Populists win Sarpy GOP leadership race after ousting 50-plus members from voting 

Public officials Bacon, Polikov, Black, Sanders, Ethington among those removed

By: - September 8, 2023 11:30 am

The Sarpy County Republican Party met in Springfield, Neb., on Thursday to elect a new chair. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

SPRINGFIELD, Nebraska — Sarpy County Republicans handily elected a new chair Thursday after the party’s younger, Trumpier and more populist wing spent months pushing for change.

Former Papillion City Council candidate Michael Tiedeman is new Sarpy County GOP chair. (Courtesy of Tiedeman campaign)

Former Papillion City Council candidate Michael Tiedeman beat Sarpy County Vice Chair Michael Cook by a vote of 50-23, observers said. Tiedeman declined immediate comment. Cook confirmed the result.

The election happened during a 2½-hour meeting of the Sarpy County GOP’s central committee Thursday night at the Springfield Community Center. 

Change agents pleased, others concerned

Many backing Tiedeman said the win validated their documented complaints about how former Sarpy GOP chair Nora Sandine had managed the party and whether she followed the party’s rules. 

Among their top complaints were how Sandine kept party records and how she decided who got to participate in county party meetings and leadership elections.

Former Sarpy County GOP chair (Courtesy of Sarpy County GOP)

Sandine’s defenders said the way the leadership vote was handled could lead to court. They said the Nebraska Republican Party violated her due process rights when it removed her from her post in August. 

Others said the new blood in Sarpy, aided by sympathetic people in the state party, tipped the scales this month by ousting 50 or more core Republicans from the central committee, which selects the county party’s leaders.

Big names among those removed

The list of people removed is a who’s who of Sarpy Republicans: U.S. Rep. Don Bacon, Papillion Mayor David Black, Sarpy County Attorney Lee Polikov and State Sen. Rita Sanders of Bellevue. Several said they were notified by email this week about their removal.

State Sen. Rita Sanders of Bellevue. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska News Service)

Two election officials also were removed, Sarpy County Election Commissioner Emily Ethington and Wayne Bena, a former Sarpy election commissioner who handles elections now for the Nebraska Secretary of State’s Office.

Many of those removed had previously supported Sandine.

U.S. Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb.. (Courtesy of the House of Representatives)

Several Sarpy change agents said they removed people who had not met the party’s requirements for meeting attendance or other requirements, such as county residency.

In an email exchange obtained by the Nebraska Examiner, a meeting organizer wrote that “the approved ‘confirmed’ list is based on Nora Sandine’s documentation/info provided by her to the NEGOP EXEC COMMITTEE and an audit of that documentation.”

Bacon said he was sad to see so many elected officials and other Republicans who were valued for decades being kicked off the central committee.

Sarpy County Attorney Lee Polikov, left, and Bill Black, a former Douglas County Sheriff’s Office and Attorney General’s Office Investigator, discuss an investigation of voter fraud claims in Papillion. The investigation found none. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

The congressman from Papillion said he missed a lot of meetings because he was in Washington, D.C. He said he attended when he could and appreciated the connection. He said many people who were removed said they hadn’t missed meetings.

Papillion Mayor David Black, at a Google media announcement Aug. 22, 2023. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

“I really appreciated Nora and the Sarpy County folks for allowing myself and other elected officials to still be a member of the central committee because we are elected,” Bacon said.

Sanders said she and her husband learned this week that they had been removed. She said the state and local GOP “have to get this internal issue taken care of” before the 2024 election.

Polikov said he was “offended.” He said it was “ridiculous” to learn by email that he was being removed. He said it felt like the GOP was questioning whether he was “a good Republican.”

Papillion resident John Witzel speaks to reporters, saying he wished the state party had stayed out of the Sarpy County GOP’s business. He supported former chair Nora Sandine. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

He said he called Sandine before any missed meetings to make sure absences were excused. Sandine’s detractors said the lack of clear documentation of excused absences shows the problem.

