What’s next for the populist upstarts?
Campaign staffer Patrick Peterson with Dan Frei on election night.

What’s next for the populist upstarts?

The Nebraska GOP has a divide between a large portion of its elected leadership, colloquially referred to as the “establishment,” and a coalition of “populist upstarts” (a term I affectionately coined) that have organized to take control of the Nebraska GOP at the state and county levels.

Dan Frei is interviewed by KETV on election night.

This coalition had hopes of a historic upset in Nebraska’s second district on Tuesday last week in a last-minute primary challenge between Omaha businessman Dan Frei and establishment stalwart Don Bacon. It was a campaign that ended with a stinging defeat of 62.1% to 37.9%.

This was one of several races against incumbent Republicans in which the state Republican Party, the NEGOP, had endorsed primary challengers who had then lost. It was a decisive victory for the establishment, though not the 50-point lead Bacon had been touting weeks beforehand. It was also the most successful primary challenge Bacon had faced thus far, leaving some wondering whether Bacon had been electorally wounded for the upcoming general election.

Where do the populist upstarts go from here?

The biggest wins of this grassroots insurgency has been their continued takeover of county parties in Nebraska. The NEGOP’s Political Director Todd Watson reported in a Primary Election Recap that the party had seen an effective “doubling of county delegates that participated at our county conventions.”

The most recent takeover was in the Douglas County Republican Party (DCRP) at their convention in April. DCRP chair Chris Routhe, perhaps seeing the writing on the wall, had chosen to schedule a “day of action” in place of the party’s regular monthly meeting. Newly-seated members held the meeting without him, voting to rescind the party’s endorsement of Don Bacon and instead endorse Dan Frei. Routhe later resigned the day after the primary election.

Dan Frei’s concession speech on election night highlighted the current divide in the party. “Sometimes change doesn’t always look and feel like what you want it to look and feel like, but change is happening,” he said. “The majority of every county party is held by Patriots that have said we’ve had enough of this establishment that wants to tell us to sit down, shut up, and vote the way we tell you to vote.”

Division and Unity at the State Convention

On the following Saturday, the NEGOP held its state convention in Lincoln. Former Omaha Mayor Hal Daub urged the delegates present to vote on a measure to endorse the winners of Tuesday night’s contentious primary in order to “have unity projected to the public.”

The measure was opposed by a majority of delegates present, including Dan Frei, who insisted that candidates should first show up to county GOP meetings to ask for an endorsement, as he had done in Sarpy, Saunders, and Douglas counties.

The slate of candidates elected at the convention to travel to the Republican National Convention in Milwaukee was a veritable who’s who of “populist upstarts” in Nebraska. It included several members and supporters of the Frei campaign, including Frei himself.

Guests gathered at the Cornhusker Hotel in Lincoln for the NEGOP convention

The common thread running through these candidates was most likely a loyalty to Donald Trump. The distrust among grassroots Republicans for those considered part of the establishment runs all the way through to the national level.

There have been rumors online of the potential of a contested convention in Milwaukee, and these rumors were echoed the night before the NEGOP state convention by influencer Ivan Raiklin at a movie premiere with Gen. Michael Flynn in Lincoln.

“The chair of the Milwaukee convention is Reince Priebus — he’s running it,” Raiklin said. “What do you think the maximum is he can do to cause damage to this movement, and basically use all of his discretionary power and beyond to manipulate how that RNC convention is run to block out the nominee right now, which is Trump? So think through that, and come up with courses of action.”

The question now is whether the NEGOP can turn its organizing power at the state and local level into election victories for the other down-ballot candidates that they’ve endorsed in the general election. In light of the current divisions within the party, it appears to be an uphill battle.