MILLION DOLLAR CHECKS: Court decisions, law change divert rivers of campaign cash from ultrarich donors to political candidates in Wisconsin

…as long as they flow through the party

A cartoon describing the loophole in Wisconsin campaign finance law that allows unlimited political contributions to flow to candidates as long as they first go through political parties.

By Peter Cameron and Molly Liebergall, THE BADGER PROJECT

The matriarch of the billionaire Chicago Cubs-owning family, an heir to the Schlitz Beer fortune, and the wealthiest self-made woman in America were just a few of the people who poured millions of dollars into Wisconsin political party coffers during the election year of 2018, according to an investigation of campaign finance records by The Badger Project.

A landmark court decision in 2014 and drastic changes to Wisconsin campaign finance law in 2015 removed the guardrails on ultrarich donors, allowing big money to go to candidates while avoiding state limits on direct contributions.

Voters in swing districts saw their airwaves and mailboxes swamped with political ads in the lead-up to last year’s November election.

“It’s negative attack ads and it’s nonstop,” said state Rep. Melissa Sargent (D-Madison), who has introduced a campaign finance reform bill. “Coming into their mailboxes, it’s coming on their TV. It’s on the radio. (Candidates) aren’t talking about themselves. Other people are out there talking about the people running for office.”

A photo of Wisconsin state Rep. Melissa Sargent (D-Madison), in a story about campaign finance in Wisconsin.
Wisconsin state Rep. Melissa Sargent (D-Madison)

Overwhelmed voters likely have that 2015 law change to thank.

That year, the Republican-controlled legislature and then-Gov. Scott Walker made many tweaks to campaign finance law, including doubling the amount of direct donations an individual can make to a candidate, and effectively removing limits on individuals donating to parties and on parties donating to candidates.

The Republican leaders who introduced that bill, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos of Burlington and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald of Juneau, did not respond to messages seeking comment.

Before those changes, Wisconsin restricted an individual’s total political donations to $10,000 per year. After the U.S. Supreme Court struck down aggregate limits like those in the 2014 case McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, Wisconsin courts applied the federal ruling here and the Wisconsin State Legislature deleted the $10,000 limit from state law.

Limits on party donations to candidates also were eliminated. And Wisconsin has never limited donations to political parties, said Mike Wittenwyler, a Madison-based attorney who specializes in campaign finance and other political areas.

The combination of the Supreme Court’s 2014 decision to strike down aggregate limits and the state legislature’s 2015 changes to campaign finance opened the floodgates for unlimited sums of cash to flow to candidates through political parties.

“Now the sky’s the limit, and some of these big donors are reaching the sky with their donations,” said Matt Rothschild, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a Madison-based organization that tracks campaign spending in the state.

While Wisconsin law allows one person to give a maximum of $20,000 per campaign cycle to a candidate for statewide office like governor or attorney general, anyone can write a million-dollar check to a state political party. And a few did.

Who’s cutting the big checks

Diane Hendricks, the Beloit-area owner of ABC Supply Co. and the wealthiest self-made woman in America according to Forbes, gave more than $2 million to the Republican Party of Wisconsin in 2018, The Badger Project found. That’s the most of any individual donor to state political parties last year.

Marlene Ricketts, maternal head of the billionaire family who owns the Chicago Cubs, and Liz Uihlein, one-half of a wealthy, conservative Chicago couple who have a home in Manitowish Waters, each gave $1 million to the Wisconsin GOP in 2018.

On the Democrat side, former U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl led the pack, donating nearly $450,000 to the state Democratic Party last year, The Badger Project found. Lynde Uihlein, a frequent liberal donor, an heir to the Schlitz beer fortune, and a distant relative to Liz Uihlein’s husband Dick Uihlein, gave $340,000.

In total, 22 people gave $100,000 or more to political parties in Wisconsin in 2018, most to the state GOP.


Political action committees, also limited in what they can donate to candidates, took advantage of the lack of limits to parties too. The PACs for Charter Communications ($65,000), WEC Energy Group ($45,000), and the Wisconsin Beer Distributors Association ($42,000) all donated to the state Republican Party, while the PACs for former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s National Democratic Redistricting Committee ($45,000) and the Wisconsin State Council of Carpenters ($46,000) both gave to the Wisconsin Democratic Party.

A photo of Matt Rothschild, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a Madison-based organization that tracks campaign spending in the state
Matt Rothschild, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a Madison-based organization that tracks campaign spending in the state

That big money found its way to races across the state including at the top in the hard-fought election for governor and all the way down the ballot to swing districts in the state Senate and Assembly.

In a losing effort, Gov. Scott Walker received more than $5 million from the Wisconsin GOP, while the eventual winner Tony Evers got more than $700,000 from state Democrats.

Candidates for state Senate and Assembly – both part-time jobs that pay $53,000 annually – are limited to receiving a maximum donation from individuals and PACs of $2,000 and $1,000, respectively. But parties can now give them unlimited cash infusions.

