A GOP Nebraska Lawmaker Chose His Voters over His Party with Abortion Vote

Photo for The Washington Post by Rebecca S. Gratz
Nebraska state Sen. Merv Riepe works at his desk on the legislative floor Thursday at the Nebraska Capitol in Lincoln, Neb.

OMAHA, Neb. – In the days since state Sen. Merv Riepe cast the lone vote that blocked a near-total abortion ban in his conservative state, he’s faced protests at his office, the cold shoulder from irate colleagues and calls for his resignation. A stranger left an angry note inside his home mailbox.

Yet, the 80-year-old Republican has also raked in accolades, becoming an unlikely hero for those fighting to protect abortion access in Nebraska and around the country in the year since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Abortion advocates wept in the Capitol after Riepe’s April 27 vote. A downtown Omaha novelty store is now selling blue T-shirts and tank tops that say “Hot Merv Summer” in bold, white type.

Riepe’s vote reflects a growing realization among some Republicans that staking extreme positions on abortion might be politically perilous. Since Roe, which guaranteed the right to abortion, was struck down, Republicans have faced pressure from the far-right to ban the procedure in states across the country. But voters, including those who identify or lean Republican, have signaled an uneasiness with taking restrictions too far.

A nearly year-long survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute found 54 percent of people in Nebraska believed abortion should be legal in most or all cases compared to 45 percent who said it should be mostly illegal. Just 11 percent said all abortions should be banned.

On the same day Riepe, who describes himself as “pro-life,” bucked his party here, three Republican women in South Carolina blocked a near-total abortion ban in that state. Republicans in the North Carolina state legislature backed off a total abortion ban, and instead voted on Thursday for a 12-week ban, swayed by what happened in other states. Last year, voters in Kansas and Kentucky rejected ballot initiatives to ban abortion in those conservative-leaning states. Backlash to the Dobbs decision is widely seen as the reason Democrats fared better than expected in the 2022 midterm elections.

Republicans have lost the allegiance of women like Carol Russell, a 75-year-old in Millard, Neb., with their hard line stances on social issues. Russell, a lifelong registered Republican who met her husband in a Young Republicans Club in college, can’t remember the last national Republican she supported and today considers herself a “closet Democrat.”

Russell, who has always backed abortion rights, said her frustration with Republicans and their agenda has only become more intense since the rise of Trump, whom she voted against twice.

Russell and her husband have lived in a suburban home in Riepe’s district for decades. Sitting in an armchair, she gazed out the window at the community pool she’s excited to take her grandchildren to this summer. She said she felt too old to go to Lincoln to participate in the protests at the state Capitol before the abortion vote, but she was among many advocates who sent letters and made calls urging Riepe to vote against the ban.

“I bet the vast majority of people who emailed him or contacted him were against the abortion ban. So, you know, good for him,” Russell said of Riepe, whom she voted for in 2014, his first term in the legislature, and has known personally for decades. “He might not like it, you know, abortion, but he was reasonable in taking his views and his constituents’ views, which I don’t think enough people do.”

Ahead of the abortion vote, Riepe passed around a national news article to his GOP colleagues that warned the abortion issue would ultimately hurt the party. He still wanted more restrictions on the procedure, which is permitted up to 20 weeks in Nebraska, but he wanted his fellow Republicans to get behind a 12-week ban, rather than the one they were advancing that would effectively make all abortion illegal.

“I know there are probably some in there that think I betrayed them, but I tell you what, I’ve told them before, I don’t answer to them, I am going to vote my own vote. I’m going to vote it how I see it. And if they don’t like it, go away,” Riepe said in an interview last week. “I’ve told the party this. My vote belongs to the people of my district, not to the Republican Party.”

Riepe’s district, which comprises part of Omaha and its suburbs to the southwest, has swung between Democrats and Republicans in the last decade. Riepe won his seat in 2014 and then lost reelection to a Democrat in 2018. He recaptured the seat in 2022 when the incumbent decided not to run again. His Democratic opponent, Robin Richards, came within seven percentage points of beating him, and Riepe believes if his challenger had a bit more money and time to campaign, she would have overtaken him.

