Griffin and Uihlein: The Billionaires who Bankroll Illinois Republicans
Billionaires Ken Griffin and Richard Uihlein are the financial Fairy God Brothers of the Illinois Republican Party.
No, they’re not related.
And the two grew up in vastly different circumstances.
But as the political fortunes of Illinois Republicans have shifted, and the traditional sources of financial support for the party have diminished, Griffin and Uihlein have taken on outsized importance as the go-to money men for Republicans seeking high level elected positions.
How influential are Griffin and Uihlein within the Illinois GOP?
“They’re as influential as money can buy,” said Chris Mooney, an expert on Illinois politics at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “Illinois Republicans have a funding problem to begin with because they’ve been losing statewide in the last 20 years over and over again. They’re basically shut out of the policymaking process so those who give money because they’re interested in influencing the policy realize giving to Republicans is a waste of time. They have no influence anymore. So their fundraising and organizational structure is weakened.”
Which, in turn, gives Griffin and Uihlein and their mega-donations outsized clout.
In 2014, Uhlein spent $2.6 million backing Gov. Bruce Rauner’s successful gubernatorial bid, then switched to former State Rep. Jeanne Ives in the 2018 GOP primary. Uhlein donated $2.5 million to Ives, more than half of her total fundraising, after Rauner supported expanding abortion coverage to women on Medicaid. After Ives’ defeat, Uihlein said he’d vote for Rauner in the general election.
Meanwhile, Griffin lavished $13.5 million on Rauner’s first race, another $22.5 million on Rauner’s losing re-election effort against Democrat J.B. Pritzker, and a whopping $53.75 million to defeat Pritzker’s so-called Fair Tax Amendment, which would have raised state income taxes on the wealthy.
Though both are conservative, their donation patterns differ.
Uihlein’s spending appears much more ideologically-driven while Griffin’s is more pragmatic. The overwhelming majority of Griffin’s political donation dollars have gone to Republicans, but he has funded Democrats as well, including former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Griffin contributed $325,000 to Emanuel’s 2015 mayoral campaign while giving $850,000 to Chicago Forward, a super PAC that supported Emanuel. Griffin also gave $500,000 to President Biden’s inaugural committee, more than the $100,000 he donated for Donald Trump’s swearing-in party.
On the other hand, Uihlein has supported many Republicans allied with the most right-wing elements of the party. His staunchly conservative views – free market, anti-union, pro-life – are well known. We can find no record of Uihlein backing a Democrat.
By all accounts, Griffin is Illinois’ richest man. Forbes estimates his personal wealth at $22 billion, while Bloomberg Billionaires Index pegs his fortune at $21 billion. He is the founder, CEO, and 85% owner of Citadel LLC, a Chicago-based international hedge fund. But he did not grow-up with great wealth.
Griffin was born in 1968 in Daytona Beach, FL and grew up in Boca Raton, FL. Griffin’s father was a project manager for General Electric. His grandmother inherited an oil business, three farms, and a seed business. A math whiz, Griffin attended public high school, and entered Harvard College in 1986. Attracted to financial markets, he began trading convertible bonds from his dorm room. He convinced Merrill Lynch in Boston to open a brokerage account for him with $100,000 contributed by his grandmother and family friends. Graduating in 1989, he moved to Chicago and founded Citadel in 1990, building it into one of the largest hedge funds in the world with $38 billion under management.
By comparison, Richard Uihlein was born into generational wealth. His great grandfather, August Uihlein, founded Schlitz beer. After graduating from Stanford University in 1967, Uihlein went to work for his father, Edgar Uihlein, who co-founded General Binding Corporation. But Uhlein wasn’t content to merely rest on his laurels. In 1980, using start-up funds from his father, Uihlein and his wife Elizabeth founded Uline, a shipping supplies company, in the basement of their home.
“Dick is much more interested in policy and politics,” Elizabeth told the New York Times in 2018. “My passions are investments and charitable work in our community.”
