by President Joe Biden last year.

Both Mooney and McKinely have other notable allies on their side: Mooney has support from Trump and the anti-tax Club for Growth, while McKinley has support from the popular GOP Gov. Jim Justice, as well as Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin.

This primary is one of many throughout the month that will determine the size of the GOP’s “governing coalition” in a potential future majority — members who are willing to strike deals to pass legislation versus adopting a more hard-line posture.

Trump’s Nebraska play

While Washington is focused on the federal race between McKinley and Mooney, the biggest statewide contest Tuesday is to replace the term-limited Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts in Nebraska, where polls close at 9 p.m. Eastern.

Trump threw himself into the race to replace Ricketts, the co-chair of the Republican Governors Association, by endorsing longtime ally Charles Herbster. Herbster — who owes at least some of his fortune to selling bull semen — has clashed with Ricketts, and the outgoing governor unsuccessfully tried to convince Trump to not back him.

Ricketts threw his support behind Jim Pillen, a member of the state board of regents. And Herbster, Pillen and state Sen. Brett Lindstrom have all run close in polls of the Republican primary ahead of Tuesday night, with the winner set to be heavily favored in the state’s November election.

Trump has stood by Herbster despite the revelations in mid-April, reported by the Nebraska Examiner, that a number of women, including a sitting state senator, accused Herbster of groping or inappropriately touching them.

Herbster denied the allegations, and Ricketts and others condemned him. But instead of stepping aside, Herbster ran a TV ad comparing himself to Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh. Trump rallied for Herbster in the runup to the primary.

The race will be one of the first major tests of Trump’s endorsement power in 2022, following Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance’s GOP primary win last week. It is also the first of three times this month that Trump is wading into a contested gubernatorial primary. He endorsed Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin’s primary challenge to Idaho Gov. Brad Little on May 17, and Trump is heavily invested in former Sen. David Perdue’s bid to knock off Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp later this month.

Other House contests to watch

Democrats will also choose a nominee Tuesday to take on GOP Rep. Don Bacon in his Omaha-based swing seat. The favorite is state Sen. Tony Vargas, the son of immigrants and a former public school science teacher. He faces Alisha Shelton, a mental health therapist, in the Democratic primary. This is one of a handful of Republican-held seats that Biden carried in 2020.

Republicans will also choose a nominee to replace the former Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, who resigned earlier this year after a federal jury convicted him of making false statements to investigators during a probe of his campaign financing. GOP state Sen. Mike Flood is the frontrunner in the race to replace him — he jumped into the race even before Fortenberry bowed out.