Nebraska Republicans fire chairman at tumultuous convention

KEARNEY, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska Republicans fired their longtime party chairman at a tumultuous state convention that highlighted divisions within the party driven by activists who support former President Donald Trump and want to take the party further to the right.

After convention delegates voted to remove Chairman Dan Welch on Saturday, most of the other state party leaders, including Executive Director Taylor Gage, resigned, the Omaha World-Herald reported.

Republicans were sharply divided during this spring's gubernatorial primary battle between two conservative candidates: the eventual winner, Jim Pillen, and businessman Charles Herbster, who was endorsed by Trump. The race to replace Gov. Pete Ricketts, who couldn't run because of term limits, became more controversial after eight young women accused Herbster of groping them.

Herbster denied the allegations, describing them as a politically motivated attack. He filed a defamation lawsuit against one of his accusers, state Sen. Julie Slama, who responded with a lawsuit of her own accusing Herbster of sexual battery.

Herbster has refused to endorse Pillen, who is still expected to win in November over Democratic state Sen. Carol Blood because the state strongly favors Republicans.

The divisions within the party were exacerbated in the days before the convention after the party refused to issue credentials to six activists who had been critical of Pillen or Ricketts. One of those delegates, Matt Innis of Crete, was arrested for third-degree assault and second-degree trespassing after he tried to enter the meeting Saturday morning. But he was allowed to participate later in the day after he and most of the other activists were reinstated.

The debate over the credentialing issue was tense at times, with some delegates criticizing the decision to withhold access to the activists as an attack on free speech.

Welch, who led the party for eight years, said he thought the disputes were related to the hard-fought gubernatorial primary that saw Ricketts and many established Republican leaders endorse Pillen. Welch said many in the party seemed to believe the state GOP sided with Pillen during the primary, but he maintained that the party remained neutral even though Ricketts spent aggressively to support Pillen.

“The only thing I wish you knew was the real information,” Welch told the convention before he was removed.

Welch was replaced as chairman by Lancaster County GOP Chairman Eric Underwood, who had introduced the motions that led to Welch's firing. Underwood asked delegates for “the opportunity to earn your trust” as he leads the party through the rest of this year. The state GOP will elect a chairman to a full term near the end of this year.

Not long after electing Underwood, the delegates voted in favor of a conservative resolution calling for election ballots to be counted by hand under video surveillance.