County GOP fight is latest front in Nebraska GOP war between populists, traditionalists

Party leaders call it a “grassroots” push; others see hands of Trump, Herbster, Ricketts, Pillen

By: - June 7, 2023 5:45 am

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts addresses the Nebraska Republican Party convention in Kearney, Neb., in July 2022. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

PAPILLION, Nebraska — Last summer, Republicans seeking fealty to former President Donald Trump took over leadership of their state party from a team loyal to then-Gov. Pete Ricketts.  

The new leadership crew combined Republicans upset with Ricketts after a contentious primary election for governor and some who disliked his direction of the state party. A handful had help from David Bossie of Citizens United, one of several former Trump advisers who worked with former Nebraska gubernatorial candidate Charles Herbster.

Eric Underwood
New State GOP Chair Eric Underwood, center, checks a cell phone in July 2022 with others who attended a press conference. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

In the year since, these new leaders of the state’s dominant political party have asserted a more populist brand of conservatism, including against fellow Republicans. Some have openly discussed recruiting primary challengers to the right of current officeholders.

Consolidating control

This new Nebraska Republican Party has consolidated control over its leadership structure by encouraging and helping people willing to join and lead local county chapters who share their vision for a party steered by “grassroots” passion, including vocal partisans they call “patriots.” 

Much of this fight for like-minded local party leaders has drawn little public notice. Reactions flared a bit when county GOP leadership changed hands recently in Dixon, Gage, Kearney and York Counties. Noise is rising around a similar push for new party leadership in Burt County.  

After last year’s state GOP convention rumble, the family feud blew back into view in late May in suburban Sarpy County. That’s where a state party effort to force the removal of a sixth-year county chair and hold a re-run election ran into public resistance from some of the state’s top elected Republicans.

Pushback from Pillen, delegation

In a letter spearheaded by Gov. Jim Pillen, Nebraska’s entire congressional delegation and statewide officeholders, including State Auditor Mike Foley, who opposed Pillen last spring, defended the Sarpy chair from the state GOP and others trying to unseat her in the middle of her term.

Nebraska GOP gubernatorial nominee Jim Pillen speaks during the Nebraska Republican Party’s “unity rally” May 11, 2022, in Lincoln. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

The letter, written on the governor’s campaign letterhead, dubbed it “unprecedented” and “gross overreach” to try to oust Sarpy GOP Chairwoman Nora Sandine using the state party’s powers. The letter called for an end to the intra-party fight for the good of Republican candidates in Nebraska’s fastest-growing county.

“Election integrity and local control are two foundational Republican principles,” the letter said. “Forcing the removal of a duly elected County Chairwoman contradicts promises from the NEGOP leadership to promote ‘a less top-down approach.’”

Sarpy at center of fight

In interviews conducted over several months, Nebraska GOP officials acknowledged working with Sarpy County partisans who tried and failed during an election last winter to defeat Sandine as county party chair. Staff worked with local Republicans who questioned the validity of her re-election. 

Sandine’s supporters say she won fair and square, by a large enough margin to overcome any local or state GOP questions.

That election looked a lot like the state GOP fight in Kearney last summer between party traditionalists, the new-look Nebraska GOP, and members of the Nebraska Freedom Coalition. Like the Ricketts team last summer, Sandine had the backing of elected officials, including Ricketts.

Some current party leaders have said they spent months trying to persuade Sandine to hold another election and to involve people new to the county party, including some who oppose Sandine.

Former President Donald Trump speaks at a rally for Nebraska gubernatorial candidate Charles Herbster in Greenwood, Nebraska, on May 1, 2022. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

Sandine’s detractors questioned the validity of some votes cast in the election. 

State party’s concerns

A 27-page complaint filed with the county party’s central committee accuses Sandine of, at best, keeping poor records of party activities and, at worst, trying to keep opponents from serving on the committee, which selects the county chair.

Nebraska GOP Chairman Eric Underwood and others said they are not putting their thumb on the scale in local leadership decisions — something several of them accused the Ricketts team of doing in the past. His critics disagree.

Underwood has said he wants to bring Republicans together by “empowering the grassroots” and “revitalizing county parties from the bottom up.” 

“We have worked internally for over six months to find solutions … for Sarpy County,” he said. “There has not been a push for change in Sarpy. There has been an ongoing and lengthy process of establishing the expectations to honor the (state party’s) Constitution and defend the platform.”

Local organizing

Former President Donald Trump shakes hands with Nebraska gubernatorial candidate Charles Herbster at a rally in Greenwood, Nebraska, on May 1, 2022. (Doug Coulter/Save America PAC)

Michael Tiedeman, a leader in a group calling itself Sarpy County Conservatives, which has worked to wrest leadership of the party from Sandine, said the group has been pushing for change since shortly after the Nebraska GOP leadership team took over in 2022. He said their effort inspired his group to try doing the same locally.

Asked what his group wants to change, the former Papillion City Council candidate said he would like Sandine to expand the membership of the central committee, so new voices get a say, and focus more attention on local races. He said she focuses too much attention on state and federal races. 

Hand of Ricketts?

Tiedeman said some Republicans are asking whether Ricketts and his political team are pulling the strings for Sandine and the elected officials coming to her defense.

