Uihleins spent more than $1 million on DeSantis’ presidential campaign in fall — will they now back Trump?

A billionaire couple from Lake Forest who are among the nation’s top Republican donors gave more than $1 million to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ failed bid for the presidency in the final three months of 2023, federal records show.

Richard and Elizabeth Uihlein, who backed Donald Trump's previous presidential campaigns but defected to Team DeSantis in 2023, also gave more than $1 million to other candidates and political groups during the quarter, and they’ve continued to donate to GOP campaigns in the new year.

Now that DeSantis is out of the race and Trump is the leading Republican presidential nominee, political expert Melissa Mouritsen expects the Uihleins will support the former president again in the months leading up to the Nov. 5 election.

“There is no reason to believe the Uihleins will sit out the presidential race,” said Mouritsen, a political science professor at College of DuPage. “A Republican win is a Republican win.”

The Uihleins, who are reluctant to talk to reporters, couldn't be reached for comment.

Millions to DeSantis

An heir to the Schlitz brewing fortune, Richard Uihlein was the nation's top GOP donor in the 2022 federal election cycle, according to Open Secrets, a nonprofit group that tracks money in U.S. politics. The couple — co-founders of the Wisconsin-based Uline shipping supply company — ranked fourth in the 2020 cycle. Data isn’t yet available for the current cycle.

The Uihleins gave millions to pro-Trump political committees ahead of Trump's 2016 election and in the years that followed. But neither Uihlein has donated to any Trump-related organization since Trump lost the 2020 election, Federal Election Commission records show.

On the other hand, the Uihleins gave $2 million to the pro-DeSantis Never Back Down super PAC between April and May 2023, records indicate, and Richard Uihlein gave the Ron DeSantis for President campaign committee $6,600 in June.

Then, in October, Elizabeth Uihlein gave Never Back Down $500,000, the group’s most recent financial report shows. Richard Uihlein followed in November with a $500,000 donation.

Elizabeth Uihlein also gave the DeSantis campaign $3,300 in November, documents indicate.

While donations to super PACs that spend money on races independent of a candidate’s campaign aren't legally capped, $6,600 is the most an individual donor can give directly to a federal candidate per election cycle.

‘Conservative bona fides’

The Uihleins opened their checkbooks wide for DeSantis long before he ran for president.

Richard Uihlein gave $700,000 to the now-shuttered, pro-DeSantis Empower Parents PAC for DeSantis’ first gubernatorial run in 2018, Florida election records show. He and his wife each gave $500,000 to the group — originally called Friends of Ron DeSantis — for DeSantis’ reelection campaign in 2022.

“DeSantis has the conservative bona fides and produced conservative policy in Florida all while managing not to advocate for an autocratic presidency and abandoning our allies in Europe, which Trump has done just this week,” Mouritsen said. “The promise of DeSantis was a policy agenda the Uihleins wanted without the sideshow.”

But DeSantis is on the bench now, having withdrawn from the race and endorsing Trump after a poor showing in the Iowa caucuses in January.

Regardless of why they might have jumped from Trump to DeSantis earlier in the campaign, it’s in the Uihleins’ best interests to support the former president now, Mouritsen said.

“Plus, the Senate looks good for Republicans and they could hold onto the House,” she said. “It could be a win all around.”

Other races

As in past election cycles, the Uihleins aren’t just focused on the presidential race. They gave money to other federal candidates and causes in 2023’s final quarter, too.

Such donations included: more than $1.2 million to a conservative super PAC called Club for Growth Action; $3,000 to the congressional campaign of Lake Forest Republican Jim Carris, who’s challenging Democratic U.S. Rep. Brad Schneider of Highland Park in the 10th District; and $6,600 to the reelection campaign of U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, a New York Republican widely considered to be a possible Trump running mate.

Richard Uihlein also donated $6,600 to former state Sen. Darren Bailey’s congressional campaign in the downstate 12th District, where he’s challenging veteran U.S. Rep. Mike Bost in the Republican primary. Uihlein previously donated millions to Bailey’s unsuccessful 2022 gubernatorial campaign.

Bost’s campaign war chest was more than 10 times the size of Bailey’s at year’s end, records show. Big bucks from Uihlein “could be really consequential” for Bailey, Mouritsen said.

Kent Redfield, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois Springfield, suspects the Uihleins will focus their attention and money on congressional contests rather than the battle for the Oval Office.

“At this point (Richard) Uihlein can’t impact who the Republicans nominate for president. But he can impact whether or not Republicans get majorities in the House or the Senate, and he can impact who those Republican members of Congress are,” Redfield said.

The Uihleins have given more than $200,000 to candidates running for county and state-level positions in Illinois and to state-level political groups since October 2023, state records indicate. Such donations include: $149,995 to state Sen. Jason Plummer of downstate Edwardsville; $6,900 to Lake County Board hopeful Ben Grum of Lake Bluff; $2,500 to Lake County state’s attorney candidate Mary L. Cole of Lake Bluff; and $13,700 to the Illinois Republican Party.

Illinois law doesn’t limit donations to candidates running for local, county or state offices.

The Uihleins’ comparatively low financial activity in down-ballot races last quarter “reflects a lack of targets of opportunity” created by legislative maps that favor Democrats and the GOP’s weakness in Illinois, Redfield said.

“It would take a major reversal of fortune prior to 2026 to justify Uihlein making another major investment in Illinois politics,” Redfield said.

  Richard Uihlein, a billionaire from Lake Forest who is among the nation’s top Republican donors, teamed with his wife to spend more than $1 million in support of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ bid for the presidency in the final three months of 2023, federal records show. Russell Lissau/
Former President Donald Trump, left, is the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination now that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is out of the race. Richard and Elizabeth Uihlein, a billionaire couple from Lake Forest who are among the nation’s top Republican donors, spent more than $1 million to boost DeSantis’ campaign in the final months of 2023, records show. AP Photo, file
Richard Uihlein Courtesy of the Chicago Sun-Times
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