Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Richard Uihlein, GOP Kingmaker

Should one billionaire dictate the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate?

By - Aug 17th, 2017 01:23 pm
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Uline Corporation headquarters in Pleasant Prairie, WI.

Uline Corporation headquarters in Pleasant Prairie, WI.

Few people had ever heard of Kevin Nicholson before he announced his decision to run as a Republican against incumbent U.S. Senator, Democrat Tammy Baldwin, in the 2018 election. As conservative talk show host Mark Belling complained, calling out Nicholson on the air: “You’ve made the decision to enter politics and government at the second highest level that we have: the United States Senate. You’re not running for the school board, you’re not even running for the state legislature. You’re not running for Congress. You’re running for the United States Senate. Some might suggest that you don’t know enough to be a senator.”

But Nicholson had one overwhelming qualification: support from a political sugar daddy. Billionaire businessman Richard Uihlein has donated $3.5 million to a Super PAC supporting Nicholson, and he suggested his great generosity should convince any other Republicans to stay out of the race.

“I strongly encourage others to support this effort and avoid a repeat of 2012’s divisive Republican primary,” Uihlein said in a statement he released in July.

It was an astonishing declaration on several levels. For starters, Uhlein doesn’t even live in Wisconsin, but is an Illinois resident trying to dictate who this state’s Republican candidate should be. Secondly, this was a race with tremendous interest for GOP politicians, including such potential candidates as state Sen. Leah Vukmir, state Rep.Dale Kooyenga, Madison businessman Eric Hovde, who ran for senator in 2012 and Nicole Schneider, a member of the family that owns the Green Bay-based Schneider National Trucking company. Then there was the fact that Nicholson is a former Democrat who has switched parties, though precisely when that switch occurred has been a source of controversy.

Yet Uihlein was essentially warning other Republicans to bud out the race and forget any qualms they might have about Nicholson, because one wealthy kingmaker had made his decision.

The rise of Richard Uihlein as a political heavyweight is directly attributable to the controversial Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which opened the door to unlimited campaign spending by wealthy individuals. Uihlein was merely “a modest but reliable donor to Republican candidates,” until the 2010 Supreme Court decision, but since then has risen to “the top tier of right-wing financiers” in the country, as Crain’s Chicago Business reported.

Uihlein, in short, doesn’t just want to support Republicans, he wants to support his kind of Republicans and once the Supreme Court opened the door to essentially buying the candidate you want, his donations increased exponentially. As Belling questioned, are the millions going to Nicholson “simply a vehicle for Uihlein to get one of his, someone that he admires, into the Senate?” Or as Belling’s fellow WISN conservative talker Dan O’Donnell asked, “is this guy just a puppet of Richard Uihlein?”

Richard Uihlein, as his distinctive last name suggests, does have deep roots in Wisconsin. His great-grandfather August Uihlein was a co-founder of Milwaukee’s Joseph Schlitz Brewing Co., and his father co-founded the Illinois-based General Binding Corp., where Uihlein worked in international sales until he and his wife Elizabeth Uihlein founded the Uline company in 1980.

Uline Corp. founded in Lake Forest, ILL, sells shipping and packaging materials — some 30,000 products such as bags, bubble wrap, bar-code labels and boxes — to other businesses, and has steadily grown into one of the country’s largest privately held companies. Though he supports limited government, Uihlein lobbied for a state handout to relocate his business in Wisconsin, getting up to $18.6 million in state incentives from the administration of Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle to move the company to Pleasant Prairie, WI.

A regular letter to the company’s 4,000 employees, “From the President,” by Liz Uihlein, as she calls herself, offers frequent blasts at government spending and relentless political indoctrination. As one letter noted, “High unemployment, bankrupt states, expensive government programs like healthcare, higher taxes and a relentless global economy make the elections in November very important…Dick and I love reading newspapers and when we watch TV news, the channel is mostly set on Fox News.”

Since Citizens United, Richard Uihlein has become the biggest political donor in Illinois, Crain’s Chicago Business reported. He and Elizabeth ranked 10th in the U.S. among billionaires spending on the 2016 election, with $7.5 million donated by April 2016, Vanity Fair found.

But by the end of the election, Richard ranked fourth nationally in contributions to outside spending groups, with total donations of $13.7 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The Uihleins donated $2.5 million to the Unintimidated super PAC backing Gov. Scott Walker’s White House bid and Richard later gave $2 million to Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz, as Sourcewatch documented.

Richard also gave $1.8 million of the $1.9 million raised by the Restoration PAC to support Wisconsin’s Republican U.S. Senator Ron Johnson. All told the Uihleins have given “tens of millions to conservative campaigns and causes,” as Sourcewatch has noted. Uihlein is “one of the top five courted GOP donors” in the country, one insider told CNN.

Uihlein’s choice of Nicholson to run against Baldwin makes sense in some ways. Nicholson is a Marine Corps veteran who served combat tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan and won a Bronze Star. He earned an MBA from Dartmouth and an MPA from Harvard, and went on to a job in international consulting at McKinsey and now works at a Milwaukee management-consulting firm. As a political neophyte, he can and has begun to launch the always effective attack against a “career politician” like Baldwin. And Nicholson seems to take all the requisite conservative stands: anti-abortion, wanting to repeal and replace Obamacare and even favoring President Trump’s call for a ban on transgender people in the military.

