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Nebraska GOP pushes unity after primary fight with incumbents; delegates disagree


Nebraska GOP pushes unity after primary fight with incumbents; delegates disagree

May 18, 2024 | 7:45 pm ET
By Aaron Sanderford
Nebraska GOP pushes unity after primary fight with incumbents; delegates disagree
Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn addresses the Nebraska Republican Party on Saturday in Lincoln, flanked by Blaine Brummond, left, and Nebraska GOP Chair Eric Underwood. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — Days after losing the three highest-profile races it endorsed in this spring, leaders of the new Nebraska Republican Party encouraged unity this weekend but faced pushback from their own delegates.

State GOP Chairman Eric Underwood said he would keep working to bring Republicans together after the primary, but he said he might need reciprocity from the elected officials angered by the party.

Fences need mending after the GOP didn’t endorse any of the state’s five-member, all-GOP congressional delegation for the primary. None in the state’s delegation sought the party’s endorsement, either. 

All five — Sens. Deb Fischer and Pete Ricketts and Reps. Adrian Smith, Mike Flood and Don Bacon — easily won their primaries even though three of them — Ricketts, Smith and Bacon — were challenged by populist GOP candidates the state party endorsed.

Then the party’s delegates balked at a resolution Saturday to endorse the incumbents in November, delaying a decision until the next state central committee meeting.  

Former U.S. Rep. Hal Daub led the floor resolution to endorse former President Donald Trump and all five members of the delegation. The step is usually a formality.  Daub said his intention was “to have unity projected to the public.”

“Since our delegation won their primaries pretty substantially, we should let the public know that we appreciate the process and support the people,” he said.

The resolution faced immediate pushback from the majority of delegates, led in part by Bacon’s primary opponent, Dan Frei. Frei said he adamantly opposed endorsing members of the delegation because they hadn’t come to the meeting to ask for the endorsements. 

Instead, delegates passed the endorsement of Trump and punted the delegation decision to a later date after it became clear the measure lacked enough votes. That step was proposed by a state party official. 

Endorsements are earned, not given,” said Frei. He conceded the race Friday but has yet to endorse Bacon, who won by 24 percentage points. 

It remains unclear what kind of unity either side in the intra-GOP fight would accept. 

“You have to ask where the trust has been lost,” Underwood said. “You have to look at the 2022 primary. We’re nowhere near that loss of trust, because the party wasn’t weaponized.”

Power of party endorsements

Critics of the party’s approach said that its endorsements were ineffective without financial assistance behind them — and that they held little sway with the wider electorate.

Bacon said after the primary that it was time for some “soul searching” by state and county GOP leaders who had “weakened the party and weakened the conservative movement in Nebraska.”

Nebraska GOP pushes unity after primary fight with incumbents; delegates disagree
Nebraska Republican Party Chairman Eric Underwood gets Republicans to sing happy birthday to his son. (Aaron Sanderford/Nerbaska Examiner)

“He lied about four of my votes,” Bacon said of Underwood. “When a chairman lies about an incumbent in the federal delegation there is a problem.”

Underwood acknowledged that the party sent a mailer for 2nd District GOP candidate Dan Frei in his run against Bacon, but he said it’s different from how the party previously put its thumb on the scale.

He pointed to GOP criticism of the former state party leadership for aggressively taking sides in a legislative race between State Sen. Julie Slama of Dunbar and former state GOP volunteer Janet Palmtag.

Underwood said he would keep reaching out as he has to the delegation and to Gov. Jim Pillen. Elected leaders often help state parties in Nebraska and elsewhere raise funds for political activity.

Fundraising challenges

The Nebraska GOP, like many state parties taken over in recent years by populists, has had a hard time reconciling populist fervor and energy from the party’s base with its traditional leaders.

Fundraising has lagged, though Underwood said he expected to show a significant infusion of funds in the party’s pending May report to the Federal Election Commission.

Nebraska GOP pushes unity after primary fight with incumbents; delegates disagree
A crowd of more than 500 Republicans gathered in Lincoln on Saturday for the annual convention of the Nebraska Republican Party. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

One area the new GOP excels at is partisan energy. On Saturday, 360 delegates and more than 500 Republicans turned out for the state party’s annual convention at the Cornhusker Marriott in Lincoln.

Many of them came to hear retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, national security adviser under Trump, tell them they are ‘in the fight for our lives” this November in the presidential election.

Most came to update party rules, select delegates to the Republican National Convention in Milwaukee and gather with other conservatives from around the state.

Congressional district caucuses discussed moving Nebraska to winner-take-all for presidential elections. They also discussed ballot security and border security. 

