Kellyanne Conway, in Norfolk, preaches GOP unity at state party gathering

State’s dominant political party has squabbled over candidates, direction

By: - August 19, 2023 12:28 am

Former Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway speaks to a booster club crowd of the Nebraska Republican Party in Norfolk, Neb., on Friday. She stressed the importance of GOP unity in 2024. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

NORFOLK, Nebraska — Kellyanne Conway, a pollster and long-time adviser to former President Donald Trump, told a booster club of Nebraska Republicans on Friday that they should stop fighting one another over the 20% of policies they disagree on.

Former Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway addresses a Nebraska Republican Party booster club Friday in Norfolk, Neb. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

Conway, whose former boss often throws elbows at the Republicans he disagrees with, said three years of Democrats running much of Washington, D.C., has clarified the value of GOP unity. She said that’s how to grow the party and not shrink it.

She emphasized “winning over whining” and said Republicans must stop ceding the early voting advantage to Democrats. She said candidates should focus on issues working people care about, including security, affordability, fairness and education. 

“Unity never means you giving up your principles and ideas …,” Conway said to applause. “Unity means that we have growing pains as a party. We talk about our differences. We decide what we can live with. And we march forward together.”

A party divided?

Conway addressed a convention center audience of more than 200 people who paid the Nebraska Republican Party for the chance. Among them were many who helped secure control over the state party last year from a team tied to then-Gov. Pete Ricketts.

Her speech came the same night the party’s Executive Committee removed longtime Sarpy County GOP chair Nora Sandine from her post and a day before the party might remove the vote of four GOP-affiliated groups from the Executive Committee.

Her talk took expected shots at President Joe Biden for his age and Vice President Kamala Harris for her work schedule. She repeated her criticism that Democrats can’t define genders. She said Republicans should fight Democrats on abortion, even at a political cost, because lives are at stake.

Former Nebraska GOP gubernatorial candidate Charles Herbster speaks to a Nebraska Republican Party booster club crowd Friday in Norfolk, Neb. He paid to bring former top Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway to speak to the group. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

She joked about Trump’s tweets. She did not discuss any of the federal or state indictments the former president faces in Washington, D.C., New York, Georgia or Florida. 

“They’re in our way,” Conway said. “They could win again.”

The Nebraska Democratic Party had no immediate comment late Friday.

Conway said the GOP must make itself more welcoming to political independents who do not “want to wear the hat of either team” and are among the fastest-growing groups in politics. She said they don’t eat and sleep the 24-hour news cycle. 

“They do not trust government,” she said. “They really are free agents.”

Herbster takes stage again

Charles Herbster, the former GOP gubernatorial candidate who paid for Conway to return to Nebraska, clarified the evening’s theme when he introduced her. He said Republicans need to leave the past behind and talk about the future “if we want to win.”

Conway served as a political adviser during Herbster’s 2022 GOP primary race for governor. Herbster, a top Trump donor, lost that race to Gov. Jim Pillen despite securing Trump’s endorsement and a visit to the state.

Herbster told the Examiner this year that he has not decided whether he might run for office again. He left the door cracked for a possible run for the U.S. Senate against Ricketts in 2024 or 2026 and a possible rematch for governor with Pillen in 2026.

Conway notes GOP legislative wins

But Conway, reached after her speech, said Herbster’s political future, whether as a donor or a candidate, is not the message she wanted the audience to take away from her visit. She said she wants them to work on working together.

Nebraska Republican Party Chairman Eric Underwood speaks as former GOP gubernatorial candidate Charles Herbster and former Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway listen on Friday in Norfolk, Neb. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

She praised the new leadership of the state GOP for its focus on helping conservatives win more legislative races over moderates and for the conservative majority working with a Democrat or two to pass more bills that engage the party’s base.

Conway highlighted this year’s passage of permitless concealed carry legislation, a stricter abortion ban, the Opportunity Scholarships bill and the tax relief package as wins for Nebraska Republicans. 

Nebraska Democrats have described the gun law as dangerous and the abortion ban as a threat to bodily autonomy. They’ve criticized the tax credit for donating to scholarships for K-12 private schools as a threat to public school funding and the tax package as risky.

What’s next

The Nebraska Democratic Party has announced that it is hosting Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz and State Rep. Justin Pearson of “The Tennessee Three” during its Sept. 29 Ben Nelson Fundraising Gala in Omaha. 

Attendees on Friday included State Sen. Robert Dover of Norfolk, State Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard and State Sen. Loren Lippincott of Central City. State Board of Education member Kirk Penner also attended. U.S. Rep. Mike Flood, R-Neb., of Norfolk, also stopped by before Conway spoke.

Conway said she hopes Republicans can “find the eight things we can agree on and leave the other two on the table.” She said people who aren’t already on the red or blue team just want to be “a part of something that works.”

In a brief follow-up interview with the Examiner, she mentioned being excited for U.S. Sen. Deb Fischer’s re-election bid “and other members of Congress.” She did not mention Ricketts by name, whom Herbster has blamed for his loss to Pillen. 


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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.