Richard Uihlein, GOP Kingmaker
Should one billionaire dictate the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate?
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.
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.
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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