While the Koch brothers, the Mercer family, and casino mogul Sheldon Adelson are viewed as the quintessential GOP donors, another billionaire has managed to spend tens of millions of dollars on conservative causes and candidates without attracting much attention: Richard Uihlein.
The $39 million that Uihlein has injected into the midterm election cycle establishes him as the second largest donor in the GOP, right behind Adelson.
With Uihlein avoiding media attention and public scrutiny, it will be surprising to many that such a little-known businessman has such a significant influence on the political system. He has ranked among the top GOP donors in every cycle since 2010, and he often donates larger amounts than his more famous rich contemporaries, including the Koch brothers.
In an investigation spanning several months, WhoWhatWhy has examined thousands of records to find out Uihlein’s background details, political ideologies, and donation patterns. The records also reveal the financial benefits and special favors that Uihlein has enjoyed as a result of his political donations in Wisconsin and throughout the nation.
The 73-year-old Uihlein and his wife Liz started a shipping and packaging supplies company from their home in the 1980s. The couple gradually expanded the business to become a leading shipping supplies company (under the corporate name Uline) and to accrue a massive fortune.
Before 2010, Uihlein was just a small political donor. But after the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling lifted limits on certain political contributions, the Lake Forest, IL billionaire suddenly began donating massive funds to Republican candidates and conservative causes.
Now Uihlein is having his biggest spending cycle to date. He is currently using his $39 million in political donations to fund major Super PACs, support conservative candidates, and impact the nation’s most contentious and consequential races.
The Citizens United Effect
The Uihleins exemplify the consequences of the Citizens United ruling. The 2010 Supreme Court ruling allowed wealthy donors and large corporations to give unlimited contributions to political candidates through outside spending groups such as Super PACs (political action committees). This apparently encouraged Uihlein to make big political donations as a way to influence public policy.
Before Citizens United, Uihlein was a small player making minimal donations to Illinois candidates. After the ruling, he exploded onto the political scene, donating large sums to conservative candidates around the country.
Since 2010, records from the Federal Election Commission (FEC) show that he has pumped more than $48 million into the political process and has been one of the leading GOP donors in every election.
Uihlein is also affiliated with the group that helped facilitate the Citizens United case. According to tax returns from the Ed Uihlein Family Foundation — a charity named after his father and funded by Richard — the Center for Competitive Politics has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of his charity donations every year since 2009.
The Center for Competitive Politics — now known as the Institute for Free Speech — is a group that focuses on deregulating the campaign finance system, removing campaign donation limits, and supporting litigation to make the case that political contributions should be considered free speech.
In the crucial Supreme Court case of Citizens United v. FEC, the Center for Competitive Politics wrote an amicus brief supporting the Citizens United organization.
The Political Ideologies of a Wealthy Donor
Uihlein’s reluctance to talk to reporters or discuss his opinions in public has helped him remain under the radar. The Uihleins did not respond to requests for an interview, and a list of questions that WhoWhatWhy sent to their spokesman also went unanswered. But Uihlein’s donations make clear his political and ideological preferences.
There is little question that Uihlein is strongly opposed to labor unions. Some of his charity’s largest donations have gone to the anti-union group known as the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation.
Uihlein also funded the Janus legal team in the recent Supreme Court case Janus v. AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees). In this case, public employee Mark Janus argued that he should not be required to pay fees to a union of which he is not a member and which espouses political views with which he disagrees.
The Supreme Court sided with Janus in a ruling that could harm unions by reducing the fees they can collect from public employees and potentially jeopardizing the services that they provide to members and non-members — such as collective bargaining for higher wage rates and safer working conditions.
Uihlein has also been an ardent supporter of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s efforts to curtail unions in the state. For instance, Uihlein funded Republican state senators who faced recall elections when the Wisconsin residents tried to overturn Walker’s collective bargaining policies.
The economic issues that are cherished by many wealthy Republican donors are also important to Uihlein. He advances these economic goals by funding the Liberty Principles PAC and the Illinois Policy institute, two Illinois-based organizations that support Republican candidates in the state and promote conservative economic policies throughout the nation. Both organizations focus on deregulating the private sector, minimizing tax rates, and eliminating most government programs.
But beyond economics, the social issues that motivate social conservatives also seem to stir his passions.
According to the tax returns from his charity foundation, Uihlein donates to several gun-rights groups each year, including the Second Amendment Foundation and the Gun Owners Foundation.
Uihlein also generated criticism for supporting gun-toting Senate candidate Roy Moore in the Alabama special election. As the largest donor to the campaign, Uihlein continued to fill Moore’s coffers even after the candidate was accused of “dating” underage girls when he was in his 30s.
