National News

The Most Powerful Conservative Couple You’ve Never Heard Of

Posted June 7, 2018 6:22 p.m. EDT

Few political donors are as influential, yet little known, as Liz and Dick Uihlein.

The Midwestern couple has joined the upper pantheon of Republican donors alongside names like Koch, Mercer and Adelson. They have spent roughly $26 million on the current election cycle, supporting more than 60 congressional candidates, working outside the party establishment to advance a combative, hard-right conservatism, from Washington to the smallest town.

Dick Uihlein (pronounced YOU-line), a scion of one of the founders of Schlitz beer, underwrites firebrand anti-establishment candidates who typically defend broad access to assault weapons and assail transgender rights. He has also bankrolled partisan newspapers and backed Roy Moore in Alabama even after he was accused of sexual misconduct with underage girls.

Liz Uihlein is the hands-on president of Uline, the packing-supply giant the couple founded together nearly four decades ago. Her own views emerge in dispatches she sends out in the company catalog: about her devotion to Fox News, her love for Hall & Oates — they once performed at Uline — and her disdain for marijuana. “Have the politicians gone mad?” she once wrote about the legalization of the drug. “It’s bad news.”

Perhaps nothing illustrates the couple’s determination to set the agenda more than their efforts in the Wisconsin town of Manitowish Waters. They have spent millions remaking the small community and buying up much of its downtown. In 2016, shortly before Uihlein joined the Trump campaign as a major fundraiser, she threatened to divert $300,000 in planned donations if the town didn’t move a boat ramp that was near a pavilion she had built. “I find this delay unnecessary and unacceptable,” she wrote to a local official, in an email with the subject line, “The Derailment of What is Best for Manitowish Waters.”

“I need an answer now,” she added. “I am done waiting.”

Married for 51 years, both in their 70s, the Uihleins rarely grant interviews. But in a statement responding to questions provided by The New York Times, the couple said,"We care about our community and our country and choose to personally support candidates that share our policy beliefs.”

They have their own brand of political engineering, with candidates and tactics sometimes audaciously distorting the truth. They backed an Illinois candidate for governor who ran a television commercial playing on a deep-voiced transgender caricature, and a congressman from Georgia, Jody Hice, who divines significance in blood moons that fall on Jewish holidays. They supported Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, who has suggested that reducing Alaskan oil flows could diminish caribou mating.

They have reinforced their message by supporting a network of broadsheets and websites that resemble news outlets but that make one-sided attacks against their opponents.

Those who get in their way are “CAVERS (Citizens Against Virtually Everything),” as Liz Uihlein said in a 2014 email to an official at the Manitowish Waters Chamber of Commerce.

Those who join them are well rewarded. A political action committee supporting Chris McDaniel, the polarizing Mississippi Senate candidate, received $750,000 from Dick Uihlein. McDaniel called Dick Uihlein “instrumental in the conservative movement,” adding, “there’s no way to overstate his importance.”

The couple’s spending this election cycle puts them atop all Republican donors listed in federal filings so far. Dan K. Eberhart, a Colorado drilling-services executive and major Republican donor, called them “the new Mercers.”

“There were all these articles: Who is going to fund the Bannon insurgency?” Eberhart added, referring to Stephen K. Bannon, the estranged Trump adviser who championed attacks on the Republican establishment.

“Bannon has blown up and is no longer a factor, but post facto, Uihlein is the answer.”

A Growing Influence

Candidates and strategists courting the Uihleins come to Uline’s 200-acre campus in Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin, just over the border from their hometown, Lake Forest, Illinois. Called the Lodge, the headquarters looks like a rustic retreat made over as a corporate office. Men wear ties and tattoos are frowned upon.

It is usually Dick Uihlein they want to see.

“The times I’ve been to Wisconsin to meet with him, he’s the kind of individual who will leave his office and walk down to meet somebody,” McDaniel said. “He treated me like family.”

Dan Proft, a Chicago talk show host who runs the Uihlein-backed Liberty Principles PAC, has visited frequently. He called Dick Uihlein an “across-the-board conservative” interested in “shrinking the size and spending and scope of government.”

Dick Uihlein’s donations this cycle include $11 million to three political action committees, mainly to support Kevin Nicholson, a Wisconsin candidate for Senate who fits the outsider mold the Uihleins prefer. A former Marine, he has never run for public office before, and recently questioned the “cognitive thought process” of veterans who vote Democratic.

Dick Uihlein also gave more than $7 million to PACs affiliated with Club for Growth, an anti-tax group that supported conservatives in 13 recent races nationwide.

He has backed Scott Walker, Wisconsin’s governor, supporting his 2016 presidential bid before rallying behind Sen. Ted Cruz’s. The Uihleins were among the top donors recruited by Reince Priebus, then the Republican National Committee -chairman, to close ranks behind Trump. Liz took on a prominent fundraising role; Dick was at the White House the day the former FBI director James B. Comey delivered his Senate testimony last year.

