Old-Guard Conservatives and Trump Populists take Nebraska GOP from Ricketts

July 11, 2022, 5 a.m. ·

Neb Examiner - NE GOP Convention
Gov. Pete Ricketts addresses the Nebraska Republican Party convention in Kearney (Photo by Aaron Sanderford / Nebraska Examiner)

LISTEN: Nebraska Public Media reporter and host Jackie Ourada talks with Aaron Sanderford from the Nebraska Examiner about the contentious NE GOP convention.

KEARNEY, Nebraska — A motivated group of old-guard conservatives and Trump-era populists took over the Nebraska Republican Party on Saturday, ousting and replacing state GOP Chairman Dan Welch. The move sparked at least a dozen resignations from GOP leaders.

By Saturday night, the state’s dominant political party had lost its chairman, executive director, two of three district chairs, national committeewoman, three assistant state party chairs, secretary, treasurer and lawyer, among others.

Party critics had pressed for change, with several saying they sent a message to Gov. Pete Ricketts and party leaders that the state GOP is more than a “party of one.” Cheers erupted when the amendment passed allowing delegates to fire GOP leaders. The crowd was quieter when Welch lost his vote.

Ricketts had no immediate comment.

Old complaints

Some Republicans have complained for years that the governor and state GOP had taken sides in open races with Republicans running against Republicans. Several cited the legislative race between State Sen. Julie Slama and then-GOP activist Janet Palmtag.

Others pointed to the May GOP primary for governor. Welch said delegates believed bad information that the GOP had taken sides. Ricketts spent aggressively to sway the governor’s race toward his pick, University of Nebraska Regent Jim Pillen, who won the primary.

Motivated opponents

Some of what happened Saturday was telegraphed leading up to the convention. The Freedom Coalition held a 125-person rally Friday for people who wanted new leadership in the state GOP. Most who attended raised their hands when asked if they were delegates.

Successful floor fights to credential five of six Republicans that the state GOP had rejected from attending offered additional clues. One of the six, Lancaster County GOP activist Fanchon Blythe, helped lead the takeover after being allowed into the convention Saturday.

Another one of the six, unsuccessful  U.S. Senate candidate Matt Innis, was arrested on suspicion of trespassing and assault for trying to enter the meeting hall before the group voted to let him in. After being released from Buffalo County Jail, Innis walked into the convention hall to applause.

Innis said after the vote, “Pete (Ricketts) brought this on himself” by letting the state party and staff change the rules and interpret the party constitution to achieve their ends. Trying to reject the six delegates before the convention “didn’t help,” he said.

The party’s state convention had high off-year turnout of more than 600 people, including 346 delegates at its peak. The people who took over the party plan to quickly push it farther to the right, including adopting a resolution calling for counting election ballots by hand.

‘I wanted change’

Sarpy County Republican delegate Robert Anthony, who supported the changes, said many rank-and-file Republicans felt they were not being heard by the Ricketts establishment. He said he thought his group’s “rebellion” might die on the vine.

He said people who assume the group had help from friends of former President Donald Trump are wrong. Many, but not all, of the people who pushed for change are fervent supporters of the former president, he said, but the group was “organic.”

“I voted ‘Yes’ on Welch because I wanted change,” Anthony said. “There’s just a movement within us. Some of it is frustration with RINOs (an acronym meaning Republicans in Name Only). People are tired of these milquetoast Republicans.”

It’s happened elsewhere

Nebraska’s troubles with Republican Party conflicts are not unique. GOP activists also took over the Arizona Republican Party in 2019, and the Nevada Democratic Party lost its leadership to a similar revolt by progressives in 2021.

Support for Trump was a factor in some delegates’ decisions, as was support for Trump’s pick for governor, Charles Herbster. A few supporters of State Sen. Brett Lindstrom, another Republican candidate for governor, said privately that they wanted Ricketts to pay for attacking their candidate in negative campaign advertising.

