New Nebraska GOP leaders and Ricketts look to move forward after shake-up

Group of conservatives, populists took over state GOP on Saturday in Kearney

By: - July 12, 2022 5:45 am

The Nebraska Republican Party’s Lincoln headquarters is shown. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

HASTINGS, Nebraska — New leadership has taken possession of the Nebraska Republican Party’s Lincoln headquarters. 

New state GOP Chairman Eric Underwood and his team spent Monday on the basics, including figuring out how to access the GOP’s email accounts, bank accounts and voter contact lists.

New Nebraska Republican Party Chairman Eric Underwood speaks to delegates at the state GOP convention in Kearney, Neb. (Courtesy of the Nebraska Republican Party)

Underwood said he is focused on ensuring the continuity of the state party’s operations. He told KFAB’s Ian Swanson he wants to heal divisions and help “conservative Republicans” win.

“If there is an ultimate … vision of electing Republicans that believe in our values, then why would you want to do it any other way?” he told KFAB. “Move forward.”

Timing questions

Underwood said he and his group pressed for change this weekend because they didn’t want to wait for the regular elections for state GOP chair in December, after this fall’s general election. 

Underwood, the former chairman of the Lancaster County Republican Party, said he understood that what happened Saturday in Kearney caused some hard feelings within the party.

A majority of state GOP convention delegates at Saturday’s state party convention ousted Chairman Dan Welch and chose Underwood to replace him. Several said they wanted to loosen Gov. Pete Ricketts’ grip on the Nebraska GOP.

Ricketts’ response

Ricketts, during his monthly call-in show Monday on KFOR, took questions from callers who asked whether he would support the new party leadership and ensure a smooth transition.

“Yes,” Ricketts said. “I’m looking forward to seeing (Underwood’s) plan on how to elect Republicans.”

One caller, Joe from West Point, said things didn’t seem to be going smoothly. Ricketts disagreed and said he had urged the party’s former leaders to help with the transition.

“I expect that Eric is going to have to do some work to put together his team,” Ricketts said. “But he’ll have all the tools to do that.”

Ricketts said he felt “everyone followed the rules” in Kearney and that the change in leadership was done appropriately. One caller, Lincoln GOP activist Fanchon Blythe, disagreed. 

Blythe was one of six delegates who had their convention credentials rejected initially, and she criticized the former state party apparatus for acting as “judge and jury” about them.

Reasons for change

People who voted for change Saturday gave a variety of reasons. Some said they wanted state party leaders to pay more attention to county parties in rural parts of the state. 

Some said they wanted the GOP to fully embrace former President Donald Trump’s unproven allegations about the 2020 presidential election that he lost to President Joe Biden. 

Some said they were frustrated about the Nebraska GOP and governor taking sides in races with more than one Republican candidate. They mentioned a 2020 legislative race between Republicans Julie Slama and Janet Palmtag. The party, under Ricketts’ leadership, campaigned against Palmtag, who lost and has since re-registered as a Democrat.

GOP governor’s primary race

But Ricketts’ actions in this spring’s GOP gubernatorial primary drew the most ire from delegates, including many who said they were attending their first convention.

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts addresses the Nebraska Republican Party convention in Kearney, Neb. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

Ricketts acknowledged the split over his decision to go negative with third-party ads against other GOP candidates. He told News Channel Nebraska on Monday that he understood that some Republicans disagreed with him. 

Ricketts spent millions of dollars during the primary campaign attacking Republican candidates Charles Herbster and Brett Lindstrom. Ricketts favored Jim Pillen, who won the primary. 

Herbster declined to comment Monday on the change in state party leadership, saying he was haying on Saturday and wasn’t at the convention. Lindstrom attended the convention but said he did not seek to oust Welch.

“It was a contentious race,” Lindstrom said. “I don’t take things personal. I just want to make sure Republicans win in November. I know Eric Underwood. I know he’ll do a great job.”

Underwood is reaching out to Republican candidates campaigning in the fall election. He  has said he will help Pillen and Republicans running for U.S. House seats, including 2nd District Rep. Don Bacon.

Bacon said Welch had helped him and other GOP candidates win with coordinated campaigns in the district. He said he would work with Underwood to do the same.

A new party

Political observers said Monday it was too soon to tell what the change in GOP leadership might mean for the electoral future of the state GOP or the Nebraska Democratic Party.

University of Nebraska-Lincoln political scientist John Hibbing said the changes signal to him that the state GOP is likely to become more conservative. 

Political parties in other states that have been taken over in a similar fashion sometimes seek to purge candidates and party leaders who aren’t considered conservative enough on the issues, Hibbing said.

“The Republican Party in a Republican-dominant state now appears to be shifting much more to the right than before, and it wasn’t like they were milquetoast before,” Hibbing said. 

Political parties matter, Hibbing said, because they are a significant source of fundraising for some candidates. They also help candidates find campaign volunteers and help campaigns strategize.

Parties also work to register voters and make sure registered voters turn out.

“It’s pretty darn important,” Hibbing said.

Jane Kleeb, chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party, said Republicans risk going too far and becoming too extreme for most Nebraskans, which will give Democrats and Democratic candidates an opening in the state.

Lindstrom said he doesn’t expect much to change for candidates working with the state party. He expects changes to the party platform, he said, which could affect which candidates want to run in what races — and could influence donors.

“They’ll have a voice,” Lindstrom said of the state GOP. “It’ll come down to whether they will have the resources to get the message out.”

Changes happen

Political scientist Randall Adkins of the University of Nebraska at Omaha said political parties in other states change leadership more often than the Nebraska GOP has over the past 20 years.

Adkins said the decentralized nature of political parties makes them susceptible to abrupt changes in leadership or direction, following the mood of partisans who are willing to get involved.

Leaders like Trump and former President Barack Obama mobilize the people who follow them, Adkins said. Some of those folks eventually take over institutions like the Nebraska GOP.

“We went through a period where the party (GOP) was really stable … for 20 years, and that is not always the case,” Adkins said. “It is not always static.” 

Former Republican Gov. Dave Heineman said most Nebraskans, and most Republican voters, in general, are not paying a lot of attention to an internal conflict within the state GOP.

“They’ve heard what happened over the weekend, but it doesn’t affect their daily life,” Heineman said. “At the end of the day, most voters look at the candidates who are running.”

Nebraska Examiner Senior Reporter Paul Hammel contributed to this report.

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Aaron Sanderford
Aaron Sanderford

Political reporter Aaron Sanderford has tackled various news roles in his 20-plus year career. He has reported on politics, crime, courts, government and business for the Omaha World-Herald and Lincoln Journal-Star. He also worked as an assignment editor and editorial writer. He was an investigative reporter at KMTV.