“I love that I live in Merv’s head now,” Richards said, laughing, in an interview.

About a week after the vote, Riepe, tall and lean with thick, snow-white hair, sat on a sun-soaked windowsill in the state Capitol near the chamber floor, doodling dots and lines on a small notepad and connecting them into different shapes. At one point, he sketched a bell curve, writing far left on one end and far right on the other.

“The rest of us live somewhere in here,” he said, referring to how he thinks people feel about abortion, as he scribbled inside the curve.

In a strip mall parking lot in the heart of Riepe’s district, Katie, 43, a mother of three whom The Post is only identifying by first name, offered a nuanced take on the divisive issue. She’s a Republican who is worried about the economy, religious rights and gender reassignment surgeries for children. She does not believe abortion should be completely banned, but she also feels young pregnant women should be given more information before going through with terminating their pregnancies.

In the same shopping center, Taylor Young, 27, called Riepe’s vote “a relief.” She used to be antiabortion and voted for Donald Trump in 2020. But her work as a surgical technician in labor and delivery has changed her perspective. She said she hadn’t been educated about the procedures that are considered an abortion, like those that save a mother’s life or end nonviable pregnancies. Now, she doesn’t think there should be any restrictions on abortion access.

Nebraska is the only state with a unicameral legislature, meaning there’s only one legislative body that passes laws. Members are officially nonpartisan although their party affiliation is known. A few Democratic lawmakers have taken to filibustering every bill that comes before the legislature, requiring the state Senate to obtain two-thirds support, which is 33 votes, to end the debate and move forward with a vote. On the abortion ban, Riepe denied them that 33rd vote.

“I’ve reminded them, don’t be too snotty or nasty with me, I might be the 33 vote on the budget, or on the property tax ruling. They need to treat me reasonably nice. I haven’t rubbed that in, but I do have a lot of power with that vote,” Riepe said. “Someone said to me, you’re kind of like in Washington at this moment like, Manchin, is it? Joe Manchin” – a reference to the West Virginia Democratic U.S. senator whose singular vote has at times blocked Democratic ambitions in the closely-divided Senate.

On a recent Tuesday morning, a group of local Republicans, 11 men and one woman, gathered in the backroom of Wheatfields Eatery and Bakery, an Omaha restaurant where they meet once a month to talk politics over coffee, cheese-smothered eggs and French toast. Posted inside a display case of muffins, cinnamon rolls and other breakfast pastries is a small sign that says, “Protect Life.” Riepe often joins when he’s in town.

“He basically sided with pro-abortion people and he can’t take that back. His actions are speaking louder than his words and there are a lot of people really upset with him. I was disappointed by his actions. There are a lot of people who feel betrayed, myself among them, absolutely,” said Robert Rohrbough, 76.

“I don’t know if Merv is Christian …” Rohrbough continued before another man cut him off.

“Let’s not go there,” the man said. “You can believe what point life begins, but don’t say someone else can’t be a Christian. Don’t ever, ever say that.”

“I didn’t say that, don’t put words in my mouth,” Rohrbough shot back.

Scott Petersen, listening from the other end of the table said, “It’s a very tough subject and those on the left love it when we have these tough discussions, because it divides us and division seems to be the word of the day.”

Petersen said he was disappointed, but wasn’t as worked up about Riepe’s vote as others, predicting that Nebraska Republicans would ultimately get a stricter abortion ban passed.

Riepe shrugged when told about his breakfast buddies’ reaction to his vote. “And if they said, ‘I don’t think you should come back to this breakfast,’ I’d say, ‘Ok,'” he said.

“Pro-life is not what they specifically define it to be. There are various shades, like everything, of what pro-life is,” Riepe said. “Don’t give me this bull crap that just because I don’t want zero abortions in the country that therefore I’m not pro-life. That’s by their definition. And that really angers me when someone tries to define me based on their standards. You know, who are they to do that?”

