It’s his money: Megadonor defies GOP leaders to back his own choice in Wisconsin Senate race

Jon Ward
Senior Political Correspondent
Richard Uihlein, co-founder of Uline. (Photo: Stephen Serio/Crain’s Chicago Business)

Dick Uihlein, a Republican megadonor with a rising profile, has been a big factor in the Republican takeover of Wisconsin politics over the last decade and would have seemed a natural to support state Sen. Leah Vukmir, a long-time party stalwart, in her bid for a U.S. Senate seat. Instead, he’s backing, to the tune of some $8 million, a first-time candidate running as an insurgent in next month’s primary.

It’s a story of what happens when political donations no longer flow through political parties, and when the ultrawealthy individuals who can shape the politics of even a state as large as Wisconsin make decisions for themselves, sometimes on the basis of personal chemistry, image and biography, rather than experience — or the interests of the party.

Uihlein, who lives in Illinois, has been a loyal and significant donor to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who was first elected in 2010 and overcame a recall referendum in 2012. Uihlein gave $2.5 million to Walker’s unsuccessful run for president in 2016. Walker is now running for a third term.

Uihlein is an ardent opponent of unions and has been a fan of Walker’s stance toward public-employee unions. He even moved parts of his business to Wisconsin after Walker got the legislature to pass sweeping changes to collective-bargaining laws. Uihlein had already moved his headquarters to Wisconsin from Illinois before the Walker era, in exchange for $6 million in financial assistance from Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker earlier this year, just before delivering the State of the State address. (Photo: Steve Apps/Wisconsin State Journal via AP)

But for the past year, Uihlein has almost singlehandedly boosted a Senate candidate who has never run for office and is basing his campaign on an attack on the same political establishment that Walker represents in Wisconsin.

Uihlein has given around $7.5 million — through a constellation of eight different super-PACs — to support Republican Kevin Nicholson, a former Marine and former Democrat. Nicholson’s own campaign has raised $2.3 million, by comparison. Nicholson is facing off in the Republican primary on Aug. 14 against Vukmir, who has represented the Milwaukee suburbs since 2011 and has been a key ally of Walker’s through all of his biggest political battles. The winner will face Democratic incumbent Tammy Baldwin in November.

Surprisingly, Walker has remained officially neutral in the race, although he has many ties to Vukmir. She was elected to represent Walker’s state House district in 2002, and they have known each other since then. Walker’s wife, Tonette, has endorsed Vukmir; one of Walker’s sons is working on Vukmir’s campaign; and one of Walker’s former top advisers, Stephan Thompson, is running the super-PAC supporting Vukmir.

Nicholson says voters should hold Vukmir’s experience in elected office against her.

“This country will sink or swim because citizens stand up and say we’re sick of the political class flushing its future down the toilet. … That’s the political class that Tammy Baldwin is a part of. We will not solve our problems by sending more of the political class to Washington, D.C., to do more of the same,” Nicholson said in a recent debate with Vukmir.

But Wisconsin is in some ways ill-suited for the kind of antiestablishment rhetoric that often connects with modern voters. As in Virginia, where the state Democratic establishment is largely in sync with its base voters, Wisconsin Republicans have built a strong relationship with and loyalty to their party leaders and elected officials over the past decade.

Wisconsin senatorial hopeful Kevin Nicholson, the insurgent in the Republican primary, speaks with reporters in January 2018. (Photo: Scott Bauer/AP)

In Wisconsin, the “political class” is Walker and the Republican legislators who have moved the state decidedly to the right. It’s also House Speaker Paul Ryan, who is retiring. And as primary day approaches, Nicholson’s outsider message seems to be losing its appeal. Polls a few months ago showed him with a double-digit lead. But the latest Marquette survey showed Vukmir edging ahead, though her lead was within the margin of error.

“As somebody who’s been around for a long time it bothers me a bit that if you’re in elected office you’re somehow all of a sudden no longer qualified to be in elected office,” said Mark Graul, a former congressional chief of staff to Rep. Mark Green, who is now a political consultant working in several Midwestern states. “My favorite politicians in Wisconsin are Scott Walker and Paul Ryan, and they’re textbook career politicians. There’s a real disconnect when people are crapping all over career politicians and they go, ‘Oh yeah, Paul Ryan has been in politics since he was 28 and Scott Walker since he was 25.”

The Nicholson campaign says their focus is on an anti-Washington message, echoing Trump’s rhetoric of “draining the swamp.” And Nicholson has pledged himself to serve only two six-year terms if elected, and then resign.

But as one Wisconsin Republican said, “[Nicholson’s] message that [Vukmir] is an insider does not ring true to the people who have lived through Act 10,” the brutal legislative fight in 2011 over restricting collective bargaining rights for public-employee unions. “It’s shown a fundamental misunderstanding of Wisconsin politics.”

Many Republicans in Wisconsin are mystified not only by the fact of Uihlein’s support for Nicholson, but by the nearly obsessive level of it.

