Politics & Government

Rogue billionaires are giving the GOP and Democrats a migraine

Democrat Tom Steyer  (left) and Republican Richard Uihlein have poured tens of millions of dollars into the 2018 campaign.
Democrat Tom Steyer (left) and Republican Richard Uihlein have poured tens of millions of dollars into the 2018 campaign. Associated Press/Screengrab from Uline Youtube

Republican Richard Uihlein and Democrat Tom Steyer have poured tens of millions of dollars into the 2018 campaign. And their political parties are irritated about it.

The two billionaires have backed candidates and causes that Republican and Democratic leaders believe are detrimental to their chances in November. Uihlein, the founder of a Wisconsin-based shipping supplies company, has boosted insurgent conservative candidates over the GOP’s choices in several races. Steyer, a San Francisco hedge fund manager, has poured cash into a campaign to impeach President Donald Trump, an effort many Democrats view as counterproductive at best.

“Both parties have never been weaker than they are at this point in time,” said Jim Manley, a longtime Democratic operative. “It allows vanity projects to dominate the process. These wealthy donors are taking over functions that have usually been left to the parties in years past.”

While Uihlein and Steyer have ranked among the most generous donors in recent elections, they are stepping up their activity in 2018 as they try to pull their parties further from the political center.

Both have contributed nearly $30 million each to outside groups so far this cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political spending.

It’s unclear how much more Uihlein plans to give, but he’s already spent more than he did in the last two election cycles combined -- $24 million. And Steyer, after spending $74 million in 2014 and $90 million in 2016, has pledged to spend a total of $120 million in 2018.

Only Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam have outpaced them to this point, shelling out $55 million so far to two super PACs aligned with Republican congressional leadership.

Uihlein hasn’t picked many winners this cycle, and some Republicans think his efforts have only weakened their position in races across the country. Following multiple accusations of sexual misconduct against Roy Moore last year, most Republicans in Washington abandoned their nominee in his Alabama Senate race. Not Uihlein, who gave $100,000 to a pro-Moore super PAC.

In Illinois, where Uihlein resides, he backed state Rep. Jeanne Ives to the tune of $2.5 million as she challenged GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner in the primary. Rauner survived, but is considered to be one the most vulnerable governors running for re-election this fall.

Most recently, Uihlein spent nearly $11 million in the Wisconsin GOP primary to support Kevin Nicholson, a Marine veteran who had never run for office before, and attack state Sen. Leah Vukmir, who was endorsed by the state party. After the bruising contest, Vukmir now faces a tough battle against the well-funded Sen. Tammy Baldwin.

Charlie Sykes, a former longtime conservative radio host in Wisconsin, said the primary forced Vukmir to tack to the right and constantly reinforce her support for Trump, which could now weaken her in the general election.

“The entire race basically occurred because Uihlein was willing to dump in eight figures behind Nicholson,” Sykes. “He would not have been a legitimate candidate without that one donor behind him.”

“If we lose in November, a lot of people are going to look at Uihlein and say, it’s your fault,” added one Wisconsin Republican strategist involved in the race, who requested anonymity to speak candidly.

The next test for Uihlein comes in Mississippi where a special election to replace Sen. Thad Cochran takes place in November. Uihlein supports conservative state Sen. Chris McDaniel over GOP Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, who is serving out the rest of Cochran’s term. Republicans fear that if McDaniel emerges from primary, Democrats would have an opportunity to win the seat.

Uihlein has already given $750,000 to a pro-McDaniel super PAC, which has some Republicans concerned that more could be on the way.

“That is a genuine risk. In a small state like Mississippi, if he pumped another $2 million in before the election, he could have a big impact,” said one Republican operative involved in the race. “I worry about that everyday.”

Josh Holmes, a leading GOP strategist, said he thinks Uihlein has been a victim of bad advice, and is holding out hope he will be as active in the general election as he was in the primaries.

“If your advice is to throw $30 million behind Roy Moore, Kevin Nicholson and Chris McDaniel, you’re going to lose all that money. That’s an investment that’s akin to setting a pile of money on fire,” Holmes said. “It’s not the return on investment Republican donors should expect.”

Uihlein did not respond to multiple requests for comment. But one of his closest allies, Illinois Policy Institute CEO John Tillman, explained Uihlein’s donations by saying, “Dick believes in the underdog.”

“He believes it’s important to build mechanisms of accountability for lawmakers from both parties,” Tillman said. “He is pragmatic and realistic about every investment he makes, whether it’s in policy, politics or charitable giving.”

While Uihlein stays out of the spotlight, Steyer embraces it.

Through his “Need to Impeach” campaign, he has starred in his own ads, held town halls across the country, and frequently appeared on TV for interviews. In total, he plans to spend $40 million to encourage voters who want to kick the president out of office to actually vote on Election Day.

Many Democrats, including the party’s leadership in Washington, believe pushing for Trump’s impeachment ahead of the midterms will backfire.

“The message of impeachment revs up the Republican base,” said Sheila Nielsen, a Democratic donor from Illinois. “I’d rather have those people sleeping on the couch than coming out to vote. Let’s not talk about impeachment right now.”

Steyer’s efforts also have some Democrats wondering whether the billionaire is more concerned about boosting his own profile as he toys with a 2020 presidential run, or helping the party take control of the House of Representatives.

“It’s a bad strategy,” Manley said. “I’d rather see him put that money behind candidates than impeachment.”

Steyer’s groups have been less active for candidates thus far. NextGen America gave more than $1 million to Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, a progressive who scored an upset in the Florida Democratic gubernatorial primary this week. At the federal level, the group spent less than $700,000 on ads across eight races. In total, NextGen plans to spend $32 million on the midterms across 11 states, with an emphasis on mobilizing young voters.

Steyer also endorsed liberal state Sen. Kevin de Leon over Sen. Dianne Feinstein in the Democrat-versus-Democrat Senate race in California. But he has yet to spend money on the election aside from a personal donation to de León’s campaign.

From Steyer’s perspective, the Democratic Party does not have a history of success in the midterms because it has failed to get its core voters to the polls. He and his team are convinced the prospect of removing a despised figure like Trump from office will be a more potent turnout tool for the party’s base than any policy area.

“Democrats need to stop worrying about Republicans, and worry about our base voters that continuously don’t show up to vote for midterm elections,” said Kevin Mack, a political adviser to Steyer.

Adam Wollner: 202-383-6020, @AdamWollner
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