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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.
On Tuesday, Charles Herbster (his preferred candidate to be Nebraska Governor) narrowly lost his Republican nomination vote to Jim Pillen. Pillen was the hand-picked successor to Gov. Pete Ricketts has been 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.
Trump has a good streak in his endorsements, though. His record was perfect before Tuesday. 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. A number of Trump-backed candidates continue to hold onto their red-hats in the hope of winning, even though they may lose some of their invincibility in areas like Georgia and Idaho.
Pillen, a University of Nebraska vet and regent, was chosen over Herbster who was a newcomer and bullsemen baron and faced numerous 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.”
After almost all of the votes were counted, Pillen had a slight advantage over Herbster early Wednesday by around 3.6 percent.
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. Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s adviser, even assisted the Herbster campaign. They used a lot of MAGA rhetoric and attributed Ricketts to the sexual assault claims. Stephen Moore, Trump’s economic adviser, visited the state as a quasi celebrity last week.
Ricketts readily supported Pillen to meet the criticisms of Herbster and the third candidate, State Senator Brett Lindstrom. Lindstrom was generally viewed as the moderate candidate in the race. Ricketts took ownership of the Republican state machinery in subtle and explicit ways. Trump spoke more at his rally in Greenwood than Ricketts. But Ricketts was unable to mention Herbster. Ricketts called in Ricketts’ long-time political advisor to aid Pillen. 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.
Never-Trumpers need to be careful about celebrating the Nebraska outcome. He is still a powerful force within Republican politics, and has intimidated many in Washington. While he’s helped freeze the field in advance of the 2024 election, there are still hints about potential rivals who may be preparing to set themselves up for success. 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. He might be a political martyr after all.
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