Corporate giants pull funding from GOP lawmakers who voted to overturn election. Will Wisconsin-based business spenders follow suit?

MADISON, Wis. — A growing number of national companies heavily invested in political spending are distancing themselves or withdrawing support for members of Congress who voted last week to block the certification of President-Elect Joe Biden’s electoral victory. Some, like Facebook, Google and Microsoft, have announced plans to put all of their political donations on pause.

Others like Marriott, Blue Cross Blue Shield, AT&T, Hallmark, and more have announced plans to cut their funding to the members of Congress who voted to overturn the election.

Tuesday, News 3 Investigates reached out to the media contacts of five major Wisconsin-based companies with political action committees or owners who helped fund campaigns for Reps. Fitzgerald and Tiffany, Wisconsin’s two freshmen congressmen who voted to overturn the election on January 6.

Only one* of them responded to questions about whether they supported the votes of the congressmen they had backed financially, or if they had plans to pull funding to the candidates in the future. Northwestern Mutual said they planned to review their political spending policies as part of a regular annual process.

Reps. Tom Tiffany (WI-07) and Scott Fitzgerald (WI-05), were the only ones in Wisconsin’s delegation voting to block the certification last week. Republican senator Ron Johnson had announced plans to vote against the measures in the Senate, but later changed his mind after insurrectionists stormed Capitol Hill last Wednesday, forcing the joint session of Congress into a recess.

Political Donors

Rep. Scott Fitzgerald’s campaign for Wisconsin’s 5th Congressional District in 2020, which he won handily by 20 points over Democrat challenger Tom Palzewicz, raised about $1 million. Top contributors to his race are familiar names in Wisconsin Republican donor circles. Rep. Tom Tiffany reflected a similar list of top contributors during his special election and general campaigns, mixed with smaller companies local to his region in the 7th Congressional District. 

Richard and Elizabeth Uihlein, cofounders of packing supply company Uline, moved the industry giant’s headquarters to Pleasant Prairie from Illinois for tax purposes and own a summer home in Manitowish Waters. The couple represent one of the GOP’s heaviest-hitting political spenders nationwide; Richard Uihlein comes in 4th place for top donors of either party to outside spending groups in the 2020 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Together, the couple donated $11,200 to Rep. Fitzgerald’s campaign–the maximum allowed under campaign finance laws from individuals directly to a candidate in an election cycle.

Billionaire Diane Hendricks chairs ABC Supply company in Beloit, and like the Uihleins is a well-known political donor in Wisconsin and national politics. She also donated the maximum allowed to Rep. Fitzgerald’s campaign.

The political spending arm of the Milwaukee-based Northwestern Mutual financial services company contributed to campaigns for committees and candidates of both political parties, and spent millions on an organizing committee for the Democrat National Convention in Milwaukee. Their PAC sent both Reps. Tiffany and Fitzgerald $10,000 during the 2020 election cycle, according to FEC filings.

“Northwestern Mutual has a long tradition of working with policymakers on both sides of the aisle at the local, state and federal levels,” a spokesperson said in a statement to News 3 Investigates. “As we do each year, we will be reviewing our PAC processes and protocols to ensure they continue to align with narrow issues important to our business.”

Wisconsin-based Kwik Trip owners Donald and LaVonne Zietlow spent about $500,000 on Republicans in the 2020 election cycle. That included both Fitzgerald’s and Tiffany’s campaigns, as well as $200,000 to the Trump Victory fund.

Headquartered in Arcadia, Wisconsin, founder Ronald Wanek and his son and CEO, Todd Wanek of nationwide furniture retailer Ashley Furniture have donated hundreds of thousands to Republicans in the last cycle, including $8,350 to Rep. Tiffany’s campaign.

Larger Impact

Political contributions from corporate PACs or funding from private business owners spending directly on political campaigns is, in the scheme of political spending, relatively small. Individual contribution limits to a candidate are capped at $5,600; campaign finance laws place strict limits on what individuals and political action committees can send directly to campaigns.

Political science professor Ken Mayer with the University of Wisconsin-Madison says the impact of corporations and business interest associations publicly cutting funds from politicians is far more significant as a gesture than as a dollar amount.

You see some of these donors pulling back, reflecting the breathtaking and outrageous sequence of events on Wednesday,” Mayer said. “That becomes more significant as a sign that a key constituency or group of constituencies are backing away from you.”

The picture changes when shifting focus from corporations to wealthy individual business owners behind private companies, like many of the top donors to Reps. Tiffany or Fitzgerald. Writing massive checks in the millions to Super PACs with fewer donor limitations, spenders like the Uihleins sent tens of millions to PACs and committees in the 2020 election cycle, where money is often turned into ads for candidates paid for by outside spenders and technically unaffiliated with the campaigns themselves.

So far, public declarations have been largely limited to public companies and associations. It is possible that those large individual donors may decide that they too are going to scale back,” Mayer said–a shift that could portend an even more significant change in the political winds.

“We’re at the beginning stages of a reckoning.”

*8:30 p.m. update: Northwestern Mutual responded with a statement after report aired in 6pm newscast; no response from other four companies. All were given until the end of the business day Tuesday to respond.

View top donors to Reps. Tiffany and Fitzgerald’s campaigns here, and FEC fundraising receipts here and here.