Uihlein money runs deep in Daniel Kelly's Wisconsin Supreme Court campaign
Kelly’s campaign has received at least $6 million from groups associated with far-right megadonor Dick Uihlein.
Research contributed by Evan Vorpahl of True North Research.
At least five political action committees supporting Daniel Kelly for Wisconsin Supreme Court have deep financial ties to Dick Uihlein, the controversial billionaire owner of the Uline shipping and business supply company.
Uihlein and his wife, Liz, have become one of the biggest and most influential donors of far-right candidates and conservative causes over the last few election cycles. Uihlein money has funded anti-abortion efforts, attacks on the LGBTQ community, and efforts to undermine democracy and overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.
The five Uihlein-funded PACs include the political arm of one of the largest anti-abortion organizations in the country, a dark money group with a deep history of anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, and an anti-corruption PAC that is currently under investigation for illegally colluding with a GOP candidate, according to campaign finance documents reviewed by the American Independent Foundation. Collectively, more than $6 million of Uihlein money has gone towards Kelly’s campaign.
Uihlein’s political spending has mostly gone toward former President Donald Trump and congressional candidates in the 2018 and 2020 elections. The couple has also spent money on state-level elections, mostly in Illinois and Wisconsin, where the couple live and where their business is based. But millions of dollars in Uihlein money funded candidates in state Supreme Court races and other down-ballot judicial elections across the country in 2022.
U.S. Supreme Court rulings that rolled back reproductive rights, civil rights, and voting rights over the past few years transferred power to individual state Supreme Courts to have the final say on issues like abortion and gerrymandering. As a result, state judicial races have become major targets for political contributions; spending in these elections soared in 2022, and that trend continues in Wisconsin. The state’s Supreme Court race has become the most expensive judicial race in U.S. history.
“Uihlein’s involvement, and the size of his investment, speaks to this new era for judicial elections that we are in after Dobbs and court decisions coming out of the 2020 redistricting cycle,” Douglas Keith, a legal counsel for the nonprofit, nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program, told the American Independent Foundation. The program tracks special interest spending in state and federal elections and advocates for voting rights, campaign finance reform, and an end to gerrymandering.
A majority of Uihlein money supporting Kelly’s campaign is through Fair Courts America, a super PAC formed in 2022 that targets judicial elections at the state level. As the American Independent Foundation previously reported, Fair Courts America operates under the umbrella of Restoration of America, a super PAC formed in 2015 by the right-wing Christian advocacy group Restoration Action. Restoration PAC is almost entirely funded by Uihlein. Fair Courts America has spent $4.6 million towards Kelly’s campaign so far, mostly on ads attacking Kelly’s opponent, liberal Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz.
Uihlein is also the largest funder of the Virginia-based Women Speak Out, the super PAC partner of the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America. According to campaign finance documents, Women Speak Out has spent more than $150,000 on mailers, door hangers, phone calls, and texts in support of Kelly.
Women Speak Out PAC, a partner of the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, announced on March 23 that they are committing an additional $2 million in ads to support Daniel Kelly’s campaign. This would put Uihlein spending in support of Kelly’s campaign at more than $8 million.
In 2022, Restoration PAC was Women Speak Out’s largest single donor. The PAC gave the organization more than $8 million, which is more than it spent on federal elections that year. Uihlein gave more than $30 million to Restoration PAC in 2022, according to documents filed with the Federal Election Commission.
Restoration PAC has also supported at least two other super PACs that have spent money on Kelly’s election effort. One such organization is American Principles Project PAC, the super PAC arm of a conservative dark money group with a history of funding anti-LGBTQ political campaign ads.
In 2022, Restoration PAC was the top donor to American Principles Project PAC, providing nearly $4.8 million. The group has spent nearly $800,000 in support of Kelly’s campaign so far.
In the 2022 election cycle, the American Principles Project PAC spent $10 million on transphobic, anti-LGBTQ campaign ads in battleground states. A week after the Wisconsin Supreme Court primary election, the group spent nearly $300,000 on a transphobic ad attacking Protasiewicz and falsely claiming that groups supporting her campaign “want to impose trans ideology on our kids” and want kids to “start transgender therapies without parental consent.”
Americas PAC operates almost entirely on money from Restoration PAC. The super PAC is based out of Iowa and formed in 2018. The PAC, which creates conservative political ads targeting Black and Spanish-speaking voters, spent nearly $50,000 on radio ads attacking Protasiewicz.
People Who Play By the Rules PAC, an Illinois-based PAC founded last year by Chicago conservative talk show radio host Dan Proft, has ordered hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign ads in Wisconsin thus far. The PAC raised much of its $42 million last year from Uihlein, according to campaign finance data.
Last November, the Democratic Party of Illinois accused People Who Play By the Rules PAC of illegally coordinating with then-Republican gubernatorial candidate Darren Bailey. The group has spent nearly $450,000 on campaign ads related to the state Supreme Court race in Wisconsin, according to campaign ad data tracked by the Brennan Center.
Keith, the Brennan Center counsel, emphasized that Wisconsin’s Supreme Court election represents a new era for state judicial elections.
“Big donors who never before paid attention to state Supreme Court elections are now paying attention, and in the first big test post-Dobbs, Wisconsin shattered previous spending records,” Keith said. “After record breaking elections in 2022, this is just another sign that state Supreme Court elections have crossed the Rubicon.”
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.
Updated on 3/27 with information about a new ad buy by Women Speak Out PAC.
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