A suburban couple known for prodigious political donations gave more than $36 million to Republican candidates and conservative causes in the month before November’s election and the weeks that followed, state and federal records show.
Lake Forest billionaire Richard Uihlein was especially generous to the People Who Play By the Rules political action committee, which backed unsuccessful Republican gubernatorial candidate Darren Bailey. He gave the organization more than $13.9 million on Oct. 5 – the single-biggest donation he made that month.
Uihlein’s wife, Elizabeth, contributed to the losing U.S. Senate campaigns of Herschel Walker in Georgia and Dr. Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania, and to the winning effort of Kane County Treasurer Chris Lauzen, among others.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Sean Casten of Downers Grove – a target of the Uihleins’ political muscle – said the enormity of their donations reveals “significant problems” with how campaigns are financed.
“Dick and Elizabeth Uihlein shouldn’t be able to use their billions to try and have an outsized sway on elections,” said Casten, who serves Illinois’ 6th Congressional District and has supported campaign finance efforts, including the stalled For the People Act.
The Uihleins didn’t respond to interview requests.
Where the cash went
An heir to the Schlitz brewing fortune, Richard Uihlein cofounded the Wisconsin-based Uline shipping supply company with his wife. He’s Uline’s CEO, and she’s its president.
The Uihleins have donated millions to candidates up and down the ballot and across the U.S. through the years. Their largesse is detailed on the websites of the Illinois State Board of Elections and the Federal Elections Commission.
Richard Uihlein has been far more munificent than his wife, and that trend continued last fall.
In October alone, he gave $2 million to Bailey’s primary campaign, $239,200 to state Sen. Dan McConchie of Hawthorn Woods, $1,000 to McHenry County Clerk Joe Tirio and $10,000 to the Schaumburg Township Republican Organization, among other in-state donations.
But the $13.9 million payment to People Who Play By the Rules dwarfed them all.
That independent committee, run by conservative radio host and Florida resident Dan Proft but almost solely funded by Uihlein, targeted Democratic incumbent J.B. Pritzker with TV ads, mailers, texts and more.
Also in October, Uihlein gave $1 million to a group opposing a pro-union amendment to the state Constitution that voters ultimately approved and $25,000 to a group opposing the eventually successful proposal to create a mental health board in Wheeling Township. That effort was led by former township assessor Dan Patlak, who said he used the money to buy yard signs and send mailers.
“Anytime you have money, it helps to communicate your point of view to a larger audience,” Patlak said.
Uihlein gave more than $18.7 million to federal candidates and political committees in 2022′s last quarter, too, including more than $12 million to Restoration PAC, a super PAC associated with a conservative group called Restoration of America.
Unlike individuals and traditional political action committees representing labor unions, corporations or other special interests, super PACs legally can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money.
Restoration PAC dumped cash into five Chicago-area congressional contests in October, including $183,083 on ads and mail pieces targeting Casten in his battle against Republican Keith Pekau.
Casten significantly outraised and outspent Pekau to win a third term.
“You have to run a campaign that anticipates those attacks and ensures you’re communicating your values to the voters,” Casten said.
Anytime you have money, it helps to communicate your point of view to a larger audience.”— Former Wheeling Township Assessor Dan Patlak
Restoration PAC invested in federal races in other states the month before Election Day, too, including the Senate contest between Oz and winner John Fetterman.
Uihlein also gave $3 million in October to Fair Courts America, a super PAC affiliated with Restoration of America that’s focused on state supreme court elections.
And he donated $3.5 million that month to Club for Growth Action, a super PAC for a similarly named group supporting conservative economic policies and candidates. Its activity included spending $758,156 on ads and other communications opposing Democratic U.S. Rep. Bill Foster of Naperville in his successful fight against Republican Catalina Lauf in the 11th Congressional District, records show.
Walker, Oz and more
Elizabeth Uihlein gave $263,200 to federal candidates and groups last quarter, records show. Those donations included:
- A total of $30,800 to Walker’s campaign, a political action committee and a super PAC backing him.
- A total of $15,800 to Oz’s campaign and committees supporting him.
- $200,000 to Wisconsin Truth, a super PAC supporting U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, who won reelection in November.
Keith Brin, chair of the Lake County GOP, welcomes the Uihleins’ cash at a time when his party continues losing seats at all levels of government in the formerly Republican-controlled county.
“Donations like that from respected leaders like Liz Uihlein help us continue to rebuild the Republican Party in Lake County,” Brin said.
Lauren Beth Gash, chair of Lake County’s Democratic organization, said wealthy donors have an “utterly absurd” level of political influence. She blamed landmark U.S. Supreme Court decisions in cases such as Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which banned restrictions on independent political expenditures from special interests.
“[They] have allowed super wealthy folks to overcome the voices of everyday folks,” Gash said.
Campaign finance reform efforts haven’t caught on, however. The most recent federal attempt, the For the People Act, passed the House in 2021 but died in the Senate.
Still, overflowing campaign war chests don’t guarantee victories. Although some candidates the Uihleins backed won in November, many didn’t – especially in Illinois, where Bailey lost by a sizable margin. Pritzker’s campaign dramatically outraised and outspent Bailey’s, too – thanks to more than $148 million in contributions this cycle alone from billionaire Pritzker.
Every Chicago-area congressional candidate backed by the Uihleins or committees the couple supported was outspent and defeated as well.
Given the GOP’s failures in Illinois, campaign expert Kent Redfield predicted the Uihleins will focus on national politics “and to be only nominally engaged in Illinois” for at least the next two cycles.
“I would be surprised if they had a strong presence in state legislative races in 2024,” said Redfield, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois Springfield. “I expect both to conclude that Illinois is just not a good investment compared to the opportunities nationally and in other states to achieve their political and policy goals.”