Democrats gave nearly $400,000 to Caleb Frostman in 2018, helping him win a spring special election for state Senate seat in Door County before ultimately losing it in the fall general election. State Rep. Jon Plumer (R-Lodi) and his Democrat challenger Ann Groves Lloyd both got more than $300,000 from their parties in their 2018 race that Plumer won. Frostman’s challenger in both elections, state Sen. Andre Jacque (R-DePere), received nearly $300,00 from the Wisconsin GOP in 2018.

The list goes on.

“It makes a mockery of the limits on direct contributions from donors to candidates, since donors can now launder ten times or a hundred times those limits through the parties,” Rothschild said.

While the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled the aggregate limit is unconstitutional, the high court and other courts regularly have upheld limits to candidates and political parties.

That means Wisconsin could apply limits here.

State Democrats, the minority party in both houses of the legislature for years, have introduced a bill that would apply the limits on individual donors to the parties. So an individual would be limited in how much they gave to a political party, and a party could only donate $20,000 to a statewide candidate like governor or $2,000 to a candidate for state Senate.

The law could close the pipeline of unlimited cash to and from the political parties.

But some question if these type of reforms do what proponents say they will.


Campaign finance reform in the last 40 years has “largely been one large lesson in unintended consequences,” said Rick Esenberg, the president of the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, a conservative legal foundation.

A photo of Rick Esenberg, president of the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, a conservative legal foundation
Rick Esenberg, president of the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, a conservative legal foundation

“The history of campaign finance reform has been a little bit like playing whack-a-mole with an endless supply of moles,” Esenberg said, noting he was not the first to make that analogy.

Reform like what Wisconsin Democrats want to do has led to the rise of self-funded, millionaire candidates, including Wisconsin’s Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, single issue-advocacy organizations such as the NRA and Planned Parenthood, and the relative decline of political party power and the voices of the candidates, Esenberg said.

“I don’t think those are particularly good things,” Esenberg said.

All those developments have yielded more polarization in politics, he argued. But empowering the parties to have greater control in the political process as institutional actors could be a moderating factor, Esenberg said. He noted how the institutional Republican Party initially did not want Donald Trump, a relatively unpopular and divisive politician, to be its candidate for president, but could not prevent it.

Either way, Sargent’s bill has little chance of passage while Democrats are in the minority. Until limits are placed on state political parties, donors can avoid contribution limits and send unlimited amounts of cash through them to whichever candidate the parties choose.

Biggest donors to Wisconsin political parties in 2018

A list of the 22 people who gave $100,000 or more to Wisconsin political parties in Wisconsin in the election year of 2018, according to campaign finance documents.

1. Diane Hendricks

Gave more than $2 million to the Wisconsin GOP

America’s richest self-made woman, according to Forbes, is worth about $7 billion. With her now-deceased husband Ken Hendricks, the Beloit native launched ABC Supply, one of the nation’s largest distributors of siding, windows and roofing, in 1982.

She has given more than $19 million to a variety of candidates and political committees in the last two decades, almost all of which were GOP candidates, according to Follow the Money, the campaign finance database of the National Institute for Money in Politics.

2. Marlene Ricketts

$1 million to the Wisconsin GOP

The Chicago Cubs are now owned by the Ricketts family, and Marlene is the matriarch. Her husband, Joe Ricketts, founded what is now TD Ameritrade. The family is worth about $2.6 billion, according to Forbes. Ricketts, who lives in Omaha, has given more than $20 million to a variety of candidates and political committees in the last 10 years, most of which were Republican, according to Follow the Money.

3. Liz Uihlein

$1 million to the Wisconsin GOP

The wife of Dick Uihlein, an heir to the Schlitz beer fortune, the Chicago-based couple founded the shipping materials giant Uline in 1980. Forbes estimates the company is worth between $700 million and $2 billion. Dick and Liz Uihlein have become major donors to conservative candidates in recent years. They are part-time residents of Manitowish Waters in Northern Wisconsin and have donated and invested a lot there. The couple spent at least $26 million in the 2018 election cycle, according to the New York Times.

4. Timothy Dunn

$500,000 to the Wisconsin GOP

Timothy Dunn is the Chief Executive Officer of the Texas-based oil and gas company CrownQuest Operating. He has donated millions of dollars to groups aimed at getting several Texas Republicans out of office in favor of even more conservative lawmakers, according to The Texas Tribune.

5. Herb Kohl

$445,000 to the Wisconsin Dems

The former Wisconsin Senator and Kohl’s CEO has donated millions? to Democratic groups and officials for years. In 2016, Forbes estimated his net worth to be $630 million.

6. Lynde Uihlein

$340,000 to the Wisconsin Dems

The Milwaukee-born Lynde Uihlein is a philanthropist and heiress to the Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company. In 1989, Uihlein founded the Brico Fund, a feminist nonprofit, according to the Notable Names Database. She has donated hundreds of thousands to Democrats in Wisconsin, according to Follow the Money.

7. Robert Price

$330,000 to the Wisconsin Dems in 2018

Robert Price, San Diego native and Pomona College graduate, is the Chairman of PriceSmart Inc., a warehouse-retail company, and Chairman of Price Philanthropies Foundation, According to the San Diego Business Journal. Price donated more than $600,000 to the Wisconsin state Democratic Party between 2017 and 2018, according to Urban Milwaukee.

