The 5/10 Primary Watchlist: Nebraska and West Virginia

Introduction

This week’s edition of Watchlist brings us to two lesser-populated states with strongly Republican leanings: Nebraska and West Virginia. Neither one uses runoffs, so candidates will only need pluralities of the vote to secure their nominations. Last week’s contests in Ohio and Indiana reignited this year’s primary season after a month-long drought. To the joy of all political junkies, there will be elections almost every Tuesday for the foreseeable future. For more information, feel free to refer to our 2022 Mastersheet.

Statewide

Governor

Tuesday’s most-watched statewide contest is Nebraska’s GOP gubernatorial primary. Neither state featured this week has a Senate election, and West Virginia’s Governor Jim Justice (R) was re-elected to another four-year term in 2020.

Cornhusker State Governor Pete Ricketts (R) is term-limited, and a healthy field of viable contenders has emerged to replace him. Among the major candidates seeking the Republican nomination are Jim Pillen, Charles Herbster, and Brett Lindstrom.

Pillen is a University of Nebraska Regent and owner of Pillen Family Farms. He has the endorsements of much of Nebraska’s political establishment, including numerous legislators, sheriffs, and Gov. Ricketts. This helps to explain his apparent lead in public polling, although Herbster is not far behind.

Herbster is another member of the agribusiness community, having been appointed to the Agricultural Advisory Committee by former President Donald Trump for his successful 2016 election bid. This was definitely part of the reason why Herbster was granted the “Complete and Total” Trump endorsement. However, his campaign has not gone without scandal, as Herbster has faced and denied allegations from eight women of inappropriate conduct.

The final major contestant for the Republican nomination is State Senator Brett Lindstrom, who has a more moderate and even bipartisan slate of endorsements. This shouldn’t be surprising, as his district covers a portion of Omaha which Dave’s Redistricting Atlas identifies as being won by President Biden by a margin of 8%. He has the endorsement of Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert, and even that of the Nebraska AFL-CIO, although the union’s endorsement is for the primary only.

Polling has none of the three candidates consistently above 30% in a three-way race, making a decisive rating difficult. So far, the state GOP establishment’s lining up behind Pillen has served as a counterweight to Trump’s endorsement of the controversial Herbster. Split Ticket rates this primary as Leans Pillen.

Congressional

WV-02 (R) David McKinley vs. Alex Mooney

West Virginia’s newly-drawn 2nd district will be the scene of the first of five double-bunking primaries set to take place this year. Created after the last reapportionment cycle reduced the Mountain State’s House representation from 3 to 2, the fresh seat combines northern and central territory currently split between the 1st and 2nd districts.

*Fun fact: To the annoyance of the election world, Carol Miller’s 3rd district is now numbered as the 1st. The numbering pattern that WV had established after losing its 4th district in 1992 ascended running north to south, so the latest changes could take some getting used to.*

The two Republican incumbents contesting the redrawn seat are David McKinley (WV-01) and Alex Mooney (WV-02). McKinley, the more senior Congressman, was originally viewed as a commanding favorite. But Trump’s endorsement of Mooney, combined with conflicting internal polling from the two campaigns, has made predicting the outcome in the 2nd district a difficult task.

Before we dive into Split Ticket’s expectations, let’s take a look at the backgrounds of both major candidates along with a breakdown of a few general characteristics of double-bunking contests.

The Candidates

David McKinley is from Wheeling, the most electorally-important city in the northern panhandle. A former state delegate and GOP chair, McKinley won a competitive primary for the 1st district Republican nomination in 2010. The McCain +15 seat’s Democratic incumbent Allan Mollohan lost renomination that year, and Republicans narrowly flipped his district in the fall. Coinciding with favorable GOP statewide trends, McKinley has not faced a competitive challenge since his initial election.

Alex Mooney is originally from Maryland, but carpet-bagged to the eastern panhandle city of Charles Town in 2014 to run for Shelley Moore Capito’s open seat. Prior to his close House bid, Mooney had served as a Senator and state GOP chair in the Old Line State. Although he has notably underperformed the 2nd district’s national partisan lean in all of his elections, Mooney remains a serious contender for Senator Joe Manchin’s seat in 2024.

On Double-Bunkings

The most important thing to know about double-bunking primaries is that they are heavily-regionalized. When two incumbents are redrawn into the same seat, each one can be expected to win the portions of the new district that he or she represented under the old lines – primarily a result of name recognition. Historically, lopsided regional breakdowns have allowed the most geographically-advantaged incumbents to win. In other words, more territory tends to correspond with increased voter familiarity.

Another important factor in these decennial contests is seniority, which can give one incumbent critical bonuses in the endorsement and fundraising categories. Since primary spending affects vote share, the incumbent with the strongest machine usually reaps the extra cash necessary to increase name recognition in parts of the district that he or she is unfamiliar with. That’s not always enough to break regional divides in redistricting races, but it certainly does not hurt either.