Abortion is another social issue that motivates Uihlein. In addition to donating to the Pro-Life Action League every year, he opposes Republicans whose views on this contentious issue he deems unsatisfactory.
This was evident in the recent Illinois GOP gubernatorial primary. Though Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner had enjoyed Uihlein’s support when he ran for office in 2014, last year Rauner signed a bill that expanded abortion coverage for women who were in the state’s Medicaid program. Uihlein immediately withdrew his financial support for the governor. Instead, he steered his donations to Rauner’s more conservative primary opponent Jeanne Ives.
The Preferred Candidates of the Man Holding the Wallet
Uihlein tends to prefer outsider, anti-establishment candidates who harbor extreme views on both social and economic issues.
This preference for anti-establishment candidates shocked the Wisconsin political community over the summer. In the GOP US Senate primary between Wisconsin state Sen. Leah Vukmir and inexperienced newcomer Kevin Nicholson, Uihlein chose the outsider. FEC records show that groups funded by Uihlein donated approximately $11.7 million to promote Nicholson, and to attack Vukmir.
Nicholson was a respected Marine veteran with all the right conservative positions. But he was also an unknown candidate, had never been involved in politics, and seemed to have little chance of winning. Nonetheless, Uihlein’s support helped the Nicholson campaign attract attention and build momentum. Nicholson still lost in what was perhaps Uihlein’s biggest defeat to date. The donor then made amends to Vukmir by funneling funds into her campaign.
In the run-up to the midterm election, Uihlein has become a major booster of GOP candidates in several battleground states — where the outcome of US House and Senate races is likely to determine control of Congress.
With $5.5 million donated so far, Uihlein is the largest donor to the Club for Growth PAC, which funds Republican House candidates throughout the country. The PAC also produces and airs TV ads in targeted congressional districts, both to support House candidates and to attack their Democratic opponents.
According to records compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, Uihlein is also the main donor — about $5.2 million — to the Americas PAC, which encourages minorities to align and vote with the Republican Party. The Americas PAC is funding negative attack campaigns against Democratic Senate candidates in many important races — including Joe Manchin in West Virginia, Phil Bredesen in Tennessee, Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin, Robert Menendez in New Jersey, Claire McCaskill in Missouri, and Tina Smith in Minnesota.
Additionally, Uihlein is affiliated with the John Bolton Super PAC that hired Cambridge Analytica. During the 2016 election cycle, the PAC paid the British political firm to mine the data of 50 million Facebook users so the Trump campaign could exploit the tendencies and vulnerabilities of voters. While Robert Mercer is the primary donor to the John Bolton Super PAC, Uihlein is its second-largest donor — to the tune of $1.2 million.
The Restoration PAC: Uihlein Gets His Own PAC
The Restoration PAC, one of the largest and most active political action committees in the country during this midterm election cycle, is especially important because it is essentially Uihlein’s personal PAC.
Restoration was founded by Doug Truax, an Army veteran who is Uihlein’s friend and political ally. In 2014, Uihlein helped Truax compete in the GOP Senate primary in Illinois. After he lost the primary, Truax promptly created the Restoration PAC. Uihlein is its main donor, and the $5.7 million Uihlein has contributed to the PAC is more than he has provided for any other group during this cycle.
In 2018, the Restoration PAC has consistently ranked among the 10 largest Super PACs, pouring money into the campaigns of conservative Senate candidates, including Matt Rosendale in Montana, Patrick Morrisey in West Virginia, and John James in Michigan.
Uihlein’s PAC has also funded attack ads against many Democratic Senate candidates in pivotal races. Candidates that have landed in the crosshairs of the Restoration PAC include Joe Donnelly in Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota, and Jon Tester in Montana.
Reaping the Rewards: Lucrative Returns From Political Investments
President Donald Trump’s winning the White House was a culminating victory for Uihlein’s eight years of investments.
Uihlein actually tried to remain a “Never Trumper” for as long as possible. During the 2016 presidential primary season, a time when Trump was plowing through a crowded GOP field, Uihlein funded almost every other candidate in the field until they fell one by one and only Trump was left standing. But when the New York real estate mogul secured the nomination, Uihlein jumped on the Trump Train with consistent and hefty donations.
His wife Liz was even more devoted to the Trump campaign.
Whereas Richard seems to relish staying in the shadows, Liz is much more visible to the public and more vocal about her opinions. She is not reluctant to mix her duties as president of the Uline company with political advocacy. Scattered among the over 34,000 items in Uline’s online product catalog are entire pages devoted to Liz’s opinion newsletters, in which she articulates her conservative views about a wide range of issues. She also has a close relationship with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker; she helped provide funding and advice during his short-lived and underperforming presidential campaign.
