KEARNEY, Neb. — Nebraska GOP Chairman Dan Welch opened the state’s GOP convention Saturday by saying he hoped the event would “clear the air” in what he admitted was a divided Republican Party.
Nebraska GOP delegates voted to oust Welch after eight years as the party chairman during a tumultuous convention that also saw one party activist be arrested outside the venue, win reinstatement as a delegate while he was still in jail, and then return to the meeting.
Welch later was replaced by Lancaster County GOP Chairman Eric Underwood through a majority vote of delegates. Underwood had introduced the motions that led to Welch’s firing.
“I’m not asking you to trust me tonight … but I’m asking you for the opportunity to earn your trust,” Underwood said after being chosen to finish Welch’s term, which runs through this year. The state party will elect a chairman for a full term at the end of the year.
A wave of resignations followed Welch’s termination, including the party’s executive director, Taylor Gage, who previously served as spokesman to Gov. Pete Ricketts.
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Other resignations included national committeewoman Lydia Brasch, the first and second district chair, the party treasurer and secretary, and the assistant chairman and assistant state party chair.
Welch blamed the turmoil on divisions caused by the hard-fought gubernatorial primary race, which was won by Jim Pillen. He said many believed the Nebraska GOP took sides in the election to favor Pillen, although he claims the party was “absolutely neutral.”
“The only thing I wish you knew was the real information,” Welch told delegates in some of his final words as chairman.
Those who supported Welch’s termination said the upheaval was because some Nebraska Republicans have felt excluded and unheard by the Ricketts-led party establishment.
During the primary campaign, Ricketts endorsed Pillen. That put him at odds with fellow Republicans who supported former President Donald Trump and Charles Herbster, the gubernatorial candidate Trump endorsed. Herbster came in second behind Pillen, and so far has refused to endorse Pillen.
The division was on display during the morning’s speeches from Republican leadership. Though all of the speakers shared messages touting similar conservative talking points, Ricketts and Pillen did not receive the same full standing ovations as other speakers, such as newly elected U.S. Rep. Mike Flood, Rep. Adrian Smith and Sen. Deb Fischer.
Before Welch’s termination, delegates passed a resolution to amend the state party’s constitution to allow delegates to immediately remove an officer with or without cause by a majority vote. Welch supporters called his termination a “coup d’etat” and criticized other delegates for trying to push thorough motions without debate.
“Go start your own party,” one attendee yelled.
The tension was high from the start of the convention after the state party’s credentials committee last week revoked credentials for six delegates. One of those delegates, Matt Innis from Crete, Nebraska, was arrested in the morning for third-degree assault and second-degree trespassing, according to Buffalo County Jail records.
But following his arrest, a majority of the GOP delegates voted to reinstate him, along with four others who been blocked from attending the meeting.
Their credentials had been revoked because they had spoken out against Republican leadership or nominees, including Ricketts and Pillen.
The debate over the credentials issue dragged into the lunch hour, delaying it over an hour. Ultimately, delegates also voted to cancel several workshops that had been scheduled in the afternoon to save time for more debates on party resolutions.
The convention was supposed to end at 3:45 p.m. but continued well into the evening following Welch’s removal, which came on a 204-120 vote.
Tensions rose during the credentials debate as some delegates questioned the authority of GOP leadership to block some delegates and criticized the decision as an attack on free speech. One delegate compared the GOP leadership to Soviet Russia and the British monarchy before the American Revolution.
“That’s not America, and that’s not the Republican Party,” the delegate said.
Loud cheers and boos echoed through the convention center during the comments and GOP leaders’ attempts to manage them. Welch repeatedly asked the crowd to remain civil and refrain from applauding or booing any speakers — to no avail.
Saturday evening, after the leadership changes, the delegates began considering a number of policy resolutions.
One such resolution called for increased election security. As amended by delegates on the floor, the resolution also backs counting ballots by hand under continued video surveillance.
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