But Nicholson is a former liberal who was president of the College Democrats of America and spoke at the 2000 Democratic National Convention. Though Nicholson says he began moving away from the Democratic party after that, he registered to vote as a Democrat in Pender County, North Carolina in 2005 and voted as a Democrat in North Carolina’s 2008 presidential primary, as Fox 6 has reported.

This has led to mocking attacks by Democrats on Nicholson’s contradictory views.  And that in turn generated a remarkable column by Journal Sentinel columnist Christian Schneider chastising Democrats for daring to stick their noses into the GOP primary because “the Republican primary is a family affair that will be settled by Republicans.”

Journalists, of course, always welcome sniping by the parties against each other because it makes for good copy. JS columnist Dan Bice feasts on such salvos. But Schneider continues to operate as the Republican Party functionary he was for many years. Thus, while the GOP has attacked Andy Gronik even before he decided whether to run for office, they got a pass from Schneider. But when Dems attack an announced candidate with $3.5 million behind him, that’s outrageous!

Schneider’s column, as always, telegraphed his party’s thinking: there was worry in GOP circles that Nicholson’s candidacy could be a failure and yet scare off any other candidates because of Uihlein’s millions. Thus it was good news for Republicans when Vukmir announced she has the backing of billionaire Diane Hendricks, the owner of ABC Supply.

So the GOP primary is beginning to shape up as the battle of the billionaires, Uihlein against Hendricks. In the world that Citizens United has brought us, just a handful of wealthy people can be decisive in political races, while the rest of us schmoes look on.

And in case you missed it, will a right-wing broadcasting company become the biggest player in Wisconsin

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Categories: Murphy's Law, Politics

15 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Richard Uihlein, GOP Kingmaker”

  1. Bill Kurtz says:

    Besides Uihlein, one other person who doesn’t want a GOP Senate primary is David Clarke. Clarke can only win with a big Republican crossover vote, but a hotly-contested GOP Senate primary would keep most of the Republicans voting in their own race.

  2. Jason Troll says:

    Good article. If he was a Democrat as recently as 2000 I would think his candidacy is toast. Leah Vukmir will do well in Southeast Wisconsin. Who wins rural vote maybe key. to victory?

  3. Vincent Hanna says:

    Not 2000. 2008. Those voters are not going to show up in a midterm election like they did for Trump. On the contrary, considering his (lack of) popularity and atrocious approval rating, Baldwin isn’t going to have a problem.

  4. dk mke says:

    This state just gets redder and redder (based on those that actually show up to vote).

  5. Jason Troll says:

    The north shore gets bluer and bluer. The wealthiest village and or city in Milwaukee County voted for Hillary Clinton. Funny think that Shorewood forty years ago was Republican territory and now its 80-20 blue.

  6. Jason Troll says:

    Billionaires toast Kamala Harris in 2020. Donald Trump look out. Black…Bright…looks good on camera…gender friendly…..the rich will rejoice.

  7. Vincent Hanna says:

    Can you try to stay on topic please Troll?

  8. Jason Troll says:

    I thought the topic was billionaires that groom and influence candidates.

  9. Vincent Hanna says:

    Reading comprehension is a challenge. The topic is Richard Uihlein and the 2018 U.S. Senate election here in the state of Wisconsin. Happy to help clarify that for you Troll. Next time you need help just ask.

  10. Jason Troll says:

    Thank you for educating me, Vince. Thank you, sir may I have another.

  11. Vincent Hanna says:

    Anytime Troll. I like to help the needy. You certainly qualify.

  12. Jake formerly of the LP says:

    And boy, is Jason needy.

    How many kickbacks are part of the Fox-con, and is Uihlein and Hendricks in on them? Would anyone doubt it, especially since ALEC Queen/Hendricks puppet Vukmir was going out of her way to demand that the Fox-Con go through ASAP?

  13. Conspiracy Theory says:

    How many kickbacks are part of the Fox-con, and is Uihlein and Hendricks in on them?

    I’ll bet ABC Supply would be more than happy to supply building materials for the same cost to purchaser as if tax had been charged and pocket the difference.

  14. Bill Sweeney says:

    “Economic inequality begets political inequality and vice versa. Then the very vision that makes America special — upward mobility and opportunity for all — is undermined. One person, one vote becomes one dollar, one vote. That is not democracy. That is political decay.”
    Joseph Stiglitz, The price of inequality, Christian Science Monitor, October 17, 2012

  15. Jon Erik Kingstad says:

    It’s hilarious to see right-wingers outraged at plutocrats buying off “their” party. Do they think Wisconsin can remain a wholly -owned subsidiary of Koch Industries forever? If everything is for sale, why not “conservative credentials” as well?

    Somewhat OT, has anyone visited Manitowish Waters, Wisconsin recently? The Uihleins bought that town and have done a very nice job of gussying it up.

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