Levers of Influence: How These Top Donors Back Conservative Causes

A protest against the Supreme Court's decision on public sector unions. photo: Christopher Penler/shutterstock

A protest against the Supreme Court's decision on public sector unions. photo: Christopher Penler/shutterstock

Richard and Elizabeth Uihlein started shipping supply distributor Uline in their basement in 1980. Since then, it’s grown into as much as a $2 billion company, according to Forbes. Lately, the couple have attracted attention as GOP mega-donors. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the Uihleins have given $28.4 million to conservative and Republican outside spending groups in this election cycle, making them the second-largest donors on the right, just behind Sheldon and Miriam Adelson. During the 2o16 election cycle, the Uihleins donated $19.4 million. The couple have also been active donors to state-level politics in Illinois, where they live, and in Wisconsin. 

This spring, Politico called Richard Uihlein "one of the most influential, but still little-known, political donors in the country," and said that his early contributions to GOP candidates "have been crucial to building a raft of anti-establishment Republicans seeking to emulate Donald Trump's formula for success during this year’s midterm elections." Changing policy on abortion and other social issues like transgender rights is a top priority for Uihlein and his wife, in addition to embracing conservative economic ideas. In June, the New York Times called the Uihleins "The Most Powerful Conservative Couple You’ve Never Heard Of."

What's received less attention is that the Uihleins are also active philanthropists, moving their donations through the Ed Uihlein Family Foundation. Between 2013 and 2016, the foundation made over $40 million in grants to a variety of causes, with much of this money flowing to conservative organizations. In 2016, the year for which the most recent records are available, the foundation gave $100,000 to the American Enterprise Institute, $125,000 to Americans for Prosperity, $150,000 for the Center for Competitive Politics (now known as the Institute for Free Speech), $100,000 for the Clare Boothe Luce Policy Institute, $150,000 to the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, $200,000 to the Institute for Humane Studies, $275,000 to the Media Research Center, $200,000 for the Leadership Institute, $125,000 to Philanthropy Roundtable and smaller amounts to other organizations. The Uihleins gave similar grants to many of these same groups in the previous few years. 

The Uihleins are among a handful of stalwart funders who sustain the national infrastructure of conservative and libertarian groups. As we've often reported, top philanthropists on the right tend to be very strategic in their giving, providing general operating support year after year to a comprehensive array of organizations that, together, work to advance conservative causes, including through policy development, legal advocacy, training young leaders, monitoring the media, bolstering grassroots activism, and more. The Uihleins started engaging in such giving over a decade ago, and as their wealth has swelled, they have increased their support. 

Like many conservative donors, the Uihleins are keenly attuned to making gains at the state level, and their foundation's biggest gifts have gone to the Illinois Policy Institute, a think tank which describes itself as "generating public policy solutions aimed at promoting personal freedom and prosperity in Illinois." In 2015 and 2016 alone, the Uihleins gave over $4 million to the group.

The Illinois Policy Institute is part of a constellation of influential right-wing centers that conservative donors have supported since the 1980s, when philanthropists such as Thomas Roe mapped out a long-term strategy to dominate policy debates at the state level—efforts coordinated through the State Policy Network that Roe founded in 1992. The group now has 65 affiliates and over 80 associate organizations in its network.

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The success of such state-level investments can be seen in Illinois, among other places, where the Illinois Policy Institute helped to shape and advance the agenda of Republican Governor Bruce Rauner. Meanwhile, the legal arm of the institute, the Liberty Justice Center—which has also received Uihlein support—was the main representative of the plaintiffs in Janus, a lawsuit aimed at undermining public sector unions that originated in Illinois and was recently decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in favor of the plaintiffs. The Uihleins have also contributed heavily to the Federalist Society, the main conservative legal organization, the Judicial Education Network, the National Right to Work Legal Defense Fund, and Judicial Watch—supporting a powerful web of litigation shops on the right that have scored important victories in recent years at both the national and state levels. On a different front, one of the couple's biggest single donations in 2016 was a $1.2 million grant to the Foundation for Government Accountability, a group that says that it's helped pass "reforms in 34 states that seek to free individuals from the trap of government dependence and to let them experience the power of work."

Richard Uihlein’s support for conservative causes hasn't always gone according to plan. Roll Call once reported that former Texas Congressman Steve Stockman convinced Uihlein to give him $350,000 through the Ed Uihlein Family Foundation. The money was supposed to fund renovating a building where young conservative interns could live in Washington, D.C. Instead, Stockman and his aids paid off credit cards and campaign expenses.

Uihlein philanthropy isn't solely focused on conservative causes. Donations have gone to a range of other kinds of groups, mostly in Illinois. In 2016, Teach for America in Chicago got $175,000, $600,000 went to the Church of Joy and smaller donations were made to other groups, including $10,000 for the Chicago Historical Society and Christ Church of Lake Forest, $25,000 for the Better Government Association in Chicago, and donations to the Field Museum and Shedd Aquarium.

The Uihleins have strongly held views—according to Politico, Elizabeth writes regular letters in the company catalog about the need for fewer regulations and less government spending. And their open and so far bottomless pocketbook is rapidly putting them in the highest tier of conservative donors.