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Tuesday’s Nebraska Primary Is the Next Test of Trump’s Power in the G.O.P.

Tuesday’s Nebraska Primary Is the Next Test of Trump’s Power in the G.O.P.

Late last month, as long lines of cars and pickups neared the I-80 Speedway—a dirt car racetrack in eastern Nebraska—a row of signs touting Charles Herbster’s campaign for governor appeared on nearby roads. Printed in black letters against a white background, the signs made their point bluntly: “HERBSTER—GOVERNOR—TRUMP ENDORSED.” Inside, Trump 2024 flags flapped in a strong wind that would soon force a postponement of Herbster’s scheduled appearance with the former President. Inside the raceway, the gubernatorial candidate himself was there, wearing a cap that read “Donald Trump 45th President.”

An executive who owns multiple cattle-and-agriculture companies, Herbster donated $1.3 million to Trump’s Presidential campaigns and attended the January 6, 2021, Stop the Steal rally, on the Ellipse. He has spent nearly nine million dollars of his own money on a gubernatorial campaign pinned almost entirely to Trump’s endorsement. Herbster’s candidacy and his fervent embrace of Trumpism have, ahead of Tuesday’s primary, bitterly divided Republicans in the state, which has a long history of sending centrists to Washington, from Republican Senator Chuck Hagel to Democratic Senator Ben Nelson. His candidacy is also another test of Trump’s sway over G.O.P. voters—and the direction of the Party itself.

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Last month, Herbster was accused of conduct that would likely have disqualified him in the eyes of many Nebraskans in the pre-Trump era. Eight women, including a strongly conservative Republican state senator, said that Herbster had groped them or touched them inappropriately, Aaron Sanderford, a political reporter for the Nebraska Examiner, a nonprofit startup, revealed. All the women were in their teens or early twenties when the alleged conduct occurred. Witnesses corroborated six of the incidents. Julie Slama, the state senator, said Herbster reached up her dress at a Republican event in 2019, when she was twenty-two years old. “I was in shock. I was mortified. It’s one of the most traumatizing things I’ve ever been through,” Slama later said, in an interview on local radio. “I was scared then and I’m scared now.”

Herbster’s response to the allegations was Trumpian. In a thirty-second video ad, he said Slama’s claim was an “attack” that was “built on lies” and made no mention of the other seven women or the six witnesses. He has repeatedly cast himself as the victim of a conspiracy by the state’s Republican establishment. The claims, Herbster has said, were “libelous fake news,” a plot by the state’s current Governor, Pete Ricketts, and his favored candidate to derail his campaign. Ricketts said it was “ridiculous” to suggest that he “conspired to talk eight women and even more witnesses to make up stories about Charles Herbster.” (Herbster did not respond to a request for comment.)

Since the news broke, all thirteen women who serve in Nebraska’s forty-nine-seat state legislature have signed a letter declaring Herbster “unfit to serve.” A second victim has gone public, and Herbster has sued Slama for slander. Undaunted, Slama has countersued. When a former Omaha mayor, Hal Daub, said, “I’d like to ask her what she was wearing,” Slama tweeted a photograph of her dress. “Clothes don’t equal consent,” she said, in the radio interview.

At the rescheduled rally at the racetrack, on May 1st, Trump, who has been repeatedly accused of sexually harassing women and once boasted of grabbing them by the genitals, doubled down on his support. Trump predicted that Herbster will be elected Nebraska’s next governor. “He’s been badly maligned, and it’s a shame,” the former President said. “That’s why I came out here.”

Trump supporters told me that they don’t believe the allegations against Herbster. A husband and wife drove more than two hours from rural central Nebraska, in hopes of seeing Trump. They were making their way to their car, amid blue “Trump Won” flags and T-shirts for sale that said “Mean Tweets and Cheap Gas 2024.” They told me that there was something suspicious about the allegations, coming so soon before the election. “Probably fake” and ginned up by the opposition to smear Herbster, “just like they did against Trump,” said the husband.

John McCollister, an anti-Trump Republican state senator, who once tweeted that the G.O.P. is “enabling white supremacy,” told me that the race was a chance for Republicans to repudiate Trump. “All the rules and norms about what a Republican is are up for grabs,” he said. “There’s a fifty-fifty chance that we’ll gravitate toward a more responsible Republican Party.” But Herbster may benefit from a dynamic that has aided Trump allies in other primaries: a splintered Republican opposition to Trump and Trumpism. Last week, in Ohio, J. D. Vance, the Trump-endorsed candidate, won the Republican Senate primary with more than thirty per cent of the vote. His two Republican opponents received roughly twenty-three per cent each.

In Nebraska, recent polls show Herbster in a three-way tie ahead of Tuesday’s G.O.P. primary. His chief rival when the race started was Jim Pillen, a veterinarian, livestock producer, and former University of Nebraska football star who is backed by Ricketts, the outgoing, term-limited Governor. Pillen is relying on small gatherings and advertising that conveys his deeply conservative positions and pitches his close ties to Ricketts. In one twist, more than eight thousand voters have switched their registration from Democratic or nonpartisan to Republican in the past two months, allowing them to vote in the G.O.P. primary.

As Herbster struggles with character issues and Pillen avoids debates in favor of candidate forums, Brett Lindstrom, a state senator, has climbed into the race as a credible alternative to both. At forty-one, Lindstrom is a generation younger than Herbster and Pillen. At campaign events in populous Omaha and across the state, he delves into policy details and refrains from personal attacks. When asked by voters how he will accomplish his goals, Lindstrom pledges to build coalitions among legislators and interest groups that do not agree on every issue.

Pillen’s backers, though, are pushing back. Governor Ricketts has helped fund a dark-money group that launched a series of ads accusing Lindstrom of being overly liberal. (Ricketts did not respond to a request for comment.) By one count, published Monday, Lindstrom has been pummeled by $1.6 million in negative advertising. Yet he has voted to ban abortion without exceptions, possesses a top rating from the National Rifle Association, and warned in one of his campaign flyers that “the radical left will stop at nothing.”

When I met Lindstrom, at E’Z Place, a sports bar in west Omaha, where he was pitching his candidacy to several dozen voters, he appeared relaxed. There were no MAGA hats in the crowd, and Trump’s name did not come up. When Lindstrom promised not to attack Herbster or Pillen personally, many people applauded. “I want to show that you can win an election without cutting people down,” he said. During an interview, he acknowledged that nuance and teamwork don’t always translate into votes in a Republican Party increasingly steeped in absolutes. “I try to be logical about these things rather than hyper-political,” Lindstrom told me. “And sometimes that doesn’t go over well.” (Herbster, mimicking Trump, rails against China, “illegals,” critical race theory, “the fake-news media,” sex education in schools, and government itself, which “produces absolutely zero.”)

Tuesday’s Nebraska Primary Is the Next Test of Trump’s Power in the G.O.P.