Many in the winning group wore red dot pins that several said signifies they believe Trump’s unproven allegations about the 2020 election, although independent experts and Republican-led audits have confirmed that Trump lost to President Joe Biden.

New leader

Delegates chose Lancaster County Republican Party Chairman Eric Underwood as the GOP’s next chairman. Underwood said he wants to bring the party together to support Republican candidates, including GOP gubernatorial nominee Jim Pillen and GOP House candidates.

Underwood said he knows he needs to repair a lot of division in the party. He told delegates he would “earn your trust as people and conservative Republicans.” He said he would help elect GOP candidates and define “what we are” with the party platform.

“We can only do it together,” he said.

Underwood will finish the rest of Welch’s term, which runs through the end of this year.

Some Republicans expressed angst about Underwood. Former 2nd District Chair Nancy McCabe pointing out that Democrats have made major gains in Lancaster County. Democrats hold the Lincoln Mayor’s Office and a supermajority on the Lincoln City Council.

James Wright, a former staffer for Republican 2nd District Rep. Lee Terry, who was there when Ron Paul supporters took over the Douglas County GOP, argued that Welch had done a lot to pull the party together. Others highlighted Welch’s work to get Republicans in the Legislature.

Welch speaks

Welch, when he realized he didn’t have the votes to remain as state GOP chairman, told delegates that the state party would be strong with or without him. He said the same in a followup interview but said it might take time to get the party back on its feet financially.

“I hope the party doesn’t suffer for this, and we have to come back together,” Welch said. “Republicans have a great majority in the state, and the state will remain red because Nebraskans are common-sense conservatives. That always carries the day.”

Replacing Ricketts

The move to new management reduced Ricketts’ influence over the state party apparatus, which could spur financial risk for the state GOP, depending on how party donors react. Ricketts is the party’s top elected official and top donor.

The governor has been personally responsible for about 75% of the party’s private funding, which was a common gripe by critics of the party, including Patrick Peterson of the Nebraska Freedom Coalition. Welch was the party’s second-best fundraiser.

Resignations followed

GOP Executive Director Taylor Gage, the governor’s former spokesman, confirmed his resignation Saturday. He had been the subject of complaints from some county party chairs who said they didn’t like how party officials in Lincoln treated them.

Other party members who left included National Committeewoman Lydia Brasch, Treasurer Rod Krogh, Secretary Paul Burger, Assistant Party Chairs Darlene Starman, Trenton Snow and former State Sen. John Kuehn, General Counsel Dave Lopez and 1st District Chair John Orr.

“My true passion is campaigns,” Starman said. “I serve a role in both the Pillen and the Mike Flood campaigns, and I look forward to getting Jim Pillen and Mike Flood elected in November. I have plenty to do to keep me busy.”

National Committeeman J.L. Spray, who did not resign Saturday, said it was too soon to tell what to make of what happened in Kearney.

“Ask me next week,” he said.

Peterson said he was pleased with what party delegates did, but not with how some former party officials reacted.

“It’s unfortunate people fled the party,” Peterson said. That proves they didn’t want unity.”

GOP infighting

Nebraska Democrats celebrated the Republican infighting.

“Even Republicans are sick and tired of Ricketts using his father’s money to buy elections,” Nebraska Democratic Party Chair Jane Kleeb said. “The majority of Nebraskans want our government to work for the people.”

The abrupt shift in party leadership left some candidates wondering privately how to interact with new party leadership and questioning how much help the party would be able to provide. Several said they don’t know Underwood.

Lancaster County GOP members, including Blythe, described Underwood during the meeting as someone who listens to all Republicans, not just those that they like.

Many Republicans said they feel caught in the middle. Several said the last time tensions in the state GOP were this high was in the years 1996-2000, when some Republicans wondered whether the party had taken sides in a U.S. Senate primary and gubernatorial primary.

“I’m sick to my stomach about it,” Omaha City Councilwoman Aimee Melton said. “I have friends on both sides who have been part of this party a long time. It’s like when your parents get divorced, and you have to pick one to live with, but you love them both.”

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