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Trump-backed candidate loses Nebraska governor's primary, NBC News projects

In West Virginia, Trump's pick in a Republican House primary defeated a fellow incumbent who voted for the Jan. 6 commission and the infrastructure bill.
Photo illustration of Nebraska Republican gubernatorial candidates Charles Herbster and Jim Pillen.
Charles Herbster and Jim Pillen, Republican candidates for governor in Nebraska.NBC News; Getty Images; Republican Jim Pillen for Governor

WASHINGTON — ​​Donald Trump failed to deliver a victory Tuesday in a Nebraska GOP primary for a gubernatorial candidate accused of groping multiple women, NBC News projects, handing the former president his first loss of this year’s election season.

University of Nebraska Regent Jim Pillen won the party’s nomination after a heated contest, defeating a state senator and self-funding businessman Charles Herbster, whom Trump campaigned for last week even after eight women — including a Republican state senator — accused Trump's favored candidate of inappropriately touching or kissing them against their will.

Pillen, boosted by support from term-limited Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts, who bankrolled an outside group, appears set to finish with a comfortable lead over Herbster.

Herbster ran only slightly ahead of state Sen. Brett Lindstrom, who had the backing of several Omaha officials, including the city’s mayor and police chief.

Trump did, however, notch a victory in a West Virginia congressional primary Tuesday that pitted two sitting congressmen against each other.

Trump-backed Rep. Alex Mooney overcame ethics issues and allegations of carpetbagging to defeat Rep. David McKinley, NBC News projects, who had the support of West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice and Sen. Joe Manchin, the moderate Democrat who took the unusual step of crossing party lines to endorse in the GOP primary.

Those two contests, unlike last week’s marquee Ohio Senate battle, flew under the radar nationally, but came after vicious campaigns that saw the Trump-backed candidates use the former president’s endorsement as a shield against a wide range of criticisms.

According to Trump’s political advisers, the former president has so far endorsed 168 Republicans across the country in local, state and federal races.

Before Tuesday, 55 of his favored candidate had won and none had lost, although many faced token opposition at best.

Trump advisers have openly acknowledged that some his candidates will likely lose a contest as the races get more competitive.

In West Virginia, the two Republican members of Congress were forced to compete against each other after the state lost one of its congressional seats in the redistricting process because of declining population. 

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," while Trump attacked him for supporting the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the creation of a commission to investigate the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, saying he had “betrayed Republican voters in West Virginia."

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.

Nebraska's primary was rocked by the allegations against Herbster, which Trump dismissed.

“Charles is a fine man and he is innocent of these despicable charges,” Trump said at a rally to promote Herbster that drew thousands to a speedway outside Lincoln, Nebraska. “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.”

The Nebraska Examiner reported that eight women 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 Ricketts-backed outside group tried to capitalize on the allegations against Herbster in a last-minute ad, saying Herbster served as a judge at numerous beauty pageants "so he could judge countless young women and teenage girls.” 

Herbster responded by running an ad comparing himself to Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh, who were accused of sexual impropriety that they also denied.

Mike Hilgers, the speaker of the unicameral Nebraska State Legislature, won the GOP nomination to be the state’s next attorney general after the current one decided not to seek a third time, NBC News projects.

In the Omaha-based 2nd Congressional District, the only competitive one in the state, moderate Republican Rep. Don Bacon easily overcame an underfunded opponent, NBC News projects, despite facing criticism from Trump.

No serious Republican challengers heeded Trump's call to run against Bacon, who voted for the Jan. 6 committee.