The Elephant Remembers dinner, hosted annually by the Douglas County Republican Party, is the largest political event of its kind in Nebraska, this year’s gala drawing around 500 guests according to event coordinator Kyle Clark. It’s traditionally a display of strength and unity within the party, with over a hundred current and former elected officials making an appearance, including Senators, Congressmen, state senators and former governors mingling with the crowd.
Last year, however, proved to be a remarkably contentious year within the state party, which found it in something of a civil war between the “establishment” machine run by urban Republicans and grassroots activists, including many from the rural western counties that feel left out of the party.
At last year’s state convention, executive director Dan Welch was ousted from party leadership after five delegates were refused to be seated (and one, Matt Innis, even arrested). At this year’s gala — seemingly in response — he was the event’s honoree, with glowing words of praise (via video) from senators Deb Fischer and Pete Ricketts, Congressman Don Bacon, and RNC chair Ronna McDaniel. Welch joked about his “early retirement” from the party, while at least one delegate who voted for it was among the evening’s guests.
Last year also featured a contentious race for Governor. State Senator Julie Slama was among multiple women who claimed they had been sexually assaulted by candidate Charles W. Herbster. In Slama’s case, the incident allegedly occurred at a previous Elephant Remembers dinner in 2019. Even after Jim Pillen won the primary, the contention continued with dueling lawsuits filed by both Herbster and Slama against one another, both of which were eventually dropped. This year, however, both Charles W. Herbster and Julie Slama were guests at the Elephant Remembers dinner.
One recent rift within the party was a move by state senator Merv Riepe to kill Joni Albrecht’s “heartbeat bill’ (LB626), which would have banned abortions after the six week. Pillen had appealed to Riepe to reconsider his vote, which he refused to do, and he address the bill specifically in his speech at the Elephant Remembers dinner. “A major reason I’m governor is that ran as pro-life and saving babies,” PIllen said. “We’ve had a long, tough weekend, falling and having a hiccup on the vote for 626 … but [next year] we will get more people in there who are pro-life, and we will have way more than 33 votes.”
All this drama was the backdrop for the evening’s keynote speaker, Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds. She started her speech touting Brenna Bird, the state’s first Republican Attorney General since 1979, and flipping Iowa’s 3rd Congressional District, with Zach Nunn defeating incumbent Cindy Axne. Reynolds also spoke about both Iowa and Nebraska’s response to Covid, which was far less severe than in Democrat-run states. “States shut down schools for two years, close businesses, and restricted their citizens, then characterize it as just following the science,” Reynolds said. “It’s only because of states like Iowa and Nebraska that had the courage and sense to swim against the current. That today, we rarely see officials make the case of such policies. In fact, now we’re hearing denials that they even did.”
Notably absent from the gathering were representatives of the NEGOP, such as its new executive director, Eric Underwood. One member who seemed to bridge the divide was Kathleen Kauth, whose “Let Them Grow Act” (LB574) banning sex change surgeries and hormone treatments for minors sparked a filibuster, in which fellow state senator Michaela Cavanaugh threatened to “burn the session to the ground over this bill.”
“The filibustering has been a lot of nonsense and drama,” Kauth said. “But I want you guys to know that while the nonsense going on out front, in the background we’re working with each other and talking to each other … We will not be allowing the nonsense going on out front to distract us — we’re going to use it to our advantage.”
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