Behind just about every divisive Senate Republican primary this year, an amiable Midwestern businessman is bankrolling the candidate who claims to be the most hard-charging, anti-establishment conservative in the race.
Richard Uihlein, a wealthy shipping-supplies magnate from Illinois who shuns the spotlight, has risen to become one of the most powerful — and disruptive — GOP donors in the country.
For years, Uihlein has given money to isolated races in the service of his anti-union, free-market and small-government views. But he has dramatically increased his giving this cycle, pouring $21 million into races from Montana to West Virginia to ensure more conservative victories in the upcoming midterm elections, Federal Election Commission records show.
The beneficiaries of Uihlein’s largesse include upstart candidates such as Mississippi state Sen. Chris McDaniel, who has made preserving the Confederate symbol in the state flag a centerpiece of his campaign for U.S. Senate. Uihlein gave tens of thousands of dollars to support failed Senate hopeful Roy Moore (R) in Alabama, doubling down even after multiple women accused Moore of unwanted sexual advances toward them when they were in their teens, FEC records show.
“Dick does believe in the underdog and likes to give people a chance no one else would,” said John Tillman, a friend and chief executive of the Illinois Policy Institute, a conservative think tank funded by Uihlein. “He believes in building mechanisms of accountability for lawmakers. And too often, that means holding Republicans accountable when they fail to put taxpayers first.”
Uihlein wields a unique influence in the age of big-money politics, by jumping in early in the primaries in an effort to clear the field in competitive Republican primaries. Unlike other prolific GOP donors who tend to sit out the primaries, Uihlein is making his mark early — and without much fanfare — to advance his preferred Republican candidate.
Uihlein’s checks come in amounts once unheard of for individual donations to a single race. In addition to giving direct contributions to candidates’ campaigns, he donates to super PACs working to boost their candidacies and edge out primary opponents by blanketing local TV markets with advertising.
“Dick Uihlein is kind of setting the tone for these primary races and shaping the contours of what the anti-establishment conservative donors follow,” said one Republican consultant who requested anonymity because he has represented candidates who oppose Uihlein’s efforts. “He seems to be the big fish right now.”
And yet Uihlein, 72, cuts an understated figure, personally avoiding the spotlight and saying little publicly. Neither Uihlein nor his Pleasant Prairie, Wis.-based company, Uline, one of the nation’s largest packaging and shipping-supply sellers, has a media representative. Requests for an interview through an informal family representative and the company were not answered.
Uihlein has described his conservative priorities as “freedom of speech, limited government, sanctity of life and, also, Second Amendment rights,” according to recent court testimony.
His wife, Liz, the company president and a political donor in her own right, has been more forthcoming about the couple’s political views in a regular column she writes in the company’s catalogue, which features packing tape, shrink wrap and hundreds of types of shipping boxes. Recent notes have warned on the danger of Chinese competition, the negative health effects of marijuana use and the detriments of the Federal Reserve’s low interest rate policy.
“Dick and I love reading newspapers and when we watch TV news, the channel is mostly set on Fox News,” she wrote.
Uihlein’s rise as a power player in the GOP has been greeted warily among Republican leaders, who are facing tough odds this fall against energized Democrats in midterm races across the country.
He has helped buoy some establishment-favored figures seen as more electable in general elections, such as Missouri Senate candidate Josh Hawley, who is seeking to unseat Sen. Claire McCaskill (D). But he is also scrambling the political order in unpredictable ways, as when he favored Kevin Nicholson in Wisconsin, a Republican aiming to take on Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D) this fall.
Nicholson, a former Democratic activist, was deemed a long-shot candidate until Uihlein gave him a fighting chance by pouring at least $3.5 million into his campaign, FEC records show.
“We have a primary because the guy who was a Democrat a few years ago found a billionaire backer,” said Alex Conant, a strategist for Wisconsin Next PAC, which is supporting state Sen. Leah Vukmir (R) in the race. “Without his backing Nicholson, Leah would be the presumptive nominee and the party would be working in unison to defeat Sen. Baldwin.”
All the while, the couple is testing the limits of what wealthy donors can do since the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which opened the doors for unlimited political spending by rich donors.
Uihlein was a modest donor to Illinois and Wisconsin candidates until the 2010 election, when he began contributing at least six figures per year to back state issues and candidates.
