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Big question mark hangs over megadonor in Wisconsin Senate race

Wisconsin state Sen. Leah Vukmir stands in Wisconsin's Senate chambers in Madison in November. Vukmir, a Wisconsin state senator and close ally of Gov. Scott Walker's, says she has reached out to Richard Uihlein, a big Republican donor who backed her opponent in the primary, but has yet to learn how much support he will give her campaign. (Michelle Stocker/The Capital Times via AP, File)

Wisconsin state Sen. Leah Vukmir stands in Wisconsin’s Senate chambers in Madison in November. Vukmir, a Wisconsin state senator and close ally of Gov. Scott Walker’s, says she has reached out to Richard Uihlein, a big Republican donor who backed her opponent in the primary, but has yet to learn how much support he will give her campaign. (Michelle Stocker/The Capital Times via AP, File)

By SCOTT BAUER
Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The burning question in Wisconsin’s U.S. Senate race isn’t about what either candidate plans to do, but rather whether a Republican megadonor will open his wallet following a stinging, and costly, primary defeat.

Dick Uihlein, a billionaire out of Illinois, spent nearly $11 million trying to help Kevin Nicholson, a Republican who ultimately lost his bid for the party’s nomination. Now, as Republicans try to unite behind their nominee Leah Vukmir and beat Sen. Tammy Baldwin in November, the biggest unknown is whether Uihlein will keep spending, this time on the candidate he opposed in the primary.

“I’ll certainly be twisting his arms to do so,” Sen. Ron Johnson, a Republican, said on Thursday.

Johnson is trying to unite Republicans behind Vukmir following the expensive and divisive primary race. Vukmir beat Uihlein’s favored candidate, Nicholson, by about 6 points Tuesday. Thanks in large part to Uihlein’s money, Wisconsin’s Senate race was the most expensive to date, costing $38.5 million according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.

There are signs that Uihlein will get behind Vukmir. He’s scheduled to be a host of a unity fundraiser organized by the National Republican Senatorial Committee on Friday in Milwaukee, as is Diane Hendricks, a billionaire out of Wisconsin who backed Vukmir.

Johnson said he was optimistic “we will have a unified party,” but he didn’t know whether Uihlein would actually attend the fundraiser and show support of Vukmir.

“Dick generally does not show up to events, although he certainly has been very generous in terms of his financial support,” Johnson said.

Vukmir said in a radio interview on Wednesday on “The Mark Belling Show” that she had already reached out to Uihlein.

“I hope that he will want to continue with his commitment,” Vukmir said. “Let’s face it: He wants to defeat Tammy Baldwin.”

That’s a stark contrast with what Vukmir had said in a radio interview last week on “The John Muir Show.”

“I think it leaves a bad taste in the mouth of a lot of people that a particular out-of-state donor is spending as much money as he is to, in essence, almost try and buy a Senate seat,” Vukmir said on Aug. 6, a clear reference to Uihlein, although she doesn’t name him.

Uihlein did not immediately return a message left Thursday at his office at Uline Corp., the shipping and packaging supply company he founded.

Leaders of super PACs that received Uihlein’s money in the primary are also in the dark about his plans.

Americas PAC leader Tom Donelson said Uihlein’s intentions should become clearer in coming days. He declined to say more. America’s PAC, which is funded by Uihlein, spent $3.3 million to support Nicholson and oppose Baldwin.

The founder of another Uihlein-funded group, Restoration PAC, issued a statement that did not discuss what role, if any, it will play in the general election.

“We congratulate Leah Vukmir on a hard fought primary victory and urge all Republicans to unite behind her candidacy,” said Doug Truax, a founder of the group. “Restoration PAC remains opposed to ultra-liberal Sen. Tammy Baldwin and we are committed to defeating her in November.”

Restoration PAC spent $4.2 million supporting Nicholson and opposing Baldwin.

Baldwin’s campaign spokesman, as well as the Wisconsin Democratic Party, declined to comment.

Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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