10 Super-Rich People Dominate Giving to Super PACs Active in Midterm Elections for Congress

• Feb 23, 2018

Fredreka Schouten and Christopher Schnaars, USA Today

Donations from 10 super-rich individuals account for more than 20% of the money filling the bank accounts of federal super PACs, a USA TODAY analysis shows, highlighting how a small group of wealthy patrons is racing to influence which party will control Congress for the remainder of President Trump’s first term.

Leading the pack: Illinois-based packaging and shipping magnate Richard "Dick" Uihlein, who has donated nearly $19.5 million so far to groups working to elect conservative Republicans to Congress from Mississippi to Montana. Uihlein-funded groups have trained much of their millions on advertising in Wisconsin to attack first-term Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin and to boost a political newcomer, Republican Kevin Nicholson.

Uihlein is on track to fast outpace the $19.6 million he spent on federal races during the 2016 election, according to a tally by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. His midterm donations now surpass those of Tom Steyer, a Democratic billionaire who has dominated political spending for the last two election cycles. Steyer has donated $15.7 million to his super PAC this year, making him the second-largest donor so far and the top Democrat.

In all, super PAC donors have contributed $284.9 million to the more than 500 super PACs that have raised any money in the 2018 election cycle. That’s nearly twice the $145.8 million that donors gave to these kinds of groups at this point during the last congressional midterm elections in 2014.

Super PACs can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money from virtually any source to influence elections.

The USA TODAY analysis examined the top individual political donations to super PACs between Jan. 1, 2017, and Jan. 31, 2018, the most recent data available from the Federal Election Commission. Ten people — five Democrats and five Republicans —contributed at least $2 million apiece to super PACs during that period, giving a total of $59.7 million.

The early fundraising surge underscores the intensity of this year’s battle for control of Congress. The party in power typically loses seats in Congress in a new president’s first term, and Trump’s surprise 2016 victory has angered and energized Democratic donors and activists. Democrats need to add just two seats to seize control of the Senate and 24 to have the majority in the House.

Democrats face a daunting Senate map, however. They are defending 26 seats, 10 in states Trump won.

More early activity than usual

Michael Malbin, executive director of the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute, said the early scramble to shape this year’s midterms mirrors the jockeying typical in presidential contests, in which candidates race to build massive super PAC war chests as a sign of financial strength.

“We never used to see this kind of spending in congressional elections at this time in the cycle,” he said. The mega-donors playing an early role in midterms will have enormous sway in “encouraging new candidates to emerge” and “a disproportionate influence on which issues are discussed” in the election, he said.

In Wisconsin, Uihlein drew attention when he made a $2 million donation in late March 2017 to a super PAC encouraging Nicholson to run. The money landed months before the businessman and Marine veteran announced his candidacy.

Uihlein has since plowed more money into efforts to elect Nicholson and to attack Baldwin, leading Democrats in the state to charge that Uihlein is trying to “buy” the Senate seat. (Nicholson faces a veteran state legislator, Leah Vukmir, in the August Republican primary.)

“No one had heard of Kevin Nicholson, but suddenly this gift was available,” Barry Burden, who oversees an election research center at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, said of the Uihlein money.  “I doubt that Kevin Nicholson would be a candidate — at least not a serious one — if he didn’t have the Uihlein family backing.”

Nicholson’s aides counter he has broad support from conservative Republicans, pointing to endorsements from Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during the George W. Bush administration.

 “As a combat Marine and a true outsider, Kevin Nicholson didn’t ask anyone’s permission to run for Senate,” Nicholson spokesman Brandon Moody said in an email to USA TODAY. “He has been grateful for the support he has received across the spectrum, from the 6000 grassroots Wisconsin donors to conservative leaders like Ted Cruz, Ambassador John Bolton and Mr. Uihlein.”

Although he lives in Lake Forest, Ill., Uihlein in no stranger to Wisconsin politics. The packaging and shipping company he co-owns, Uline Corp., is based in the Badger State, and his family helped found the famed Milwaukee-based beer company, Schlitz Brewing. He provided financial support both to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s short-lived 2016 presidential campaign and to Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson’s successful Senate reelection campaign that year.

But his giving in 2018 has vaunted the free-market, small-government advocate to the top ranks of political givers at the national level. Among the biggest beneficiaries of his spending: The Club for Growth group and its affiliates working to elect Republican Senate candidates in Ohio and Missouri. In all, they have received a total of $7.25 million from Uihlein since last January.

Uihlein did not respond to interview requests, but his Washington spokesman Bill Broydrick this week forwarded a statement from the Club for Growth, praising him as a “great American” who is “dedicated to promoting strong conservative and free-market values.”

Other wealthy donors ramping up their contributions include Steyer, a former hedge-fund manager from San Francisco, who made combating climate change the focus of his early political activity. He spent nearly $90 million during the 2016 election and has donated $15.7 million so far in this cycle to his own super PAC, NextGen Climate Action Committee.

He also has pledged to spend $30 million to increase millennial voter turnout to help Democrats and is funding a multi-million-dollar advertising campaign that calls for Trump’s impeachment.

Steyer, who has flirted with making a political bid of his own in California, is not shy about talking about his spending or electoral goals. At a packed news conference last month in Washington, he called the midterms a "fierce battle for the soul of America" and said his youth mobilization effort would be the country's largest. 

Billionaire industrialist Charles Koch in among the top 10 super PAC donors of the 2018 midterms, giving $3 million through his personal trust to Freedom Partners. (Photo: 2016 PHOTO BY CRAIG A. HACKER, FOR USA TODAY)

The super PAC spending gives the public a small snapshot of the money and prominent players in federal politics. Millions more will be spent on congressional races through politically active nonprofit groups that do not have to disclose their donors' identities.

Billionaire industrialist Charles Koch, for instance, is among the top 10 super PAC donors of the 2018 midterms, giving $3 million through his personal trust to Freedom Partners Action Fund, a super PAC aligned with his political empire. The donation, however, is a tiny slice of the $400 million his conservative donor network has committed to spend on politics and policy during the two-year election cycle.

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