Meet the Illinoisan Trying to Buy a Wisconsin Senate Seat


    When Wisconsin airwaves begin drowning in political ads this year, voters in the Badger State will have an Illinoisan to thank.

    The U.S. Senate race in Wisconsin has drawn by far the most outside spending of any 2018 midterm election contest. And the vast majority of it has come from a single donor: Lake Forest, Illinois, businessman Richard Uihlein. The founder and CEO of shipping product giant Uline has vaulted himself to the upper echelon of Republican megadonors. And the Wisconsin senate race is his number one target.

    Uihlein has poured millions directly into the contest by way of a pair of super PACs that he funds almost single handedly. But those donations only scratch the surface of the money hes injected into the race. Uihlein has also provided major cash infusions of late to more established conservative groups that have endorsed his preferred Wisconsin senate candidate, Delafield businessman and Marine Corps veteran Kevin Nicholson. Meanwhile, Uihleins family foundation has written large checks to nonprofit groups that, though officially nonpartisan, have quietly boosted Nicholsons candidacy with ostensibly apolitical activities targeting a Republican primary rival and Nicholsons would-be general election opponent.

    A descendant of noted the Milwaukee brewers beer brand Schlitz, Uihlein, who did not respond to a request for comment on this story, lives north of Chicago, and his company is headquartered just across the state line, in Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin. Hes jumped into previous high profile races in Wisconsin, including providing major financial backing for Gov. Scott Walkers gubernatorial campaigns. In May, Uihlein cut a $250,000 check to the state Republican Party.

    But Uihlein has really flexed his financial muscle in past federal elections. He and his wife were the ninth largest individual political donors in the 2016 cycle, shelling out nearly $24 million to elect President Donald Trump and congressional Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. But in 2018 cycle, Uihlein has already claimed the top spot among the nations most deep-pocketed political donors. Hes even outpacing Democratic megadonor Tom Steyer, who has held the top spot since 2014.

    The bulk of Uihleins financial heft has gone to two super PACs backing Nicholsons primary bid against State Senator Leah Vukmir, and taking potshots at incumbent Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin. Democrats are expected to hold the seat, but Uihlein has nonetheless plowed $3.5 million into the group Solutions for Wisconsinhe is the groups only publicly disclosed contributorwhich has run ads backing Nicholsons candidacy. Solutions has passed along $750,000 to another super PAC, Restoration PAC, which has spent the bulk of its funds attacking Baldwin, though the group has also gone after vulnerable West Virginia Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin.

    Other Uihlein-backed groups have also jumped in on Nicholsons behalf.

    The John Bolton Super PACthe former UN Ambassadors political group, to which Uihlein has donated $450,000announced a $1 million ad buy for Nicholson last month. Great America PAC, a pro-Trump political group to which Uihlein has donated $100,000, endorsed Nicholson in October. Uihlien has given more than $400,000 to the Madison Project, which backs insurgent conservative Senate candidates. That group officially endorsed Nicholson in August.

    Also in August, Nicholson picked up a key endorsement from the conservative Club for Growth, to which Uihlein has donated more than $5.7 million since 2015. The Club has drawn fire from other conservative movement leaders, such as Grover Norquists Americans for Tax Reform, for its broadsides against Vukmir.

    Like many GOP Senate primaries around the country, the contest between Vukmir and Nicholson has involved a degree of jostling over who can claim the mantle of Trump Republican. And as a result, like similar races, it went through some tumult in the wake of the high-profile split between the president and his former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, until recently a de facto leader of the Trumpian brand of nationalist politics that many Republican candidates hope to capture.

    Bannons political operation got behind Nicholsons candidacy early, and when the recently ousted Breitbart News chairmans allegations of treason against members of the presidents political team became public, Nicholson declined to distance Bannon from his campaign.

    Vukmirs campaign quickly the vicious attacks by Steve Bannon against the President and his family and called on Nicholson to disavow his endorsement. Nicholson declined to do so. Leah spent a great deal of time and energy seeking Steve Bannons endorsement and was unsuccessful. Its easy to see why she is frustrated, his campaign said.

    Bannons involvement in the race may have been deeper than just a sought-after endorsement. According to a source close to Bannon, he had been in talks with Uihlein about coordinating the latters political spending. With GOP megadonors Robert and Rebekah Mercer publicly separating from Bannon, Uihlein could provide an alternate means of financing for Bannons political projects. But its not clear if any relationship came to fruition, or if the controversy that resulted in Bannons resignation from Breitbart last week ended discussions between the two.

    Bannon is expected to announce a new dark money nonprofit group in the coming weeks, and the organizations sources of financing are not yet known. Uihlein, for his part, funds a host of such conservative nonprofit groups that, while officially barred from taking sides in political contests, have boosted Nicholsons candidacy behind the scenes.

    In April, a conservative group called American Majority, which has received $250,000 from Uihleins family foundation since 2015, helped prevent another potential Republican candidate in the Wisconsin primary. The group circulated an opposition research memo highlighting a series of tweets sent by Nicole Schneider, a trucking heiress who was then considering a senate bid. The tweets included messages critical of prominent Republicans, including Trump, and praising Democrats such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). Schneider opted against a senate run.

    Uihleins foundation has given another $250,000 since 2015 to the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, the 501(c)(3) educational arm of libertarian billionaires Charles and David Kochs political activist organization. In October, AFPs Wisconsin arm announced a seven figure ad campaign targeting Baldwin.

    Its common on both sides of the political aisle for high-dollar donors to fund nonprofits that can conduct non-electioneering activities in the de facto service of a political candidate, even as they shield the identities of their donors. Its also a strategy that has worked out in the past for Uihlein, who funds a number of conservative nonprofits in Illinois that have backed candidates that Uihlein officially supports in an overtly political capacity.

    Outside spenders in the Wisconsin senate race have already dropped ten times the sum of the next most expensive midterm contest. But even that totalmore than $6.5 million, according to CRPdoesnt tell the full story. Activities by dark money groups such as AFP and American Majority swell expenditures in the race, though those activities can be hard to trace.

    Wisconsins August 14 senate primaries are relatively late in the contest, meaning expenditures in the race are likely to swell. And with the GOP senate majority on the line in a state where Trump scored an upset victory in 2016, the contest is sure to continue drawing large checks throughout the year.

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