GOP Megadonor’s Millions Go to Midterm Hopefuls Who Keep Losing

(Bloomberg) -- One of the top donors to conservative candidates and causes in the U.S. isn’t having much luck swaying elections.

Richard Uihlein, a packing supply magnate and a descendant of one of the founders of the Schlitz beer company, has amassed one of the worst track records among mega-donors in recent years when it comes to backing winning candidates.

His latest loss -- one of his biggest single-campaign investments -- was in Tuesday’s U.S. Senate Republican primary in Wisconsin.

GOP Megadonor’s Millions Go to Midterm Hopefuls Who Keep Losing

Uihlein, the top individual donor in the Wisconsin race, heavily financed most of the outside groups that spent roughly $10 million backing Kevin Nicholson, a businessman and Marine Corps veteran.

State Senator Leah Vukmir beat Nicholson, 48.9 percent to 43 percent, and will face incumbent Democratic Senator Tammy Baldwin in November’s general election. Vukmir had her own big donor backing her, roofing supply billionaire Diane Hendricks.

Outside groups, including those heavily backed by Hendricks and Uihlein, spent at least $17.8 million before the primary. But Uihlein spent much more heavily than anyone else.

So far this election cycle, he ranks third nationally in contributions from individuals to outside groups such as super political action committees, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. The $29.1 million he’s given is just behind the $30 million from conservative billionaire casino owner Sheldon Adelson and the $29.5 million from liberal billionaire Tom Steyer.

Primary Patron

Unlike most big donors, Uihlein spends heavily in primaries, where outcomes are often less predictable than general elections. He’s known for backing anti-establishment candidates who oppose abortion and support hard-right policies.

He and his wife, Liz, founded Uline Corp., a packing supply company, in the basement of their house in 1980. The closely held business, based in southern Wisconsin, has grown to more than 6,000 employees in North America.

Bill Broydrick, a Uihlein representative in Washington, didn’t respond to an email seeking comment. One of his top recipients, the super-PAC associated with the conservative Club for Growth, issued a statement on his behalf in February: "Dick is dedicated to promoting strong conservative and free-market values.”

Among the other losing candidates that received Uihlein’s money: U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore in Alabama.

Moore lost to Democrat Doug Jones after allegations that Moore pursued dates or sexual contact with teenage girls decades ago. Uihlein gave $100,000 to a super-PAC that backed Moore. Democrats said other GOP candidates should return donations from Uihlein because he supported the group.

Ulihlein lives in a leafy Chicago suburb and has taken an interest in his state’s politics. He bankrolled the majority of the campaign for Jeanne Ives, a conservative state representative who unsuccessfully challenged Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner for the Republican nomination in March, by sending her campaign $2.5 million.

The contributions came after Uihlein had backed Rauner’s first campaign for governor in 2014, donating $2.6 million, records filed with the Illinois State Board of Elections show. This year, Ives campaigned as a conservative, while Rauner has taken more moderate positions in a state that leans heavily Democratic.

Uihlein backed Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s brief 2016 presidential campaign, before supporting Senator Ted Cruz of Texas. Both men lost the primary to President Donald Trump.

Uihlein initially was part of the anti-Trump movement in early 2016, but his wife became a Trump fundraiser and an economic policy adviser once it became clear he would win the nomination.

The businessman may not measure himself by wins and losses as much as by his desire to make the political debate within the GOP more conservative. On that metric, he won both in Wisconsin and Illinois primaries, even if it could prove to be a losing formula in general elections.

Uihlein and his wife gave $23.5 million to conservative causes during the 2016 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. They’ve already far surpassed that total in the 2017-18 cycle.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.