House divided: The megadonor couple battling in the GOP's civil war
Dick and Liz Uihlein have landed on opposite sides of some of the main fights illustrating the divides in the Republican Party.
When Ronna McDaniel was looking to sew up support for her reelection as Republican National Committee chair, she announced an endorsement from one of the GOP’s most influential megadonors: Liz Uihlein.
Hours later, McDaniel’s conservative insurgent rival, Harmeet Dhillon, announced her own new backer: Dick Uihlein, Liz’s husband.
The RNC contest is only the most recent party fight that has seen the husband-and-wife duo land on opposite sides. After Liz Uihlein came out in support of former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch in the 2022 Wisconsin governor’s race, Dick Uihlein released a public statement praising rival Kevin Nicholson as an “outsider” who “can shake things up.” And while Dick bankrolled bomb-throwing conservative Josh Mandel in last year’s Ohio Senate primary, Liz financed two other candidates — one of whom, Jane Timken, was the former state party chairwoman.
“Dick is super hard core, and his wife is not so much,” said former Illinois Rep. Joe Walsh, a past Dick Uihlein ally who was elected in the 2010 conservative wave. Candidates from “the hard right and the tea party and blow it up and burn it down — those were the kind of politicians that Dick always supported. His wife was a bit more establishment. So, they would often disagree on certain candidates.”
The split between the Uihleins — the most powerful donor couple in the GOP, if not all of politics — has come to represent the rift cleaving the Republican Party writ large. While Liz has spent millions of dollars buttressing the party hierarchy, including candidates and super PACs backed by GOP leaders, Dick has invested even more heavily in tearing it down, pouring millions into far-right primary challengers and insurgent groups.
Those close to the Uihleins say they have a warm and affectionate marriage, despite their differences over politics. Friends say their personalities complement one another: She is outgoing and engaging, he more quiet and reserved, and sometimes prickly.
The two worked hand-in-hand to launch a shipping supplies company out of their basement in 1980, starting out selling carton resizers. According to Forbes, the southeastern Wisconsin-based Uline — which now sells goods out of an 800-plus page catalog, with items ranging from beer carriers to butcher paper — brought in $6.2 billion in revenue last year.
The couple’s combined political giving to federal candidates and causes over the last decade tops $230 million, plus tens of millions more to state-level groups, according to campaign finance records. Dick is the more active donor, but Liz has made millions of dollars’ worth of contributions in her own right.
The Uihleins started contributing to candidates in the 1990s, and their diverging views on politics soon showed through.
Dick donated to a pair of far-right candidates during the 1996 Republican primary, Pat Buchanan and Alan Keyes. Liz, meanwhile, later revealed that she voted for Democrat Bill Clinton in the 1992 and 1996 elections.
Their donations began to soar after the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision easing campaign finance restrictions, but the beneficiaries of their largesse were almost immediately at odds. Dick — who has privately complained that Republican leaders give in too easily — funneled vast sums to anti-establishment groups like the anti-tax Club for Growth and Senate Conservatives Action, two groups that frequently clashed with party leadership over contested GOP primaries.
Dick would later become the primary funder of Restoration PAC, a super PAC that, according to its website, exists to support “truly conservative candidates, and [oppose] Leftists and the woke agenda.”
Liz, however, focused her giving on mainstream party organizations: During last year’s midterm election, she was a major donor to the RNC, the GOP’s House and Senate campaign arms, and to super PACs aligned with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Those who know the Uihleins — neither of whom responded to requests for comment — say they look for starkly different things when it comes to deciding where to direct their funds. They describe Liz as driven by pragmatism, methodically seeking out the Republican most likely to win.
She has doled out cash to party organizations that protect sitting Republican incumbents, like the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the McConnell-linked Senate Leadership Fund. And Liz is known for maintaining close ties with the party hierarchy. One of her top aides, Tony Povkovich, is serving on the host committee for the 2024 Republican National Convention, to be held in Milwaukee, Wis. According to one person familiar with the discussions, she has offered to financially support the convention.
Liz has also attended RNC finance events, and during the 2016 campaign, then-RNC Chair Reince Priebus tapped her to serve on a fundraising committee benefiting Donald Trump.
Dick, by contrast, is drawn to conservative purists, anti-establishment outsiders and underdogs — some of whom are seen as lost causes.
Over the years, he has been criticized for squandering millions of dollars on failed longshot candidates, including several in 2022, like Illinois gubernatorial candidate Darren Bailey and Arkansas Senate hopeful Jake Bequette. He has funded unsuccessful primary challenges against a number of sitting GOP officeholders, including former Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, Arkansas Sen. John Boozman and the late Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran.
Dick’s anti-establishment bent has strained his relationship with Republican leaders — many of whom resent him for financing primary challengers against incumbents and for bolstering candidates they contend hurt the party’s prospects. A single seven-figure donation from Dick, senior Republicans complain, can become a serious headache.
Some top Republicans say they don’t bother reaching out to Dick and only work with Liz, though Dick has on occasion cut six-figure checks to the main party committees in Washington.
“She likes to be a much more influential Republican Party donor,” Walsh said. “Dick could give a fuck about any of that.”
Those who’ve interacted with the Uihleins say they make their spending decisions independent from one another, take their meetings with candidates separately and rely on different teams of gatekeepers.
While Liz is known to lean on Povkovich, Dick is advised by a team of hard-edged conservative activists including Dan Proft, a radio show host who waged an unsuccessful 2010 campaign for Illinois governor, and John Tillman, who leads the libertarian-leaning Illinois Policy Institute. Brian Timpone, a former TV reporter who oversees a network of conservative websites, is another key figure in Dick’s orbit.
Candidates pitching Liz must show they have a path to victory. Those appealing to Dick must prove they are true believers.
“They come at it from two different perspectives. Dick is ideological and insurgent-focused, and Liz is just more about issues and about mechanics of the campaign and, ‘How are you going to win?’ and ‘What’s your message?’” said Keith Gilkes, a longtime Wisconsin-based GOP strategist. “They’re completely opposite people in terms of the questions and conversations with candidates.”
That has caused strains at times. According to two people familiar with the discussions, Liz privately expressed anger over her husband’s decision to spend millions of dollars to bolster disgraced ex-Gov. Eric Greitens during last year’s Republican Senate primary in Missouri. Greitens, who stepped down from the governorship after being accused of sexually assaulting his hairdresser, was aggressively opposed in the primary by McConnell’s political operation. Greitens ended up losing the nominating fight.
Walsh recalled that Dick “would often awkwardly laugh about, or talk about, the fact that there’s tension at home because she’s supporting somebody and he’s supporting somebody else.”
Liz appeared to address the divide between her and her husband following the 2020 election, when she wrote a post on her company’s website arguing that families could survive their political differences. Even though she voted for Clinton in the ‘90s, Liz recounted, her marriage “still survived.”
“Family,” she wrote, “still trumps politics.”
Whether the Uihleins — who live in Lake Forest, Ill., about 25 miles south of their company headquarters — clash during the 2024 election remains unclear. Some people familiar with the couple point out that, despite their differences, the two have sometimes overlapped in their support for candidates and causes.
One instance came during the 2016 GOP primary, when both gave millions in support of then-Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s short-lived presidential bid.
“Both are conservative. They just both have strong opinions on individual candidates,” Walker said. “One of the ones they agreed on was me.”