This year’s primary will be a test to see if Trump’s post-presidential endorsement of Mooney is enough to overwhelm McKinley’s seniority and 2:1 regional advantage in the new district. Mooney has run to the right, won the fundraising game, and condemned his opponent for accepting Senator Manchin’s endorsement. The former President is currently 4-0 in competitive House primaries, and tonight’s race will arguably be his toughest test yet.

1992 – West Virginia’s Last Double-Bunking

Interestingly, northern West Virginia has been the scene of a double-bunking primary before. Back in 1992, Democratic Congressmen Allan Mollohan and Harley Staggers were drawn into the same seat. Both men were first elected in 1982 and had fathers that had served in the nation’s lower chamber. Ultimately, Mollohan’s territorial advantage carried the day for him. The only populated county that Staggers won was Monongalia, simply not enough of a voting base to overcome his opponent’s 61% vote share.

Fundamentals & Expectations

If territorial advantages end up trumping the Trump endorsement, McKinley would theoretically be able to win easily. According to calculations from Split Ticket using data from Dave’s Redistricting App and David Leip’s Election Atlas, about 2/3rds of the new 2nd district’s population is currently represented by McKinley. A comparable amount of Trump’s total 2020 vote share in the district also came from the senior Congressman’s part of the district. But primaries these days rarely stick to form.

The more likely scenario for a McKinley victory would be modest victories in his district’s key counties (colored in blue above). Since we do not expect Mooney to fare well north of his current district’s boundary line, the margin in the McKinley counties will be critical to determining just how close the race ends up being. If Mooney keeps key McKinley turf close while mobilizing his southeastern base, he would be favored to win. For someone like McKinley to succeed, though, he would need to rely on strong regionalism to completely shut the door on his opponent in the northwest much like Mollohan did to Staggers in 1992.

Naturally, this contest has been extremely tough for Split Ticket to predict. Internal polling for both campaigns has yielded significant results in opposite directions, distracting from an otherwise close polling average. On paper, McKinley should be a favorite to secure the nomination given his seniority and territorial advantages. But the results from Ohio last week showed that Trump still has influence over competitive GOP primaries, leading us to conclude that Mooney could very well win.

Split Ticket will be playing it safe with a Tossup rating, though we do consider Mooney a slight favorite to win tonight. If he ends up defeating McKinley easily, it should strike some fear into other House incumbents facing Trump-endorsed challengers later in the cycle.

NE-01 (R)

Nebraska’s new 1st district is only Trump +11, meaning it could be on the edge of the board in a blue wave year. That is far from the case in this political environment, though, with Republicans expected to easily hold the 1st. Some of the GOP’s renewed confidence followed the resignation of Congressman Jeff Fortenberry, who was recently indicted by the FBI.

Fortenberry had already been fighting off a challenge from Mike Flood, a former Speaker of the Nebraska Legislature, at the time of his departure. Although Flood’s chances of winning the November nomination have obviously increased as a result of the latest developments, it is worthwhile to note that Fortenberry will still be on tonight’s ballot. One must wonder just how much residual name recognition and uninformed voting could boost his totals.

Regardless of tomorrow’s outcome, Flood is favored to win the June 28th special election under the old lines against Democrat Patty Pansing Brooks. If he somehow were to lose the primary for the full term to Fortenberry, an unlikely scenario to say the least, he would still be able serve out the remainder of the ex-Congressman’s term.

NE-02 (D)

Nebraska’s Omaha-based 2nd district is Biden +6, but incumbent Republican Don Bacon remains a strong favorite to win reelection this fall. Much like Jared Golden in Maine’s 2nd, Bacon was able to strongly outrun his district’s presidential lean in 2020. Only minor primary opposition to Bacon has materialized this year, possibly an indication that Republicans recognize the incumbent’s unique ability to hold an otherwise Democratic seat.

Despite the environment, Democrats have a top recruit for the 2nd in state Senator Tony Vargas. He is currently the favorite in a primary against progressive challenger Alisha Shelton. This is a contest to keep on the backburner because Shelton’s nomination would probably increase GOP chances of victory even more.

I make election maps! If you’re reading a Split Ticket article, then odds are you’ve seen one of them. I’m an engineering student at UCLA and electoral politics are a great way for me to exercise creativity away from schoolwork. I also run and love the outdoors!

You can contact me @politicsmaps on Twitter.

My name is Harrison Lavelle and I am a political analyst studying at the College of New Jersey. As a co-founder and partner at Split Ticket, I coordinate our House coverage. I write about a variety of electoral topics and produce political maps. Besides elections, my hobbies include music, history, language, and fitness.

Contact me at @HWLavelleMaps or harrisonwlavelle1@gmail.com

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