“I don’t think any of us who have been around for a while have ever seen anything like this before, where one donor has done this much for one candidate,” Graul said. “It is a humongous mystery.”

“I’m sure in [Uihlein’s] head there must be some sort of explanation,” Graul added. “I just don’t know what that explanation is, or know anybody who does, including people who work for Nicholson.”

Uihlein did not respond to requests for comment made by phone calls to his business or sent through surrogates. The Nicholson campaign also declined to make their candidate available for an interview. But interviews with several operatives in the state revealed that a unique set of circumstances led to this odd turn of events, where a businessman who cheered on the Republican party to reforms, and helped fund their efforts, is now aggressively funding a candidate who is launching attacks on those same people.

Uihlein’s support for Nicholson was first reported at the end of March a year ago, in the form of a $2 million donation to an outside group supporting the political newcomer. The announcement shocked many in the state.

Leah Vukmir, a Wisconsin state senator and the other Republican candidate in the primary for the U.S. Senate, in May 2018. (Photo: Scott Bauer/AP)

But one Wisconsin Republican operative who supports Vukmir said Uihlein is known to hand out political donations without deliberation.

“Most major donors, they have a more formal arrangement with operatives who guide their money that makes sense,” the operative said. “A lot of people have [Uihlein’s] phone number and he’s been prone to writing several-figure checks to people on the phone.”

Several sources said Nicholson’s financing coup was simply the result of his ability to secure a meeting with Uihlein before any other candidate. And because Nicholson presents himself impressively and tells a compelling story about his political evolution, Uihlein was smitten. Nicholson’s military background was of course helpful. But Nicholson’s tale of being a former president of the College Democrats and then realizing the error of his ways was a dramatic conversion story.

“I used to do nothing and know everything. But since then we’ve had three kids, I fought in two wars, and I worked in businesses around the world — and after you’ve been hit in the face with that much reality, you cannot help but become a strong conservative,” Nicholson said in a video officially announcing his candidacy a year ago.

Uihlein was not explicitly siding against Vukmir alone when he weighed in. At the time of Uihlein’s endorsement of Nicholson, Vukmir was not the only potential candidate in the primary. Two other Republicans, both wealthy and able to self-fund, were considering running.

As for Nicholson, there were a handful of recent precedents in the area, where Republicans had run successfully for federal office without any prior experience, that likely encouraged him to run. Sen. Ron Johnson defeated three-term Democratic incumbent Russ Feingold in 2010 with an outsider message. Then in 2016 Donald Trump won the state of Wisconsin, and the presidency, with a rabid antiestablishment message that at times even extended to denunciations of Ryan.

In that same year, former Navy SEAL Eric Greitens, who also was a Democrat before switching to the GOP, won the governorship in Missouri as a first-time political candidate. (Greitens, facing allegations of personal misconduct and campaign-finance violations, and with little support from his own party in the legislature, resigned earlier this year.) The comparisons between Greitens and Nicholson, who served combat tours as a Marine in Iraq and Afghanistan, were not hard to miss.

President-elect Donald Trump at a Wisconsin rally in December 2016. Among the welcomers are House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., right, and Gov. Scott Walker, R-Wis., second from right. (Photo: Evan Vucci/AP)

“I think [Uihlein] met Kevin early and was very impressed by him, and he got behind Kevin while there was still a lot of uncertainty in the race,” said one Republican operative with experience in Wisconsin and with knowledge of the Uihlein political universe.

This same operative said that despite Vukmir’s support from the state convention, where 75 percent of the GOP’s activists supported her, “I am of the opinion that Kevin is still the better candidate in the general election and that’s why she has not locked this up.”

“There’s more of a contrast between Kevin and Baldwin. Kevin can credibly run as the outsider and can paint Baldwin as the career politician,” the operative said.

Uihlein, however, has suffered his own embarrassments. He and his wife, Liz, who plays a more hands-on role in the family business, Uline, spent around $23.5 million on political candidates in the 2016 cycle. But a $2.5 million donation to support Illinois gubernatorial candidate Jeanne Ives this year drew negative attention after Ives ran a TV ad that was widely seen as making fun of transgender people. Ives lost the March primary, narrowly.

And last winter, Uihlein donated money to a super-PAC supporting Alabama Republican Roy Moore both before and after credible allegations surfaced that Moore had relationships with teenage girls when he was in his 30s. Moore lost a special election in December for a vacant U.S. Senate seat to Democrat Doug Jones, giving Democrats their first Senate win in Alabama in 26 years.

“Uihlein does need a win right now,” the out-of-state operative said. “So I think he’s putting a lot of energy and resources behind Kevin.”

Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisc., who’s up for reelection this fall. (Photo: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images)

But with support from the conservative grassroots at the state convention, and endorsements from Ryan and the National Rifle Association, Vukmir is likely to keep pulling ahead, observers say.

“The steady backing of those folks is going to make a big difference,” said another Republican operative with years of experience in Wisconsin politics. “I wouldn’t be surprised if she ends up winning by 10 points.”

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