Like her husband, Liz warmed to Trump only after all the other candidates had fallen by the wayside. She even served Trump in an official capacity as an economic advisor for the campaign, and both she and Richard attended Trump’s inauguration.
After nearly a decade of making large donations to the Republican Party, Trump’s victory in 2016 allowed the Uihleins to reap the rewards of their political investments.
The tax cuts promoted by Trump and passed by Congress provided a lucrative return for the donations Uihlein has made over the recent decade. As a billionaire, Uihlein is part of the small and elite group that should benefit from the GOP Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. With 83 percent of the tax cuts being granted to the top one percent of wealthiest Americans, the cuts are likely to enhance Uihlein’s own personal wealth by minimizing his federal tax responsibilities.
Trump’s deregulation policies also helped Uihlein. Most specifically, Uihlein benefited from the regulatory rollbacks to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). As a warehouse company in the manufacturing industry, Uline has been fined by OSHA four times in the last eight years for workplace safety violations.
Trump’s policies have rolled back over a dozen OSHA workplace-safety regulations and significantly reduced the number of OSHA inspectors. While labor advocacy groups are worried that the rollbacks can magnify the health and safety risks that workers encounter, clipping OSHA’s wings will help alleviate Uline’s risks of incurring regulatory fines for future violations.
On to Wisconsin, and Free From Taxes
And then there is the mutually beneficial relationship between the Uihleins and Gov. Walker of Wisconsin. Though the Uline corporate headquarters was originally based in northern Illinois, in 2010 the company moved its headquarters into the Wisconsin town of Pleasant Prairie.
After Walker took office in 2010, Uihlein immediately became a devoted and generous supporter. He was among Walker’s largest donors during his two gubernatorial races — one was a recall election — and also poured $2.5 million into the Unintimidated PAC that funded Walker’s brief presidential campaign.
The many rewards Uihlein has enjoyed in Wisconsin certainly dovetail with his avid support of Walker’s policies.
The tax benefits Walker grants to the Uline company have been especially lucrative. Rather than paying standard tax rates, Uline can capitalize on numerous credits and incentives to avoid paying state taxes and to instead receive a substantial refund check each year.
For example, Wisconsin’s Enterprise Zone Tax Credit benefits Uline and other large companies, as does the state’s agricultural tax credit that applies to farming or warehouse companies.
Claiming both tax credits — and a host of additional corporate credits — can decrease Uline’s tax liabilities so sharply that the company qualifies for a tax refund. According to records from the Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau, Uline can receive a total of $18.6 million from the government over a 16-year span.
While Walker supporters argue that providing these financial awards attracts businesses and increase jobs, critics contend that the incentives have failed and that the declining tax revenue prevents Wisconsin from improving its roads and schools.
On Wisconsin Land, Super Donors Get Special Treatment
Uihlein’s status among Walker’s benefactors and national megadonors seems to have afforded him special treatment in the state.
In 2015, the Uline company applied for permits to build a second headquarters in Pleasant Prairie. Both the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the US Army Corps of Engineers needed to conduct reviews and provide permits before Uline could build the second headquarters on the wetlands.
According to documents obtained by WhoWhatWhy, state environmental officials disagreed with a federal assessment that the Uline building project would harm the environment. The Corps of Engineers, unlike state officials, concluded that the Uline project threatened to disrupt floodplain drainage systems, remove mature trees, and harm the ecosystem of a bat species that was recently placed on the endangered species protection list.
But this drew the ire of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Rather than embracing the Corps’ assessment, the DNR leaders working on the Uline permit were resentful that the Corps was raising those complaints and delaying the project. In various email chains examined by WhoWhatWhy, DNR officials complained that the Corps was “misinterpreting the rules” and trying to “slow down the project.”
One senior official wrote, “if we need to go over [the Corps’] head, I am willing to on this [Uline] project because of the continued ‘issues’ at this site with the Corps.”
Email chains also revealed that other parties involved with the process, including Corps representatives and an International Jockey attorney, were surprised that the DNR was displaying such fervent enthusiasm to rush through the permit process. Often sounding far more concerned with getting the project approved for Uline than with resolving the environmental hazards associated with the project, the DNR successfully helped Uline get the permits required to build their second headquarters.
A review of thousands of documents and communications obtained through WhoWhatWhy open records requests has revealed certain consistent patterns demonstrating the relationship between Uihlein and the DNR. Though the DNR seems to consist of honest environmental and science professionals — its leaders are political appointees put in place by Walker. As a result, the staff appears to sense pressure to grant the requests made by the Uihleins and to keep Walker’s special benefactors happy.
This is most evident in some public land issues involving Liz Uihlein.
