Dan Frei and the Grassroots Moment
Dan Frei walks in the Omaha St. Patrick's Day parade in Omaha, Neb.

Dan Frei and the Grassroots Moment

In Oct. 2013, amid a government shutdown that left federal workers furloughed, Congressman Lee Terry stated that he would not be giving up his paycheck as a part of the process. “I’ve got a nice house and a kid in college, and I’ll tell you we cannot handle it. Giving our paycheck away when you still worked and earned it? That’s just not going to fly.”

Dan Frei in 2014

It was a disastrous moment for Terry that Democrats were quick to seize upon. One month later, an Omaha businessman named Dan Frei filed to challenge Terry in the 2014 Republican primary.

While Terry went on to win the primary, he lost in the general election to Democrat Brad Ashford. The seat quickly returned to Republican hands two years later when Don Bacon won in 2016. Bacon then won re-election in 2018, 2020, and 2022. He even earned the endorsement of former rival Brad Ashford in 2020.

Division and Moderation

Nebraska’s second district is often described as “deep purple.” According to recent numbers from the Nebraska Secretary of State’s office, Republicans and Democrats are split 38% to 35% respectively. This would theoretically call for a candidate who is not an ideologue and can carry a large number of independents or members of the opposing party in order to win.

Now seeking a fifth term, Bacon continues to position himself as a moderate. Since 2020, Bacon has voted to codify same-sex marriage, opposed Jim Jordan for House speakership, and supported Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan in 2022.

This last move sparked outrage among fiscal conservatives, including Daily Wire host Ben Shapiro. “Every single member who voted for this thing on the right side of the aisle should be primaried,” Shapiro said. “You don’t get to vote for Joe Biden’s signature pieces of legislation at a time when we’ve already blown out the spending, and when inflation is setting in, and when we already have a debt to GDP ratio higher than at any time since World War II and then get to survive a primary challenge. That is not something that should happen inside the Republican party. It’s a disgrace.”

Dan Frei answered that call and returned in 2024 to give a primary challenge a second try.

The Grassroots vs. the Establishment

Dan Frei and his supporters at the Omaha St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

Today, there are deep divisions within the Republican Party in Nebraska, with members at the state and county levels at odds with its federal delegation in Washington DC. The conflict took center stage at a raucous state convention in 2022, where delegates organized to overthrow what they saw as an out-of-touch “regime” run by then-Gov. Pete Ricketts, along with GOP Chairman Dan Welch. Some delegates involved in this effort were barred from entry and even arrested in the process.

At the forefront of this event was the Nebraska Freedom Coalition, which began in 2021. The group’s account on Twitter/X posted live updates from the 2022 convention in Kearney and celebrated when Dan Welch was replaced.

The new leadership of the NEGOP has since endorsed primary challengers such as Dan Frei, while Nebraska’s US Senators Deb Fischer and Pete Ricketts, along with Gov. Jim Pillen and all the state legislators in District 2, have endorsed Don Bacon.

The Nebraska Freedom Coalition appears largely responsible for recruiting Frei to challenge Don Bacon in the 2024 primary, with founding member Patrick Peterson working directly for the campaign. A primary challenge was also first promised after the group helped organize a small protest outside Bacon’s west Omaha office after his vote against Jim Jordan for House speaker. I got to hear from Frei at the River City Republican luncheon on Wednesday, and he cited this event as a reason why he thought Bacon needed to be replaced.

Dan Frei with guests at the River City Republican luncheon.

“When he had the opportunity to vote for Jim Jordan for speaker, he couldn’t do it,” Frei said. “Jim Jordan’s a rock star in the Republican Party, an absolute rock star … but when Jim Jordan was not elected speaker, [Bacon] runs in front of a camera and announces to the world that he’s willing to work with the Democrats to elect a speaker that everybody could agree on. … This was electing someone that’s going to set the legislative agenda for the House, and you’re willing to work with a Democrat to find the leader? That’s a big bridge too far.”

Frei also cited Bacon’s vote against an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would have removed diversity, equity and inclusion training for service members, as well as support for “big budget-busting deals” and funding for the war in Ukraine.

“We have senators and congressmen that are perfectly okay with shoveling hundreds of billions of dollars to foreign countries — Ukraine, and multiple others — while our borders are wide open,” Frei said.

A Coalition Coalescing

Frei was clear about his underdog status in the race, but he remains optimistic. “Don starts with about a $1.8 million war chest. I start with a checkbook,” Frei said. “But here’s the neat part about this — we have had support nationwide right now, and things are coming together.”

Things came together in particular on Saturday during the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Omaha. This parade is an annual event that draws numerous candidates for state and local office to walk together downtown. The “Bacon Brigade” usually has one of the strongest turnouts among participating politicians, but this year Dan Frei had a crowd nearly as large. Frei’s supporters also included several people who had previously either worked or volunteered for Bacon, including door-knockers, a marketing consultant, and a former campaign manager.

One of Bacon’s supporters commented about his own side, “I see a lot of new faces here, [but] I don’t see a lot of people from the old days. Not a lot of them have made it all the way since 2015.”

Dan Frei speaks to guests at the Sarpy County GOP convention.

The divide between the two factions was also evident at the Sarpy County convention later that afternoon. The Sarpy GOP experienced its own grassroots uprising in late 2023, when a populist faction calling itself “Team Sarpy” organized and replaced chairwoman Nora Sandine.

Dan Frei spent Saturday afternoon at the Sarpy GOP convention as a guest speaking with delegates, working the crowd, and handing out campaign stickers and yard signs.

Don Bacon, however, was absent from the event. Bacon is a Papillion resident who spoke at the county convention in 2018. He was also a seated member of the county party up until the change in leadership last year.

A repeat of 2014?

I asked Frei if he thought his primary challenge in 2024 might turn out the same way it did in 2014, with the incumbent Republican winning in the primary but then going on to lose in the general election.

“I think it’d be unfortunate if that were the outcome, but I don’t have concerns about it,” Frei said. “I think this is going to be a change election, and here’s why — the voters right now, they’re angry. They’re mad. They’re frustrated. They’re frustrated that they feel like they’ve just been abandoned. They’re frustrated that they feel like their voices are not being heard on big, major issues. And when you look out in the community right now, when you look at this country, this is a country that people, I think, recognize that we are on the cliff, and there’s nowhere else to go. So if we don’t get this election right, we’re gonna lose this country. So I think people realize that, and the frustration, and the anger that they have is going to inspire them and motivate them to get out to the polls.”

Frei said more than once during the event that he would support Don Bacon if he won in the May primary. He also issued a warning. “If Don Bacon wins in the primary, he’s gonna have a tough time against Tony Vargas, because he’s alienated so much of his Republican base or his conservative base,” Frei said. “But that’s not on me. That’s not on his campaign, and that’s not on all these other patriots that are saying we can’t continue down this path.”