Nancy Meyer, 70, a lifelong Republican who voted for Trump twice, said her politics changed dramatically after Roe was overturned. She and her husband, Bruce, 70, also a lifelong Republican, have recently switched their party affiliation to independent and believe conservatives are going too far in trying to take away women’s rights.

“The Christian right takes this on because it makes them feel good – they can say they’re doing something good that they think supports their religion. They can say, you know, killing is a sin, right?” said Bruce Meyer, a retired certified public accountant and client executive for tech companies. “But the bigger sin is failure to thrive. And failure to thrive to me means: Where are you after the child is born?”

The Omaha couple, who live west of Riepe’s district, sent letters to senators across the state urging them to not ban abortion. Sitting across from each other at their dining table with Milton, their Yorkshire terrier, sporting a blue bow, laying on Bruce’s lap, Nancy described her emails as deeply emotional pleas.

“I literally at night would lay in my bed and write to them. I would write these senators like, all the time, and I’ve never written a senator in my life,” she said. “And I’m writing to [Riepe] the night before going: ‘Please be brave. Please be strong. Please do the right thing.'”

Bruce also wrote to senators in the weeks leading up to the vote, but he described his emails as “more matter of fact. A lot of factual knowledge.”

The couple, married 49 years, said they’ve lost friends after becoming more outspoken about abortion rights. Still, Nancy believes there are many more people like them who have long voted Republican and don’t want to see women stripped of their rights; they’re just staying silent out of fear of being outcast like them.

“If the Republicans don’t wake up and realize that they’re going down this extreme avenue, if they don’t realize that women are of extreme value to them, I don’t think they’ll win,” Nancy said. “I think this next election [in 2024] is going to be a one-vote reason. You’re going to vote, not for a person, you’re gonna be voting for a reason.”

The Meyers’ politics and vocal advocacy were strongly influenced by their daughter, Abigail Delaney, 40, an infertility specialist who works less than 30 minutes away from her parents’ home in an Omaha-area medical center.

Like her parents, Delaney had once considered herself a conservative who opposed abortion. When she did her OB/GYN residency, she opted out of additional abortion surgical training because of her political beliefs at the time, she said. But throughout her residency, she became more aware about widespread health inequities and saw “all the bad things that can happen in pregnancy.”

“You recognize that, it’s not up to me. At the end of day, you have to take care of patients – and the government really doesn’t have a place in that,” Delaney said, sitting in the lobby of the Heartland Center for Reproductive Medicine on a recent weekday afternoon.

Delaney has become an outspoken advocate for abortion rights, joining a group of local female physicians to form a political action committee called Campaign for a Healthy Nebraska in June 2022 to push against antiabortion legislation in the state. Once a registered Republican, she changed her affiliation to independent before ultimately becoming a Democrat after Trump was elected.

Delaney said it has been disheartening to see lawmakers in the state push for more restrictions over the past year. But in Riepe, she said, “we finally saw someone who said, ‘this is not right’ and felt like they could vote their conscience in reflection of their constituents, not what their party wanted them to do. His courage is 100 percent admirable. I’m just grateful.”

For years, Riepe has kept a small trinket given to him at a conference by a Vermont politician whose name he doesn’t remember. It reads: “Do hard things.” He’s thought a lot about that short mantra in the days since his vote.

“I have a philosophy that success is not necessarily where you end up. It’s all of the obstacles that you’ve gone through to get where you’re at,” Riepe said. “So you may not have a lot of big wins, but you also have to have some honor and stand up sometimes for the right vote, for the vote that you think is right.”

Photo for The Washington Post by Rebecca S. Gratz
From left, Abigail Delaney and her parents, Nancy and Bruce Meyer, at the Meyers’ home in Waterloo, Neb. Delaney, a reproductive and endocrinology fertility specialist, helped persuade her longtime Republican parents to move away from GOP candidates over the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn abortion protection.