Pancakes & Politics
Congressman Don Bacon (NE-02) serves sausages at the DCRP pancake breakfast in 2022.

Pancakes & Politics

The Douglas County Republican Party (DCRP) pancake breakfast has been an annual tradition in Omaha since 1978. Held at the Elmwood Park pavilion on the morning of July 4, it’s usually a great chance to chat with a Congressman, Senator, or Governor over pancakes, sausage, and coffee before a full day of parades and fireworks.

A year ago, Gov. Jim Pillen served sausages next to the “Pancake Man” while Congressman Don Bacon and recently-appointed Sen. Pete Ricketts mingled with the crowd. Sen. Deb Fischer brought a special guest, Sen. Tom Cotton from Arkansas, to join her in the line of volunteers serving food.

This year, none of them were there.

Changes in Leadership

There has been a growing divide in Nebraska between establishment Republicans and a populist insurgency organizing at the state and county levels. At a luncheon held by the River City Republicans a few weeks earlier, one party member with establishment ties went so far as to say the pancake breakfast wasn’t going to happen at all. This person was quickly corrected by several other members of the DCRP in attendance. In the weeks leading up to the event, there was a strong push from the DCRP leadership to promote the event and make it successful.

John Sieler

The turnout of around 400 guests was comparable to previous years. Many guests who had attended the year before, such as Charles Herbster, Attorney General Mike Hilgers, and Sheriff Aaron Hanson (with his pet goat) were there to greet the crowd. There was, however, a conspicuous absence of party leaders who had previously called for “unity” after a contentious GOP primary and a change in DCRP leadership.

John Sieler, former DCRP chair (and vice-chair) who hosts the regular Pachyderm Luncheon in Omaha, has been Event Chair for the pancake breakfast since 2003. He has been trying to bridge the gap between establishment Republicans and the new leadership in the DCRP. At the Pachyderm Luncheon last week, he had made a point to endorse all incumbent Republicans in the federal delegation, but he also expressed support for the new leadership.

“A lot of Republicans are not pleased with the change in leadership in the Republican party,” Sieler said. “But my feeling is, we still need to elect Republicans, and we need to support the current leadership. And it’s in our interest to have the party be successful.”

Success remains to be seen

Success, however, seems to be a goal that’s lost within internal party politics. In an election year, the front lawn of the Elmwood Park pavilion would be covered with signs of candidates running for office. This year, there were only a handful. One would expect that a candidate like Congressman Bacon, in a district with a narrow margin of victory every election year, would be working the crowd to regain support from party members who voted for his opponent a few weeks earlier.

Deb Fischer’s Senate challenger Dan Osborn at the DCRP pancake breakfast

While Deb Fischer was absent from the event, her opponent in the Senate race was not. Independent candidate Dan Osborn showed up to meet guests at the front of the pavilion with a stack of palm cards. Osborn had also shown up a few months earlier at the Sarpy GOP county convention, something that would be unheard of from a typical challenger.

I had volunteered to walk with Sen. Fischer in the Ralston parade later that day, so I was able to tell her in person that she was missed at the pancake breakfast. I also mentioned the presence of her challenger to Fischer’s campaign manager.

Several guests from the pancake breakfast were also walking in the Ralston parade, many of them side-by-side with people who had pointedly stayed away. Among the latter was Congressman Don Bacon. Bacon was confronted by Patrick Peterson, co-founder of the Nebraska Freedom Coalition, during the final stretch of the parade, asking why he hadn’t attended the pancake breakfast that morning. This led to a tense exchange that was drowned out by Bacon’s campaign manager’s bullhorn.

With a shift in momentum at the national level, and active talk among Democrats about replacing Joe Biden in the “fourth quarter” of a Presidential campaign, it remains to be seen whether candidates down ballot in Nebraska can either coalesce to win or continue to fracture at the local level.