“Like a lot of conservatives, they bounced between a few candidates,” said Eric O’Keefe, director of Club for Growth’s Wisconsin arm.

Inside the company, Liz is more visible. In a corporate video, she is shown meeting employees and reviewing Uline catalog pages.

The couple work both in tandem and apart. After they each wrote $5,000 checks to redo a Manitowish Waters playground, “we called to see if it was a duplicate,” said John Hanson, chairman of the town board. “They said no.”

The Uihleins responded to questions for this article both jointly and individually.

“Dick is much more interested in policy and politics,” Liz wrote. “My passions are in investments and charitable work in our community.”

They started their packing supply business in 1980. “Dick quit his job, we’d just built this house, we had three little kids,” she once said. Their son Brian, a Uline executive who was inducted into the American Platform Tennis Association Hall of Fame — the sport is a family favorite — has said the business operation “went down to the basement, then it moved up to the playroom upstairs.”

Uline lacks a visible corporate communications department and has a moribund Twitter account, unusual for a company with more than 6,000 employees. But it aggressively advertises digitally, and by widely distributing its catalog, which features more than 34,000 items, from gift wrap to shelving.

The company’s business growth is evident. Uline, which is privately held, built a 279,000-square-foot headquarters in Pleasant Prairie in 2010, and a second, 300,000-square-foot office on the same campus in 2017. (State and local tax incentives sweetened a move across the Illinois border.) Liz Uihlein’s politics emerge in her essays.

“When we watch TV news, the channel is mostly set on Fox News,” she once wrote. She has also railed against the Chicago murder rate and the number of people on food stamps.

“You could tell which way she leaned,” said Brian Hillard, 39, who worked at a Uline warehouse near Allentown, Pennsylvania, one of 11 locations the company operates. “It wasn’t excessive, it was more just her two cents on things. I didn’t agree with them for the most part.”

The Micromanager

The couple own a summer home in Manitowish Waters, a remote Wisconsin village northwest of Green Bay that Liz has transformed into her vision of a vacationer’s utopia. Her hands-on approach has upset some residents.

“The town is pretty much divided in half,” said Karen Dixon, a longtime homeowner. “There are those who think she’s doing wonderful things. I think she is. I guess it’s the way she goes about it that sometimes turns people off.”

Liz is known for buying up businesses, spending millions on public improvements and dispensing unsolicited advice.

On the main strip, barely a mile long, she has offered beautification tips and free renovation services to fellow merchants — from paving parking lots to installing fences around dumpsters.

Bill Dietz, who runs a gas station and convenience store, said she came by one day and offered to regrout his floor.

Another day, she visited the Timberline Inn with two legal-pad-size pages of suggestions, according to the former manager, Eric Behnke.

“She didn’t like some of the shrubs out front and some of the trees out back,” Behnke remembered. “She thought that part of the building should be restained — a variety of stuff like that. She sent some of her guys over to help.”

The sale of the Timberline in 2014 highlighted the Uihleins’ penchant for managing the town’s affairs.

Richard Gilman, a former Manitowish Waters resident who built the Timberline in 1996, said in an interview that Liz purchased the property amid widespread rumors in the town that a Pakistani buyer was interested.

“Not in her little town, heaven forbid,” said Gilman, who served as an adviser on the sale. She appears to refer to a mystery buyer in an email to a chamber of commerce officer in 2014, shortly after her purchase.

“Do you think I wanted to own a motel like this? Huh?” she wrote, in an email that circulated around town. “I bought the motel as a defensive move for Manitowish Waters because the owner ... was going to sell to what several of us, including the Mayor, thought was not in the best interests of the town.”

In her email, a copy of which was obtained by The Times, she added, “You all should be happy there are folks like my husband and myself who can afford to buy old, dilapidated buildings, rehab them and put businesses in them without worrying about a profit.”

Asked about the rumored Pakistani buyer, she said in a statement: “I didn’t want to see one absentee owner replaced with another, with another investment doomed to fail because they didn’t know the economics of the North Woods.”

So rapid was the town’s transformation that the community held a forum in 2014 where her influence was a major topic of discussion.

In addition to the hotel, now called the Lodge at Manitowish Waters, her holdings include a coffee house, two shops, a spa, vacation rental homes and a restaurant. Her favorite $90 chardonnay is on the menu.

Hanson, the town chairman, believes her largesse toward Manitowish Waters exceeds $6 million, not including millions to a nonprofit developing controversial bike trails winding 17 miles along the town’s scenic lakes.

“I’m not sure she sleeps,” he said.

Hard-Edge Tactics

As Liz Uihlein ruffled feathers in rural Wisconsin, her husband immersed himself in hyperlocal politics touching on race and social issues. In affluent Lake Forest, Illinois, where 90 percent of students are white, he backed a school board slate led by the chief critic of Lake Forest High School’s first black principal, who had criticized honors classes for tracking black students into lower classes.