8. David Craig Humphreys

$250,000 to the Wisconsin GOP

Since 1994, David Craig Humphreys has been the Chief Executive Officer and President of Missouri-based TAMKO Building Products Inc. He has donated to Republican officials and groups in both Missouri and Wisconsin, according to the Springfield News-Leader.

9. John Miller

$220,000 to the Wisconsin Dems

John Miller of Cedarburg is the founder and head of Arenberg Holdings, a venture capital fund, according to the company’s website. Miller attended Marquette University for his undergraduate studies and received a law degree from the University of Wisconsin Law School. Miller has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars, largely to Wisconsin Democrats, according to Follow the Money.

10. David Herro

$200,000 to the Wisconsin GOP

David Herro is a partner and deputy chairman of the Chicago-based investment company Harris Associates. Herro grew up in Milwaukee and Fond du Lac, and he attended UW-Platteville for his undergraduate studies before obtaining a Master’s in economics from UW-Milwaukee, according to Bloomberg. Herro has donated hundreds of thousands, largely to Republicans, in Wisconsin, Illinois and other states, according to Follow the Money.

11. Bruce Hendry

$200,000 to the Wisconsin GOP

Bruce Hendry is a Minneapolis investor who made his fortune in corporate finance, according to Twin Cities Business. Hendry has donated largely to Republicans in Wisconsin and Minnesota, according to Follow the Money. He has a family cabin near Cable, WI.

12. Richard Roberts

$200,000 to the Wisconsin GOP

Richard Roberts is the former chairman, president, and CEO of URL Pharma, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. Roberts is a donor to Republicans across the country, but mostly in Wisconsin, according to Follow the Money. Roberts is also a big donor to the orthodox community in Lakewood, New Jersey, where he resides with his wife, according to the Asbury Park Press.

13. John Shaffer

$180,000 to the Wisconsin GOP

John Shaffer of Burlington, Wisconsin is a retired real estate executive with a history of donating to Republican politicians, according to Urban Milwaukee.

14. Jennifer Pritzker

$125,000 to the Wisconsin GOP

The only known transgender billionaire, Jennifer Pritzker is an investor, philanthropist and former U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel whose family owns the Hyatt hotel chain and is among the wealthiest in the country, according to Forbes. Jennifer Pritzker’s net worth is estimated to be $1.9 billion. The founder and CEO of private wealth management firm Tawani Enterprises is a major donor to Republican candidates and the occasional Democrat, according to Follow the Money. Her cousin J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat, is the governor of Illinois.

15. Dale Leibowitz

$125,000 to the Wisconsin Dems

Madison resident Dale Leibowitz is the founder of the Purple Moon Foundation, which gifts mostly Madison organizations with charitable donations, according to the Wisconsin State Journal.

16. Jeré Fabick

$100,000 to the Wisconsin GOP

Jere Fabick of Oconomowoc is co-owner of FABICK CAT, a large machinery dealership. Fabick has been donating to Republican officials, some recent recipients being Scott Walker and Robin Vos, since 1994, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.

17. Bernard Marcus

$100,000 to the Wisconsin GOP

Coming in at #109 on Forbes’ list of the richest people in America with an estimated net worth of $5.4 billion is the co-founder of Home Depot. The New Jersey-born Marcus and his wife founded The Marcus Foundation, which has donated more than $1 billion to education, hospitals and Jewish causes. Marcus donated $7 million to help elect President Donald Trump, according to CNN.

18. Leonard Blavatnik

$100,000 to the Wisconsin GOP

A Soviet-born British-American, Leonard Blavatnik is businessman, investor, and philanthropist. And he’s the 59th richest person in the world, according to Forbes, which estimates his net worth at about $17 billion. Blavatnik is the founder and chairman of Access Industries, a multinational industrial group headquartered in New York.

19. Ralph Stayer

$100,000 to the Wisconsin GOP

Ralph Stayer is the owner of Johnsonville, the global sausage company headquartered in Sheboygan Falls. He owns it with his family, making the Stayers among the wealthiest families in America, according to Forbes. The Naples, Florida resident has donated tens of thousands to Republicans in Wisconsin over the past two decades, according to Follow the Money

20. Ted Kellner

$100,000 to the Wisconsin GOP

Mequon resident Ted Kellner is the founder and chairman of Fiduciary Management, an independent money management firm. Nearly all of his donations have gone to Republicans, except in 2008, when he donated $10,000 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and his wife gave $1,000 to Barack Obama, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.

21. Thomas William Smith

$100,000 to the Wisconsin GOP

Thomas William Smith is the founder and president of the Connecticut-based Prescott Investors. He resides in Boca Raton, Florida, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.

22. Robert Rasmus

$100,000 to the Wisconsin GOP

Robert Rasmus is another company head who has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Republican Party, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. Houston-based Rasmus founded Red Oak Capital Management LLC and Hi-Crush Proppants LLC, according to Bloomberg.

The Badger Project is a nonpartisan, citizen-supported journalism nonprofit in Wisconsin.

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