MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The burning question in Wisconsin's U.S. Senate race isn't about what either candidate plans to do, but rather whether a Republican megadonor will open his wallet after a stinging, and costly, primary defeat.
Illinois billionaire Dick Uihlein spent nearly $11 million on the race for the losing Republican candidate. Now, as Republicans try to unite behind nominee Leah Vukmir to face Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin in November, the biggest unknown is whether Uihlein will keep spending, this time on the candidate he opposed in the primary.
"I'll certainly be twisting his arms to do so," Republican Sen. Ron Johnson said Thursday.
Johnson is trying to unite Republicans behind Vukmir after the expensive and divisive primary race. Vukmir beat Uihlein's favored candidate, Kevin Nicholson, by about 6 points Tuesday. Thanks in large part to Uihlein's money, 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.
There are signs that Uihlein will get behind Vukmir. He's scheduled as a co-host of a unity fundraiser organized by the National Republican Senatorial Committee on Friday in Milwaukee. Diane Hendricks, another billionaire who backed Vukmir, is also 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.
Vukmir said in a radio interview Wednesday on "The Mark Belling Show" that she had already reached out to Uihlein.
"I hope that he will want to continue with his commitment," Vukmir said. "Let's face it: He wants to defeat Tammy Baldwin."
That's a stark contrast with what Vukmir said in a radio interview 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," Vukmir said on Aug. 6, a clear reference to Uihlein, although she doesn't name him.
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.
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