New GOP chair says party still strong, despite glitches in transition

By: - July 14, 2022 4:00 pm
GOP headquarters

The new chair of the Nebraska Republican Party needed a locksmith to gain access to the party headquarters on Sunday. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — A locked door at party headquarters greeted Eric Underwood on his first day as the new chair of the Nebraska Republican Party.

And there were a few things missing from the building in downtown Lincoln.

But Underwood, who was elected Saturday in a tumultuous revolt against the existing GOP leadership under Gov. Pete Ricketts, said there might be reasonable explanations for the “hiccups” in the transition to new leaders. At a press conference Thursday, he was preaching unity and Republican power.

Eric Underwood
New State GOP Chair Eric Underwood, center, checks a cell phone Thursday with others who attended a press conference. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

“My main message is that the Republican Party is strong,” said Underwood, a Lincoln restaurant manager who had chaired the Lancaster County GOP. “It has the same resources it had before the transition, and when it comes to support, we will support our candidates.”

Underwood was installed as chair after a group of GOP activists took after the so-called “party establishment.” Some were upset with Ricketts’ dominance of the party and others sought stronger support for former President Donald Trump.

Ricketts major donor

Ricketts has been the leading donor to the party. He has given $235,000 to the state GOP this year, according to its latest state campaign finance report, and his parents, Joe and Marlene, gave a combined $230,000 — about 48% of the party’s total contributions so far in 2022.

When the governor was asked Wednesday if he would continue to donate to the state party, he didn’t answer the question directly, but instead said he would continue to support the election of Republicans. Most observers have translated that to mean he will give directly to candidates he supports, instead of donating through the state party.

At Thursday’s event, there was some griping about the lack of elected Republican officials at the event — only Lt. Gov. Mike Foley attended — and a lack of any of the 10 top state party officials who resigned after Underwood deposed former GOP Chair Dan Welch on Saturday.

Where are other Republicans?

Lt. Col. Glen Weaver, who unsuccessfully ran for the 1st Congressional District seat this spring, said that when he lost in the primary, he attended a GOP “unity rally” the next day to support the party’s nominees.

Yet at Thursday’s  press conference, he said, there were no former party officials or state senators in attendance.

“I find it a little bit disingenuous,” Weaver said. “We’re all on the same team, we just have different leadership.”

Underwood brushed off the lack of Republican officials present. He said he had only organized Thursday’s press event a couple of days earlier.

Doesn’t know if locks changed

He also said he wasn’t convinced that someone had changed the locks to the party headquarters to keep him out, explaining that he might have inadvertently given his key to the office to someone else.

At any rate, with the help of the former superintendent of the Nebraska State Patrol, Tom Nesbitt, Underwood was able to find a locksmith to gain entrance to the headquarters Sunday.

Underwood added that he expected any missing items, including security cameras, will find their way back to the office and said he had already gained access to digital records of the party, including records from last weekend’s convention. Ricketts had pledged to aid a smooth transition in the party.

Underwood said that in his conversations with the governor, he and the new party leadership share a common goal of electing Republicans.

“I fully believe he’ll do it in the capacity that he will,” Underwood said.

One former elected official who did attend was Jeff Fortenberry, who resigned his 1st District seat in the House after being convicted in March of lying to federal investigators.

Underwood said Fortenberry was a friend who supported the “culture change” in the party.

Over the next seven to 10 days, Underwood said, he expects to complete the task of forming a new state executive committee and to begin the task of hiring new workers to staff the GOP headquarters.


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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska Legislature and Nebraska state government for decades. He started his career reporting for the Omaha Sun and later, editing the Papillion Times group in suburban Omaha. He joined the Lincoln Journal-Star as a sports enterprise reporter, and then a roving reporter covering southeast Nebraska. In 1990, he was hired by the Omaha World-Herald as a legislative reporter. Later, for 15 years, he roamed the state covering all kinds of news and feature stories. In the past decade, he served as chief of the Lincoln Bureau and enterprise reporter. Paul has won awards for reporting from Great Plains Journalism, the Associated Press, Nebraska Newspaper Association and Suburban Newspapers of America. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation, a member of the Nebraska Hop Growers and a volunteer caretaker of Irvingdale Park in Lincoln.