“I was with Pat Thomas through seven of his elections … and I’ve had six of my own, so I think I’m a pretty good representative of the Republican Party,” Polikov said. The late Pat Thomas was a longtime Sarpy County sheriff and county commissioner.

Roots of tension in state GOP leadership tussle

Much of the tension within the state and local GOP stems from lingering resentments between the party’s modern, more populist base and its more traditional base of Republicans.

More than 125 people attended a Nebraska Freedom Coalition and Nebraskans Against Government Overreach rally on the Friday before the Nebraska Republican Party convention in July 2022. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

The fissures broke open during a July 2022 fight over leadership of the state GOP. A team loyal to former Gov. Pete Ricketts lost to one that had help from former Trump adviser David Bossie and some old-line Republicans who were frustrated with Ricketts.

The new state party leadership has encouraged and helped people willing to join and lead local county GOP chapters who share their vision for a party steered by “grassroots” passion.

Sarpy County is split into two congressional districts: the Omaha-based 2nd District to the rural and exurban west, and the Lincoln-fed 1st District to the east. 

It is often considered the red wall of suburban politics in eastern Nebraska because it has contributed mightily to local GOP victories. But like many suburbs, the area is gaining more Democrats and independents.

Meeting got heated over rules, order

On Thursday, 1st Congressional District party chair Meg Kallina helped organize much of the meeting. The 2nd District chair, Doug Pedersen, did not attend. Cook said a Sarpy party leader should have led the meeting. The state party on Friday said it had tapped two county party officials to run the gathering.

Reporters and other guests were not allowed inside the meeting room, but a voice could be heard answering repeated points of order and questions about the process. Disagreements at times grew heated.

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

Several Sandine backers said Thursday’s leadership vote should not count. But defenders of the process said the state GOP has had the power in its constitution for years to step in when a county party chair is not performing his or her duties appropriately.

State GOP Chair Eric Underwood has said in similar disputes in Sarpy and other counties that the state party’s role is to facilitate a smoother transition and not to take sides in a local decision. 

On Friday, he issued a statement of support for the county party’s actions.

“We will focus on moving forward with the new county party leadership,” Underwood said. “My hope is that all Republicans will prioritize defending our party’s platform values … honoring our state party and county party constitutions to provide continued stability to the party.”

People involved in push call it needed

Robert Anthony, who helped Sarpy conservatives organize the push for change, said Tiedeman would help the county party energize its base and win more legislative races than it did in 2020. He and others said the goal was to infuse the county central committee with people more willing to show up for its activities.

He said the county party was “ready for a fresh perspective, a new direction, and someone who understands the importance of unity and effective organization within our party.”

Papillion resident John Witzel said the state GOP was nosing into local party business. Two lawyers who attended the meeting said the people who led the change may have violated the state and local party constitutions.

Nebraska Republican Party Chairman Eric Underwood speaks as former GOP gubernatorial candidate Charles Herbster and former Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway listen in August 2023 in Norfolk, Neb. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

The Nebraska Freedom Coalition, in a statement Thursday, said it was the federal delegation that was meddling in county party affairs, not the state GOP. The statement criticized Bacon, Ricketts and others for joining a letter in June from Gov. Jim Pillen defending Sandine.

The Freedom Coalition, along with other Sandine critics, pointed to reams of documents and a handful of recordings that critics shared with state party members before the August vote to oust Sandine. At the same meeting, state GOP leaders approved an audit of Sarpy central committee members’ meeting attendance and Sandine’s job performance.

Sandine says party fell short

Sandine said she did not believe that the vote for a new chair or how it was carried out was legal. She and her lawyer have disputed the way her critics have described her tenure.

“They wouldn’t answer questions,” Sandine said. “They want transparency all the time and they were not transparent.”

Cook said Thursday’s split mirrors what’s happening nationally to the GOP, a divide between people looking ahead to 2024 and people looking back at 2020.

“We need to get rid of the divisiveness,” he said. “It’s tearing the GOP apart, not only in Nebraska, but across the country.”


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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.