Liz has generated controversies in Manitowish Waters, a small town located in northern Wisconsin. In addition to owning a summer home and condominium complex there, over the years Liz has also purchased many buildings, shops, and restaurants in the town.
Some residents praise the millions she has donated to adorn and modernize the quality of the buildings and the appearance of the town. But others criticize her for asserting overwhelming control of the town and for making extravagant changes to its features, for example the way she altered the downtown area, modified popular biking and hiking trails, and pushed local shop owners to upgrade their establishments to accommodate her more upscale preferences.
Liz also seems to have received special treatment regarding her use of public land in the town. One incident involved Liz trying to have a boat landing relocated to a different area. Documents obtained by WhoWhatWhy show that the project got delayed because archaeological investigators determined that it would disrupt the preservation of a nearby burial site. Liz then sent multiple emails scolding local and state officials for attempting what she called a “ridiculous power grab” and for trying to stop her from making “improvements in Wisconsin.”
The perceived special treatment involving a land swap deal was especially troubling for many residents and groups in Manitowish Waters.
In 2015, Liz purchased a stretch of valuable public land to connect her condo complex to a nearby lake, known as Rest Lake. But she bought the land from the DNR in a very secret and illegitimate direct transaction.
In Wisconsin, public land sales require the DNR to make the land available for an open bidding process and notify the residents of the affected communities.
In this case Liz and the DNR failed to meet that criteria. Instead, the DNR sold the land in a direct transaction, kept the process secret, and failed to notify the public until after the deal was complete.
The ensuing outrage from the community was explosive. The DNR was bombarded with angry letters from private residents, state legislators, environmental activists, and wildlife conservation groups.
The outrage forced the DNR to table the deal. But the staff quickly worked with Liz to find another solution involving a land exchange. In 2016, Liz bought a parcel of land in another area known as Mann Lake, and then two weeks later she traded the parcel to the DNR for the Rest Lake land that she had wanted all along.
Again many community residents complained. Liz’s supporters argued that the Mann Lake property that she traded to the DNR — and thus to the community — was larger in acreage and greater in value than the land she was receiving. But disgruntled residents complained that the Mann Lake property — the quality of the area and the depth of the water — was inferior.
They argued that the Rest Lake property the DNR was giving to Liz was often used by the public for fishing, hiking, exploring, and water skiing. Despite these grievances, the DNR approved the land swap deal in a unanimous vote.
Richard Uihlein has also requested extravagant public land favors from the state. Over the last two years he has been pressuring the state to grant him a permit to remove a floating bog from the bay near his property, a permission the state has never granted any private citizen. Many lakes in Wisconsin contain floating bogs or loose islands that have become detached from the bed, which causes the bogs to float on the water and drift around the lakes. One such bog has been persistently meandering near Richard’s home on Kavanaugh Bay over the last few years.
Irritated by the nuisance of this pestering bog, Richard has been attempting to secure permits to remove the bog and anchor it. One such plan entailed moving the bog to another location on the bay and anchoring it down to the bed with about 50 metal pilings that would inevitably stick up from the surface of the bog.
But the state has never granted permission or assistance to remove a bog just to satisfy the eccentric request of one private resident. Indeed, according to state records, the only time the state removed a floating bog was in 1997, when a bog became lodged in a bridge, disrupting traffic.
The discussions about this project are still ongoing and the fate of the floating bog remains uncertain, but the Governor’s Office and various state agencies have been criticized for even considering such an unusual request.
Fighting Arsenals of Money With Votes From the People
Uihlein exemplifies why rich donors on both sides view political donations as financial investments. Funding elected officials often does enable the donors to purchase special treatment, political influence, and profitable policies.
This is especially true of Uihlein. Though he loses individual election battles on occasion, since Citizens United he is definitely winning the war. While President Barack Obama was in office, Uihlein helped Republicans control the House and Senate; now he’s helped put a Republican in the White House, and with that came the added bonus of a conservative Supreme Court.
This has enabled Richard and Liz Uihlein to enjoy many benefits at the local, state, and national levels.
But what has been so beneficial for the Uihleins may also be detrimental for those without deep pockets — the American middle class.
This also reflects a fundamental problem with allowing unlimited political donations through outside spending groups. The increasingly expensive costs of running campaigns renders our government officials susceptible to making legislative decisions based on the financial interests of their wealthy donors rather than on the urgent needs of their own constituents.
But shining the spotlight on the donors is an important step towards combating the problem. Uihlein has successfully managed to avoid receiving public attention despite wielding such excessive political influence. As the money-in-politics problem intensifies, it is important for the people to understand the donation patterns and political ideologies of the wealthy elites who are asserting such a big impact on the policies of the government and the conditions of the country.