“We tried to participate, and every time we did, she tried to stop us,” Tiedeman said of Sandine. “She wanted people on the central committee who would do what she wanted.”

Sarpy County GOP chairwoman Nora Sandine. (Courtesy of Sarpy County GOP)

Sandine’s lawyer, Omaha City Councilwoman Aimee Melton, dismissed the attacks as “hearsay and double hearsay.” Melton said the same state party officials that talk about the importance of law and order and processes are not following them.

The meeting on Sandine

The state GOP held a meeting with the county party alleging Sandine hadn’t followed the party’s constitution in holding her election and screening for who should have been allowed to vote. Melton argued at the same meeting that the state party wasn’t following the constitution in its proceedings against Sandine, because it violated Robert’s Rules of Order.

The state party has said its goal with Sandine is to de-escalate the situation and get back to the business of electing Republicans. At an earlier meeting on Sandine, however, the party’s national committeewoman, Fanchon Blythe of Lincoln, told some of those present to wait and see the change “we” have coming for the Douglas County GOP, according to several people. Blythe, reached Wednesday, said she was talking about grassroots conservatives, not the state party, pushing for change in the county parties.

“The end cannot justify the means, regardless of what side you’re on,” Melton said. “Nora has been a dedicated volunteer who has worked tirelessly to support candidates such as [U.S. Rep.] Don Bacon, and Sarpy County is the county that typically carries him through the elections. Nora Sandine has less chance of getting a fair trial in this disciplinary hearing than Donald Trump does in New York City.”

U.S. Rep Don Bacon, R-Neb. (Ashley Murray/States Newsroom)

Bacon said he was saddened that the state party and other local partisans couldn’t just wait for the next county leadership election in early 2025. He said Republicans need to be unified during his “always-tough” re-election fight.

“This is how the Democrats win, if we are divided,” Bacon said. “I understand they may have some problems with Nora, but she has done a good job, and this can wait.”

Hand of Trump?

State party officials say their movement is “organic” and “grassroots,” and deny any direct involvement by the Trump team. They say each county GOP leadership change since they have taken over the party has involved separate local decisions and state GOP constitutional concerns.

Among those were county parties the state GOP said rarely met or who, as they allege in Sarpy, resisted new volunteers. Defenders of the other ousted county party leaders say some were replaced using meetings the leaders didn’t know about, organized after consultation with the state GOP or allied groups.

Longtime state GOP activists said they see the new participants from the party’s base following a script set out by Trump adviser Steve Bannon.

Bannon and others have pressed on his “War Room” podcast and elsewhere for a “bottom-up” takeover of local GOP structures by people loyal to Trump. The goal: Assert more control over the primary election process and prepare to fight 2024 election results in battleground states. Nebraska’s presidential election results could matter because the state divides its Electoral College votes by congressional district, rather than awarding all five electoral votes to the statewide winner.

President Joe Biden won the Omaha-based 2nd congressional district in 2020, as did former President Barack Obama in 2008. 

President Joe Biden. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Biden’s 2nd District win is one reason conservatives in the Legislature have discussed moving the state back to a winner-take-all approach. GOP activists have also discussed putting the matter to a vote of the people.

Several Nebraska Republicans said a key link between the new state GOP team and Trump is Bossie, of Citizens United, who is helping the Republican National Committee with presidential debates. He also served as an economic adviser to Herbster, who had Trump’s endorsement.  

Bossie did not return messages seeking comment.

Tiedeman said the Sarpy County Conservatives have had no direct contact with anybody on the Trump or Herbster teams. But he acknowledged that they have consulted online training materials based on Bannon’s instructions to MAGA partisans on how to take over their local chapters of the GOP.

New vs. old is ‘moot’

State party chair Underwood said the idea of new vs. old party is “moot.” He said he and his team have worked to make the party more transparent and enforce party rules more uniformly. He said it is as open to the opinions of people who support the old ways of doing things as the new.

GOP headquarters
The headquarters of the Nebraska Republican Party. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

However, he acknowledged a still-frosty relationship with some Republicans, including the governor, in part because many of the people who led the state party revolt supported Herbster, Pillen’s top GOP opponent in the 2022 primary election. 

Last week, Sandine emailed  Sarpy County Republicans that, “in a spirit of unity with the Nebraska Republican Party,” she was canceling a June meeting of the Sarpy central committee. 

She shared part of a note she received from Underwood, saying: “In addition to the submitted summary request, the (NEGOP) Executive Committee determined that the Sarpy County Central Committee cannot come to formation or govern at this time.” Underwood said they could resume after the state party gains access to requested documents, a list of credentialed members and an official audit of membership.

Sandine, in the email, highlighted the importance of helping GOP campaigns participate in upcoming summer parades. The Sarpy County Conservatives have criticized Sandine for “sapping the party” of its most passionate potential volunteers. The group recently condemned the Sarpy GOP for getting too few volunteers at local parades and for relying on campaigns to supply them. 

Some members of the new group have refused to march with the county party and instead have created their own entries in local parades. 

“She may have the party,” Tiedeman said. “But we have the energy.”

Nebraska Examiner intern Zach Wendling contributed to this report.

CORRECTION: This article has been revised to correct when the national GOP committeewoman talked about the Douglas County party leadership. The list of counties subject to a potential leadership fight has also been revised.


Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site.

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.