Of the more than $55 million the Uihleins gave to federal campaigns and groups over the past decade, $22 million came during the 2016 election alone, Federal Election Commission filings show, reflecting their recent surge in participation. They are on track to spend even more this cycle.
Uihlein has also stepped up his donations to conservative causes through the Ed Uihlein Family Foundation, named after his father, giving more than $45 million since 2007, according to Internal Revenue Service filings.
Uihlein was not an early supporter of Trump but came around after his preferred candidates, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, dropped out of the contest for the GOP presidential nomination.
He has continued to be one of the president’s top supporters, attending the inauguration in a black baseball cap that read “01.20.17 just can’t wait” and continuing to give hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Republican National Committee.
Allies of Uihlein paint a picture of a thoughtful and likable man who cares profoundly for his country.
“Dick is more interested in seeing people who will be good leaders, principled leaders and it’s more out of a deep care for the country,” said David McIntosh, president of Club for Growth, whose super PAC arm received at least $11 million since 2010 from Uihlein. “Every time I’ve talked to him, he has talked about how he really wants our country to be successful and have good leaders.”
But the causes and candidates Uihlein supports at times bring an edge to their politics, capturing headlines with their controversial statements about homosexuality and the Confederate flag.
In supporting Moore in Alabama, Uihlein backed a candidate who believed the U.S. Constitution was subservient to “God’s law” and promoted the impeachment of judges who approved of same-sex marriage.
His backing of Moore has made at least one of his candidates uniquely vulnerable. In Illinois, state Rep. Jim Durkin (R), the House minority leader, struck back at a Uihlein-backed primary challenger by responding with a TV spot claiming his opponent “teamed up with a child predator’s $100,000 donor.”
Uihlein gave $500,000 in 2016 to a minister in Minnesota, Bradlee Dean, who argues that judges who have strayed from biblical teaching around marriage are “magnifying lawlessness” and replacing “liberty with licentiousness.”
This spring, Uihlein was the primary backer of the gubernatorial campaign of Jeanne Ives, who ran an ad that cast actors as a transgender woman, a pro-immigration anarchist protester, a pink-hat-wearing feminist and a black Chicago teacher — all thanking the incumbent governor for fulfilling their priorities.
“Thank you, for signing legislation that lets me use the girls’ bathroom,” said the deep-voiced actor wearing a dress and holding a purse. “Thank you, for having all Illinois families pay for my abortion,” said the woman in the pink hat.
Uihlein gave her $2.5 million, state campaign finance filings show.
Few issues, however, appear to have energized him more than dismantling the influence of labor unions.
Uihlein made his first major mark on the anti-union fight in Wisconsin in 2011, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to defend state senators in aggressive recall campaigns over their votes to end collective bargaining for public employees.
That fight also marked the beginning of a friendship between Scott Walker and Uihlein, who was charmed by the Wisconsin governor over a dinner meeting at the Uihleins’ home. He became an instrumental supporter of the governor’s campaign against public unions.
In recent years, Uihlein underwrote a fight against public-employee unions in Illinois that has become one of the most consequential labor cases to reach the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court in February heard arguments in Janus v. AFSCME, on whether it is unconstitutional to require state government workers to pay union dues even when they decide not to join.
Mark Janus, the lead plaintiff in the case and a state employee who argued that the mandatory union fee violated his free-speech rights, is represented by the Liberty Justice Center, the law firm affiliate of the Illinois Policy Institute, which Uilein has funded for many years.
If the case is decided in Janus’s favor, it could gut the coffers of public-employee unions, an influential arm of the American labor movement.
Another Uihlein project has focused on creating conservative-leaning news sources.
One of his major charitable targets, Think Freely Media, funded websites that mixed local reporting with conservative political opinion. The sites had local names such as Lake County Gazette or McHenry Times.
As the Chicago Tribune reported, a separate political committee funded by Uihlein disclosed paying a group funded by Think Freely to republish “newspapers” with articles about the key candidates that could be mailed to targeted voters.
Tillman, who also founded Think Freely, said Uihlein is guided by his commitment to conservative principles and to effecting change through the candidates and causes he supports.
“He is pragmatic and realistic about every investment he makes, whether it’s in policy, politics or charitable giving,” Tillman said.
Correction: This story has been corrected to reflect the fact that Think Freely Media is no longer funding local news websites, and did not pay for print newspapers.
Anu Narayanswamy and Alice Crites contributed to this report.