“I cannot sit by and watch the current administration sacrifice open, honest communication, sacrifice academic excellence and sacrifice my tax dollars,” Dick Uihlein wrote to the local newspaper.

Opposing gay and transgender rights was frequently a focus of his efforts. In one Illinois school district, he bankrolled a school board candidate who fought a move allowing transgender students in girls’ locker rooms.

“We saw slick, expensive-looking signs all over,” said Daye Pope, organizing director for Trans United Fund, which supported the policy.

The Uihlein forces drew sharp criticism for a recent television ad from the campaign of Jeanne Ives, the conservative challenger they backed in a primary against Gov. Bruce Rauner of Illinois. The ad featured a cartoonish depiction of a transgender woman, highlighting Rauner’s support for a bill permitting people to change the gender on their birth certificates.

“It was probably the most offensive thing I’ve seen in a state race,” said Pat Brady, the former Illinois Republican chairman.

Dick Uihlein said he “had no involvement with the ad,” and the couple said, “We value diversity in our community and at Uline.” Sometimes, Dick Uihlein’s efforts unsettled his own candidates. Mickey Straub, a mayor in small Burr Ridge, Illinois, who ran unsuccessfully for the state House of Representatives, was assailed for accepting support from Dick Uihlein, whose backing of Moore in Alabama became an issue amid a flurry of negative advertising.

Straub initially welcomed support from a Uihlein-funded PAC, but not anymore. “It sounded good because I didn’t have a big war chest, but I became no better than my opponent,” he said. “In the end, I would not do it again.”

Delivering Content

Controlling the message has become a priority for the Uihleins, a goal made easier by the decline of local news operations.

Dick Uihlein is the largest donor to Proft’s Liberty Principles PAC, which supports hard-right candidates and funded more than a dozen publications resembling newspapers, with names like North Cook News and East Central Reporter.

One North Cook News story assailed a Democratic state lawmaker with a headline saying she “dismisses constituents’ concerns.” Another target has been the Illinois state Republican leader, an ally of the governor, who is seen as insufficiently conservative by the Uihleins.

A nonprofit run by a longtime Uihlein adviser, John Tillman, also contributed money to the newspaper network, drawing scrutiny because of restrictions on the political activity of such groups.

“They are riding the fine line between legal and illegal, and coordinated and not coordinated, in terms of political messaging allowed under state and federal campaign finance laws,” said Colin Williams, policy director of Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. Tillman said his group had complied with relevant tax law. Proft said the publications are now funded by a private company. Disclaimers on their websites, however, say funding “is provided, in part, by advocacy groups.” Proft called that out of date.

Dick Uihlein also funded a political mailer resembling a newspaper in Texas, though it later emerged in a criminal trial that a candidate and his aides had misappropriated much of Dick’s $800,000 donation.

Brady, the former Illinois Republican Party leader, suggested that Dick Uihlein was an easy mark for political operatives; he also criticized Proft and his associates for spending Uihlein’s money wildly on long shots.

“They’ve just given him such bad advice that it makes him look kind of goofy, and he’s not: He’s a serious guy,” Brady said. “These guys are making hundreds of thousands of dollars off him.”

Proft dismissed Brady as “a flack for Rauner.”

In his responses, Dick Uihlein said he had long worked with Proft and Tillman “advancing conservative principles” and believed “they have both done so admirably.”

‘How the World Should Be’

The Uihleins want to bend the world their way.

Nowhere is that clearer than in Wisconsin, where the Republican establishment has one candidate to take on Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat and the first openly gay U.S. senator, and the Uihleins have another.

Their pick, Nicholson, was a virtual unknown until Uihlein millions made him viable overnight, starting with a $2 million donation in March of 2017 to a new “super PAC” seeking to elect him. At the time he had not even announced his candidacy.

Nicholson’s long shot status seems to be almost beside the point. The Uihleins have made big donations to various super PACs and other groups that support him and attack his opponents, perhaps testing the concept of whether big money — theirs — can spawn, nurture and deliver a winning candidate. Their civic engineering can be just as calculating, as the people of Manitowish Waters can attest. After Liz Uihlein replaced a primitive bandstand there with a $1 million pavilion, she bolted down new furniture to prevent theft. That made it impossible to clear space for bands.

“I went over and unfastened it,” said Barry Hopkins, a local motel owner who organizes free concerts. “Liz removed the furniture. It was kind of her way or the highway.”

Gilman, the former owner of the Uihlein’s lodge in Manitowish Waters, likens the town’s transformation under the Uihleins to the couple’s grander ambitions.

“She’s done in that community what they’re trying to do on a national scale,” he said, “affect elections and do their drawing of how the world should be.”