LINCOLN — Saturday’s turmoil at the Nebraska Republican Party convention produced differing reactions from state political leaders, with Republicans claiming to be unfazed and Democrats suggesting that the GOP discord offers them an opportunity.
At the GOP convention, delegates fired party Chairman Dan Welch by majority vote. A wave of resignations immediately followed his termination, including Executive Director Taylor Gage and National Committeewoman Lydia Brasch.
Explanations for the upheaval differed. Some local Republicans, for example, felt they have been excluded by the party establishment led by Gov. Pete Ricketts. Some also complained that the state party leadership unfairly picked sides in the Republican gubernatorial primary to favor the eventual victor, Jim Pillen.
Ricketts, who had endorsed Pillen in the primary, offered a much simpler explanation when asked Monday about the convention: That a group of “new people” entered the party and wanted a change in leadership. He said the group went through the proper procedure to make those changes, and he looks forward to see what the new chairman, Lancaster County GOP Chairman Eric Underwood, is going to do.
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“That’s how the Republican Party is run,” Ricketts said. “It’s run by the people who show up.”
Nebraska Democratic Party Chairwoman Jane Kleeb said Ricketts and other Republicans may try to downplay Saturday’s events, but she believes Ricketts was a big reason for the unrest.
Division has been growing within the Nebraska GOP for at least a year, Kleeb said, with frustration rising among rural counties against the party establishment. Tensions increased after Ricketts donated over $1 million in the primary to Conservative Nebraska, a group that ran attack ads against Pillen’s top Republican opponents, Charles Herbster and State Sen. Brett Lindstrom of Omaha.
Herbster declined to comment on the convention Monday. Several other Republicans did not return requests for comment, including Pillen, Underwood, Gage, newly elected U.S. Rep. Mike Flood and former Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman.
Ricketts has traditionally been the Nebraska GOP’s biggest donor. In the last year alone, Ricketts and his family contributed $560,000 to the Nebraska Republican Party, according to the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission.
Kleeb said she expects Ricketts to shift to independent expenditures to political action committees or individual candidates moving forward, rather than directly to the party. Ricketts, however, claimed he will support Underwood as the new chairman.
Kleeb also said the GOP leadership changes will destabilize the party in ways that could weaken Republicans’ chances in the November general election. She said Republicans will need to spend the summer reorganizing rather than supporting the party’s candidates.
“They’ve lost their footing,” Kleeb said.
And she suggested that moderate Republicans and independent voters may see the party as becoming too extreme. Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln, a Democrat who is running against Flood for the congressional seat, said she has heard from multiple GOP voters who no longer feel included in the party and plan on changing their registration.
“Sometimes, the party leaves you,” said Pansing Brooks, a former Republican herself.
Despite those Democratic hopes, Republicans still hold a dominant position in Nebraska politics. They have a 49% to 28% voter registration lead over Democrats and hold many federal, state and local offices. For example, Republicans haven’t lost a race for Nebraska governor since 1994 and account for all five Nebraska members of Congress.
Welch, as he was leaving the convention center Saturday just before his official termination, expressed confidence that the Nebraska Republican Party would remain strong through the restructuring. However, he said he suspects the recovery will “take a little bit of time.”
“I hope the party doesn’t suffer as a result of this,” Welch said.
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