Wisconsin’s Republican Governor Scott Walker hasn’t formally announced he’s running for president in 2016, but Democrats have already begun treating him like a threat. On March 9, Walker finished the latest chapter in his four-year fight against unions by signing legislation that makes it illegal for them to charge private-sector workers compulsory dues. Hours later, President Obama took the unusual step of rebuking a sitting governor. “Wisconsin is a state built by labor,” the president said. “Even as its governor claims victory over working Americans, I’d encourage him to try and score a victory for working Americans—by taking meaningful action to raise their wages and offer them the security of paid leave.”
Walker wasted no time responding. “The president should be looking to states, like Wisconsin, as an example for how to grow our economy,” he said in a statement. The exchange cemented Walker’s status as a darling of anti-Obama conservatives—and as a front-runner for the GOP nomination alongside former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. It was also a win for the person who’s done more than anyone to help Walker’s ascent: Diane Hendricks, the billionaire head of the largest U.S. wholesale roofing supply company.
Hendricks, whose ABC Supply is based in Beloit, Wis., is Walker’s biggest individual political benefactor. She’s given more than $540,000 to his two gubernatorial campaigns and to his successful effort to defeat a 2012 recall vote. She gave an additional $1 million to the Wisconsin Republican Party. Hendricks became a lightning rod during the recall after Walker’s opponents found footage of them discussing his plans to crack down on organized labor with new laws limiting union-organizing power, such as the one he just signed, often referred to as “right to work” legislation. “Any chance we’ll ever get to be a completely red state—work on these unions and become a right to work?” Hendricks asked. Walker’s reply: “The first step is we’re going to deal with collective bargaining for all public-employee unions, because you use divide and conquer.”
Since the death of her husband and business partner, Ken, in 2007, Hendricks has plowed millions into conservative causes. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit in Washington that tracks political spending, she gave $1 million to the conservative Freedom Partners Action Fund super PAC in September, enough to make her one of its top eight donors. Freedom Partners is backed by the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, who discovered Walker in 2009, when he was the top elected official in Milwaukee County.
Koch Industries’ political action committee donated $43,000 to Walker’s 2010 campaign, his largest out-of-state donation. The following year, the Kochs’ advocacy group, Americans for Prosperity, deployed volunteers to disrupt union protests against Walker’s first budget, which cut public pensions and limited the collective-bargaining rights of many state employees. AFP sent hundreds to knock on doors for Walker during the 2012 recall.
Hendricks says Walker, who first attracted attention in conservative circles for his decision to give back part of his salary amid layoffs of county employees in Milwaukee, won her over with his commitment to shrinking government. “It’s sad that we vote for and elect officials to run our state, run our country, over social issues,” Hendricks says. “I don’t believe they belong in politics.” She agreed to be interviewed during a meeting of her company’s managers in suburban Chicago.
Ken Hendricks epitomized the version of the American dream that Walker extols. A high school dropout, he started a business when he was 21. ABC Supply, founded in 1982, has more than 450 branches in 45 states and annual sales of $4.6 billion, according to its website. The family also owns Hendricks Holding, which invests in real estate, insurance, construction, manufacturing, and other interests.
Five nights before Christmas 2007, Ken went to check on an unfinished addition at the couple’s home. Diane found him lying unconscious on a concrete slab. He’d fallen only 11 feet but sustained massive head injuries. After his death, Diane took over as chairwoman of ABC Supply. She’s used her wealth to finance independent films, including The Stoning of Soraya M., about the execution of an Iranian woman. She’s also underwritten the WisconsinEye Public Affairs Network, a channel similar to C-SPAN.
One of nine daughters born to a Wisconsin dairyman, Hendricks told the New York Times in 2009 that her father wouldn’t let his girls do farm work. As a young woman, she spent three months working on the assembly line at Parker Pen before getting a job selling new homes, which didn’t require a broker’s license. She met Ken after he called her to arrange a blind date for a buddy. They married, became real estate investment partners, and built their roofing-supply business while raising seven children.
Their estate in Afton, north of Beloit, sits on 200 acres of woodland partly surrounded by a tall fence marked with signs reading “game farm.” Hendricks keeps a small herd of deer on the property. “I’m in a male-dominated industry,” says Hendricks, 68, who wears her dark hair long and favors black leather jackets. “They like to see deer running by with big antlers.”
Hendricks is now among the donors being courted by other aspiring presidential candidates. She says she’s met all the leading Republican contenders except for Bush. “There are a lot of great candidates out there, and I think Scott is one of those,” she says. “If he goes out here and he keeps doing what he’s doing, he’s going to be the person that I will support.”