The party also voted on other resolutions, including a 157-139 vote on one that was postponed at a previous meeting, to censure State Sen. Merv Riepe for opposing a proposed abortion ban after an ultrasound can detect a fetal cardiac activity, at about six weeks.

Flynn speaks to Nebraska GOP

Flynn, who twice admitted to lying to federal agents during the FBI investigation of Russian influence in the 2016 presidential election, then later recanted and was pardoned by Trump, said voters need to engage.

He reiterated his support for former Trump, who fired him 24 days into his term, at the height of public interest in the Russia investigation. 

Flynn, Underwood and State Board of Education President Elizabeth Tegtmeier all urged those attending to pay attention to education races farther down the ballot. 

Flynn told them to seek incremental victories and to focus on stopping the push to change American culture by reaffirming Christian beliefs and culture.

GOP focuses on education races

Tegtmeier said she and other conservatives on the State Board need voters’ help to remove books they consider inappropriate from school libraries. 

People who object to removing books say such efforts often discriminate against books written by nonwhite or LGBTQ authors or about race, sex or gender.

She pointed to efforts by grassroots conservatives to oppose proposed health standards that included sex education in 2021 as a model for what they can accomplish together. She argued kids were learning too much too young.

Tegtmeier called on more investment in state and local education races, saying “the Democrats and the teachers union will not let go of the stronghold they have on the board without a fight.” She said that would take money.

She said she would like to see more emphasis placed on training young people for skilled trades.

“People are starting to realize that the state board races are just as crucial and important as our state legislative races,” she said, speaking in her personal capacity.

Flynn said getting involved at the local level is one of the best ways to push back against political opponents.

“I’ve seen the absolute worst of humanity,” he said. “In the long arc of history, good always prevails over evil. But there are times that it takes longer than you expect it to take.”

Flynn movie talk

About 700 people paid $35-plus for a Friday night screening of Flynn’s image-rehab documentary, “Flynn: Deliver the Truth Whatever the Cost.”

Nebraska GOP pushes unity after primary fight with incumbents; delegates disagree
A crowd of more than 700 people paid at least $35 to watch Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn’s documentary at the Cornhusker Marriott in Lincoln on Friday. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

Flynn contended in the film that prosecutors coerced him into lying to FBI agents about his talks with the Russian ambassador in the run-up to Trump’s 2017 inauguration. 

He said they did so by using his fear of them prosecuting his son, who was his business partner in a consulting firm. 

Authorities have said Flynn illegally discussed sanctions with a foreign government before he was a formal representative of the United States. Flynn has said he made no direct pledge involving sanctions.

He tried withdrawing his guilty plea, saying he was misled by his lawyers. At one point, the Justice Department moved to drop the case against Flynn, but the judge disagreed with Attorney General Bill Barr and the case moved forward.

Fanchon Blythe, Nebraska’s national GOP committeewoman, asked Flynn to call former U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., saying he was similarly prosecuted.

Flynn said he was unfamiliar with the case. Fortenberry was convicted of lying to FBI agents about his knowledge of foreign funds illegally raised for his 2016 House campaign. Federal law prohibits raising foreign funds in congressional races.

A federal appeals court overturned his conviction because he was prosecuted in California, where the fundraiser was held, and not where Fortenberry allegedly lied. He was recently charged again, this time in Washington, D.C.

Kleeb criticized GOP, Flynn

Nebraska Democratic Party Chair Jane Kleeb criticized the state GOP for bringing Flynn to the state, saying it was evidence of a lost party.

“Given all the massive divides in their party where over 35% of the base votes for (U.S.) Rep. (Don) Bacon’s opponent one would think they would focus on building bridges,” she said. “It seems the only bridge the Republicans want to build is one to (Vladimir) Putin.”

Nebraska GOP pushes unity after primary fight with incumbents; delegates disagree
Nebraska Democratic Party Chair Jane Kleeb. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

In mentioning Bacon, she was stumping for state Democrats’ best opportunity to win a congressional race this year. Democratic State Sen. Tony Vargas of Omaha is challenging Bacon for the second time, after losing to Bacon in 2022 by about three percentage points.

Flynn told those attending he would be watching to see how many of them care enough to vote this fall. He chided them for a low turnout in the Nebraska primary, where 28% of registered voters turned in ballots.

“We have to get together, we have to unify and we have to figure out how to get past all the petty arguments and move forward as one nation,” Flynn said.

National committeeman will change

Also on Saturday, Blythe was re-elected national GOP committeewoman. She has been among the state party’s most aggressive organizers of county party takeovers. She has been criticized for defending people arrested after the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol.

State GOP committeeman JL Spray, one of the last links to the former state GOP leadership team from 2022, will be replaced by William Feely of Aurora. Spray will still represent the party at the 2024 national convention. Feely will take over after that.