Movement or Takeover: Inside the intraparty battle within the NEGOP

June 20, 2023, 7 a.m. ·

Nebraska Republican Party headquarters in Lincoln (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)
Nebraska Republican Party headquarters in Lincoln (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

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There’s a battle going on within the Nebraska Republican Party. In interviews gathered over months, both current and former officials within the NEGOP say incidents in Sarpy, Dixon and York counties are indicative of a statewide battle between perceived “establishment” officials and more “far-right” newcomers.


On May 22nd, Nebraska Republican Party Chairman Eric Underwood and other members of the party’s executive committee met behind closed doors at their headquarters in Lincoln to decide the fate of one of their own.

On trial was Nora Sandine, chair of the Sarpy County Republican Party. Her position was in question after the political action group, The Nebraska Freedom Coalition, published a 27-page report documenting alleged “incompetence and corruption.”

Allegations found in the document claim Sandine was preventing members from joining the party and conducting unauthorized business.

Defending Sandine that night was attorney, Omaha City councilwoman and longtime GOP operative Aimee Melton.

“I think that everything that they're complaining about is very minimal and correctable,” Melton said. “Pursuant to Robert's Rules, you should allow and have a meeting and try and correct any of the issues that there are before you remove someone.”

The NFC sees the situation differently.

“I don't want to sit here and say that, you know, just point blank, we're advocating for the removal of the Chairwoman because it's so much deeper than that,” NFC Executive Director Malia Shirley said. “We're advocating for the rules to be followed, for the constitution to be upheld, for Robert's Rules of Order to be implemented and maintain decorum at meetings.”

Shirley says her organization’s list of grievances with Sandine’s leadership was the result of a combination of issues over years, dating back to at least 2019. For her, Sandine’s removal would be a win for accountability.

“Sarpy County conservatives and patriot groups and all of these other organizations have been applying pressure for years. Only now, are they willing to come to the table because their hand is being forced to by the state party,” Shirley said.

But a vote was never held. Instead, in something of a surprise, a decision was postponed pending further investigation.

In a tweet, the NFC blamed the delay on a letter to Nebraska Republican Party Chair Eric Underwood from Governor Jim Pillen, Lt. Gov Joe Kelley and Nebraska’s entire congressional delegation.

It called the NEGOP’s actions up to that point “unprecedented” and that removing Sandine would be “gross overreach.”

Congressman Don Bacon said he felt compelled to sign the letter because he knows Sandine personally and that he believes she’s a good conservative.

“Secondly, she was duly elected, and she won by a pretty wide margin in the Nebraska Sarpy County elections,” Bacon said.

Bacon said to remove Sandine over the NFC’s accusations would disenfranchise Republicans who voted for her.


Dixon County resident Debbie Borg was notified on March 24th that she would no longer be Chair of the Dixon County Republican Party, despite being only halfway through her term.

The statement, signed by NEGOP Chairman Eric Underwood, said Borg was technically removed a week earlier under Article XI of the Nebraska Republican Constitution, which gives NEGOP leadership the right to vacate or remove a county chair perceived as not fulfilling their duties.

According to Ron Schmidt, at the time the 3rd Congressional District chairman for the NEGOP, Borg’s deficiency was her months-long failure to appoint a “central committee,” a body defined in the Dixon County Constitution as the governing body of the county party when in session.

“When you have Republicans in counties that want to get involved and be involved in the process but are not allowed or welcomed in … with open arms then that creates a problem,” Schmidt said, insisting Borg’s removal came only after she resisted months of pleas by both Schmidt and Underwood.

Borg declined an interview, but Josh Blatchford was Dixon County’s vice chair at the time of her removal. He said the county never had a central committee before, and the real reason for Borg’s dismissal was simpler: She was targeted by what he calls “extremists” within Dixon County’s GOP.

“It was a big argument back when Debbie got voted in. I think she beat out the other person, who was a known ‘Patriot,’ by one vote. And it was bad blood from that point forward.” Blatchford said.

He says since the election for chair, two “Patriots” on the four-person Executive Committee would actively obstruct proceedings until they got what they wanted. In this case, it was a central committee.

“Every time we wanted to do something for the community, for the county, whatever, they would be the ones that wouldn’t want to do it,” Blatchford said. “We’d be in deadlock, two and two votes.”

In January things escalated when Schmidt and the “Patriot” faction of the party convened a meeting of Dixon Republicans to address the central committee issue without Borg’s approval. Borg hired a lawyer who then wrote a letter to the editor of a local paper accusing Schmidt and others of going “rogue.” Schmidt penned a rival letter accusing Borg of tyranny.

Blatchford was shocked by leadership’s intervention in the issue.

“They’re there for guidance, they’re there for assistance. But they’re not there to enforce what we are going to do in our counties,” Blatchford said. “They were ... enforcers by telling us 'There is no option, we’re going to do this.'”

