In Wisconsin’s supreme court race, a super-rich beer family calls the shots

<span>Photograph: Eric Cox/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Eric Cox/Reuters
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When Wisconsinites vote on Tuesday in primary elections for a justice’s seat on the state’s supreme court, few will be aware that much of the big money pouring into this race hails from just one family whose fortunes flow from beer.

Related: ‘Stakes are monstrous’: Wisconsin judicial race is 2023’s key election

Millions of dollars have been injected into the battle by members of the Uihlein family, a manufacturing dynasty with roots in Milwaukee. The huge sums could help determine the balance of power on the state’s top court and in turn influence critical areas of public life – from abortion to voting rights, and potentially even the 2024 presidential election.

The source of the Uihleins’ fabulous wealth traces back to 1875, when Joseph Schlitz, the owner of a brewing company, died in a shipwreck off the Isles of Scilly. Control of the firm passed to four Uihlein brothers who were next in the line of inheritance and who went on to build the brand into the largest beer producer in America. Schlitz became ubiquitous under the jingle: “The beer that made Milwaukee famous.”

Though its star has fallen, Schlitz beer is still popular in the midwest, and the Uihleins have gone on to become even richer and more powerful. They have also diversified their wealth and in recent years have started to wield it as a political weapon.

Old poster for Schlitz beer
‘The beer that made Milwaukee famous.’ Photograph: The Color Archives/Alamy

Tuesday’s election for a Wisconsin supreme court position has been the target of huge amounts of Uihlein money – surprisingly, on both sides of the political divide. On one side stand the billionaire couple Richard and Elizabeth Uihlein, owners of the Wisconsin-based shipping supplies company Uline, who are on track to pump millions of dollars into the race in support of a conservative judicial candidate, Dan Kelly.

On the other side, Richard’s cousin Lynde Bradley Uihlein, a prominent funder of progressive causes, has already invested hundreds of thousands of dollars to support the liberal-leaning judges vying for the supreme court seat.

An expensive race

How just one family rose to such pre-eminence in political spending, only to become split between opposing factions, is a very Wisconsin story. The state once prided itself on its campaign finance rules that put voters before donors, bore down on conflicts of interest and corruption, and required openness and transparency.

But in 2010, the US supreme court unleashed untold amounts of corporate and individual wealth into elections through its controversial ruling Citizens United. Five years later the Republican-controlled Wisconsin legislature lifted the ceiling on personal donations to political parties in the state.

The result was an avalanche of outside spending on elections in Wisconsin, which in recent cycles has become an increasingly key battleground state with the ability, through its 10 electoral college votes, to make or break presidential campaigns. The abundance of money has now reached even the lesser-known contests over judicial positions, as Tuesday’s primary amply illustrates.

Four candidates are running in the primary: two conservatives, Kelly, a former supreme court justice, and judge Jennifer Dorow; and two liberals, the county court judges Janet Protasiewicz and Everett Mitchell. The two candidates who gain most votes in the primary will face off in the general election in April.

Related: Revealed: Trump secretly donated $1m to discredited Arizona election ‘audit’

Conservatives currently command a 4-3 majority on the Wisconsin supreme court, but with the retirement of one of the conservative justices there is now a chance to flip the court. That would potentially allow progressives to legalise abortion, push back extreme Republican gerrymandering in the drawing of electoral maps and resist any election-denying challenges in next year’s presidential battle.

With stakes so high, vast sums are already being channeled by outside groups into political TV and radio advertising. The Brennan Center’s Buying Time 2023 database has already recorded more than $6m of political ad orders for the primary alone – a statistic that might be overshadowed once the general election gets underway.

A slew of special interests have waded into the race, with an offshoot of the anti-abortion group Susan B Anthony Pro-Life America promising to invest six figures in Kelly’s campaign. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that Kelly himself has predicted that total outside donations could reach $20m – a sum that dwarfs anything Wisconsin has ever seen – bragging that he was the candidate best placed to attract the cash.

The Brennan Center’s counsel Douglas Keith said that the supreme court election was on track to be the most expensive in Wisconsin history, “and could very well end up being the most expensive in the country’s history”.

“It’s escalating rapidly,” said Barry Burden, a political science professor at University of Wisconsin – Madison. “If $15m, $20m, $25m is spent on this race it’s more than you see in governor’s races in some states.”

A family divided

Amid the millions being flung at the election, the Uihlein family name stands out – both for the sheer scale of its spending and for the fact that family members are fighting each other across the political schism.

Over the past decade, Richard and Elizabeth Uihlein have joined the top five biggest Republican mega-donors in the US. They have lavished more than $230m on federal candidates alone.

Among the politicians they have championed are some of the most notorious allies of Donald Trump. They include Ron Johnson, the Republican senator from Wisconsin, who ran a racially charged re-election campaign last November, and Marjorie Taylor Green, the extremist congresswoman from Georgia.

The Uihleins live in a suburb of Chicago, but their heritage lies in Wisconsin. Richard’s great-grandfather was August Uihlein, one of the four brothers who inherited the Schlitz beer empire following the fateful shipwreck.

According to the Brennan Center’s database of ad spending and official Wisconsin campaign finance records, Richard and Elizabeth have already given $40,000 of their own personal fortune to support Kelly, while injecting almost $2m more into the supreme court race through an outside group. Fair Courts America, a Super Pac largely bankrolled by Richard Uihlein, was created in 2020 with the aim of combatting the “woke mob” by shifting the balance of state and federal courts towards the far right.

Exterior of Schlitz Brewing Company with two men and a boy in suits and hats in the foreground, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 1888.
Exterior of Schlitz Brewing Company, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 1888. Photograph: Wisconsin Historical Society/Getty Images

Latest figures compiled by the Brennan Center show that Fair Courts America has already placed TV and radio ad orders of $1.8m backing Kelly. “Madison liberals are trying to take over the Wisconsin supreme court,” one of the Super Pac’s ads says. “That’s why we need to elect conservative justice Dan Kelly.”

Deploying her vast wealth in the opposite direction is Lynde Bradley Uihlein, another direct heir to the Schlitz brewing empire. Her grandfather, Harry Lynde Bradley, founded the Bradley Foundation, a rightwing powerhouse that has created a network of thinktanks and dark money groups that has helped transform Wisconsin over the past decade into a conservative bastion.

Like her cousin Richard, Lynde Uihlein operates largely in the shadows, to the extent that it remains unclear why she would have bucked the family tradition and sided with progressive rather than conservative causes. She has given $20,000 of her own wealth – the maximum allowed under Wisconsin law – directly to the campaign coffers of the liberal-leaning judge Protasiewicz.

In addition, she has donated $200,000 to Democratic groups in the past year as well as $250,000 to A Better Wisconsin Together, a political fund that funnels dark money – contributions whose origins cannot easily be traced – to progressive statewide candidates.

Related: Conservative donors pour ‘dark money’ into case that could upend US voting law

A Better Wisconsin Together has become the main financial backer of the two liberal candidates in the state supreme court race, pumping almost as much cash into the election as its conservative rival, Fair Courts America. The latest tally from the Brennan Center shows A Better Wisconsin Together ordering $1.6m of political TV and radio ads in the primary election alone.

Keith of the Brennan Center said that the financial injection of rival Uihlein money in the election raised a profound question: “Do we want who sits on our state supreme courts to be decided as a result of a fight between the members of one of the wealthiest families in the state?”

Matthew Rothschild, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a non-profit monitoring money and politics, said this week’s election was a “grotesque example of what happens when you get rid of campaign donation limits that restrict how much the super-rich can throw around.

“We’re suffering the results: the voice of the average person is being drowned out.”