FILE - In this Nov. 7, 2017, file photo, Wisconsin state Sen. Leah Vukmir stands in the Senate chambers at the state Capitol in Madison. Vukmir, a Wisconsin state senator and close ally to Gov. Scott Walker, defeated a former Marine who cast himself as a political outsider to win the Republican primary for U.S. Senate on Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2018. (Michelle Stocker/The Capital Times via AP, File)

Big question for Wisconsin Senate race focuses on megadonor

August 16, 2018 - 3:08 pm

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A week after accusing a billionaire donor of attempting to buy a Wisconsin U.S. Senate seat, Republican nominee Leah Vukmir is now hoping to persuade the same Illinois businessman to open his wallet for her campaign against Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin.

Vukmir's change of heart comes after she won Tuesday's divisive and expensive Republican primary over Kevin Nicholson, the preferred candidate of megadonor Dick Uihlein. He spent nearly $11 million on the race for Nicholson and now, as Republicans try to unite behind Vukmir, the big question is whether Uihlein will get involved in the effort to defeat Baldwin.

"I hope that he will want to continue with his commitment," Vukmir said in a radio interview Wednesday on "The Mark Belling Show." ''Let's face it: He wants to defeat Tammy Baldwin."

That's not what Vukmir was saying 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 and that's not what Wisconsin politics is about," Vukmir said on Aug. 6, a clear reference to Uihlein, although she doesn't name him.

Vukmir isn't the only one hoping Uihlein spends some more.

"I'll certainly be twisting his arms to do so," Republican Sen. Ron Johnson said Thursday.

Johnson is trying to unite Republicans behind Vukmir. Nicholson tweeted his endorsement of Vukmir Wednesday. Walker, a close ally of Vukmir's who didn't officially endorse her in the primary, called Nicholson a "class act" for the move.

Nicholson and Vukmir are both scheduled to attend a unity fundraiser organized by the National Republican Senatorial Committee on Friday in Milwaukee. Uihlein and Diane Hendricks, another billionaire who backed Vukmir, is co-hosting the event.

Johnson said he was optimistic "we will have a unified party," but he didn't know whether Uihlein would actually attend the fundraiser as a visible sign of support to Vukmir.

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

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 be more clear within days. He declined further comment. 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 address 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," group founder Doug Truax said. "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 on the Senate race primary supporting Nicholson and opposing Baldwin.

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

Wisconsin's Senate race has been the most expensive to date at $38.5 million, based on data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.

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