In February, Borg sent an email to Schmidt stating even if the executive committee decided to appoint members to the committee, an “us versus them” mentality had settled in between the two sides.

Blatchford said the last straw for him came in April when Underwood directly appointed Borg’s replacement — completely removing him from the process.

Convinced his replacement, current County Chair Blane Brummond, would be another “Patriot,” Blatchford felt he had become irrelevant.

“What was the point of me being left on the board when I had my beliefs, and now they got their third-person vote? And so I just have to ride along and do exactly what they say, and my vote doesn't matter anymore,” Blatchford said.

He resigned soon after.


Sometime in February while vacationing in Sun City, Arizona, York County Republican Party Chair Larry Kopsa got an email from Schmidt.

He was convening a meeting of York County Republicans in March to appoint a central committee, but Kopsa wasn’t due back in Nebraska until May. Kopsa said to meet would be a violation of the York County Constitution.

“I could call … a special meeting, or a majority of the central committee [could]. But ... we go back to four people on the committee at that time. By our Constitution, three of them would have had to call the meeting,” Kopsa said. “We couldn't have had a special meeting without my calling it.”

Further adding to the confusion, Kopsa said he began contacting people to be part of a central committee before he left for Arizona.

“I wanted it done as per our constitution,” Kopsa said.

In response, Kopsa said Schmidt dismissed the York County Constitution, questioning its legitimacy.

While positions were being filled in Nebraska, Kopsa was offered the chance to call into the meeting from Arizona but refused because "by our constitution, this was not a sanctioned meeting."

He said he thought about filing a legal challenge to the meeting but decided against it.

“Is it worth it? Do I really want to get involved in a skirmish with them? Because, you know, they got the state party behind them,” Kopsa said.

Schmidt defends holding the meeting without Kopsa’s approval, saying he was only reacting to outcry from Republicans in the county who wanted a committee appointed.

“The county party can't just not function for, you know, six or eight weeks, you know, because somebody's not there. So we, you know, we had to take a little bit of a different course of action there,” said Schmidt. “People just want to get together and share ideas. And, hey, that's what it's all about, honestly.”

Kopsa saw it differently.

“Finally, I just said, ‘Okay, fine. Now I'm Chairman, but I have a central committee that, you know, I'm not involved with, they’re having monthly meetings without me. So anyway, I said that's good enough.”

He resigned soon afterward.

Kopsa said at the center of the push to create a central committee was what he calls an “ultraconservative,” anti-establishment political group calling themselves the York County Patriots.

Current York County Chair Diana Johnson confirms she was an active member of the York County Patriots.

“I knew we didn't have a valid constitution. We didn't have a central committee,” said Johnson. “And if you have a central committee that, actually, is the power of the county, it's not the executive.”

Johnson said that the push to create a central committee was born out of a perceived lack of organization and transparency about party operations under previous leadership. Under her leadership, she said, the party has grown.

Johnson said the York County Patriots no longer meet.

“Because now I'm the chair of the Republican Party.”

In the weeks following his resignation — even though he thinks they bent the rules in their favor — Kopsa admitted to being impressed by the level of organization the new officeholders have brought to the party.

"They're a very passionate group," Kopsa said. "They're just so mean."

While Sandine in Sarpy County awaits a decision on her chairmanship, her attorney, Aimee Melton, said she sees a thread between what happened to her client and what is happening in other parts of the state.

“Even if you look at the posts on (Nebraska Freedom Coalition) posts, these are the people that are posting they're talking about, I mean, they haven't hidden it,” said Melton.

She recalled a now-deleted web page from the NFC's website that named Eric Underwood as an honorary advisor.

Ron Schmidt, the NEGOP and the Nebraska Freedom Coalition deny their efforts are coordinated though Malia Shirley of the NFC called the assumption “flattering.”

“But really what it is … it's a very organic movement of empowered citizens who feel emboldened by the support of people walking their same path of other citizens,” said Shirley.

In an email, NEGOP Executive Director Dawn Liphardt said the party will continue investigating the claims against Sandine.

"We are hopeful that the concerns leveled by a number of county party members will be addressed by Sandine, in order to rectify the matter in a spirit of cooperation, harmony and transparency for all individuals involved," Liphardt said.

Melton has a different take.

She said what’s actually going on is a crusade by conservative populists to remake the party in their image.

They're going to act like a dictatorship. And if you don't do everything that they want exactly the way they want it and have the exact opinions that they want, then they are going to take you out,” Melton said.

In a sign of the growing rift the situation is creating within the party, on June 14th the Nebraska Young Republicans tweeted their support for Sandine having voted on the issue during their state convention.

Correction: A previous version of this story inaccurately stated that Larry Kopsa called into the York County Republican meeting from Arizona. He was offered the chance to call in but declined.