Uline is now one of the largest privately-owned companies in the country, with more than 6,000 employees while offering a business-services catalog of more than 34,000 items. Spurred by incentives from the State of Wisconsin, Uline in 2010 moved its headquarters from Waukegan, IL to Pleasant Prairie, WI. The Uihleins are longtime residents of Lake Forest, IL and Forbes estimates the couple’s net worth at $4 billion.
Richard Uilhein’s Commitment to Conservative Ideals
In Illinois, between 1998 and 2021, Richard Uihelin contributed almost $30.2 million dollars to political action committees in Illinois, according to a Center for Illinois Politics review of Illinois Election Board Records.
By far, the biggest single recipient of Uihlein’s Illinois political largesse has been Dan Proft, the conservative political operative turned talk radio host. Between 2012 and 2020, Uihlein contributed more than $17 million to Liberty Principles PAC, run by Proft and used to funnel money to Republican political candidates. Uihlein also poured $595,000 into Proft’s unsuccessful 2010 run for Illinois governor.
Proft shut down the PAC last year, after it failed to produce electoral success. In 2018, four out of five Republicans Proft singled out for defeat survived primary challenges, while some candidates he supported won open seat primary elections.
“I can’t remember a single person who Proft was instrumental in electing that wasn’t going to win anyway,” said Mooney. “Proft was never very effective at anything except spending Uihlein’s money.”
Another recipient of Uihlein’s backing views his spending more favorably.
“I think both Ken and Dick have been crucially important. They’ve been courageous and without their leadership there’d be no competitive two-party system in the state,” said John Tillman, CEO of the Illinois Policy Institute, a conservative, free-market think tank that’s focused on Illinois’ fiscal woes. The Institute is officially non-partisan but its views align broadly with pro-business Republican politics. The Institute’s research and policy papers have reached a wide and influential audience, making it a more successful use of Uihlein’s money.
Although the Institute would not detail his level of support, Richard Uihlein is known to be a major financial supporter of the Institute. According to the website OpenSecrets.org, tax records show the Uihlein Family Foundation contributed $2.2 million to the Illinois Policy Institute in 2020.
Tillman first met Uihlein after he wrote to him seeking a position with his company. “I had a great time meeting Dick all the way back in 2004 and it's been a great relationship ever since,” said Tillman. Tillman in the past said Uihlein gave him $50,000 to start the Institute.
Tillman views the Republican super donors as a corrective balance to counter the weight of union political spending, and J.B. Pritzker’s massive personal fortune, on behalf of Democrats.
“For example, since 2019-2020, that period, the unions that we can track fairly easily gave over $15 million dollars in just that two year cycle alone and they do more than that every cycle,” said Tillman. “They’re the biggest player by far both in terms of the money they put in and the canvassers and ground game workers they contribute. Plus, the biggest political giver in the state over the last several years is Gov. Pritzker. If not for Ken and Dick, no one would have a voice in opposition to Pritzker and his alliance with the public sector unions.”
Although Uihlein contributed at least $100,000 to defeat Pritzker’s pet tax hike, it was Griffin’s massive contribution that powered the anti-tax campaign.
“It showed him to be a practical and strategic donor,” said Mooney. “He picked the two races where a conservative could succeed in big races in the state. And that was the defeat of the tax amendment and to defeat (Democrat Thomas) Kilbride in the Supreme Court race. And that was a smart move because those were places where the Republican brand was not on front street for everyone to see. Because that brand is not a good brand in Illinois, on a statewide basis.”
Now Griffin’s made it clear he’s not done fighting Pritzker. “I’m going to make sure that if he runs again, that I’m all in to support the candidate who will beat him. He doesn’t deserve to be the governor of our state,” said Griffin.
Earlier, in a blistering appearance last year before the Economic Club of Chicago, Griffin painted a bleak picture of life in Chicago and threatened to move his Citadel hedge fund headquarters unless the city changes direction.
“It’s becoming ever more difficult to have this as our global headquarters, a city which has so much violence. Chicago is like Afghanistan on a good day. And that’s a problem,” Griffin said. He criticized the city over “broken” public schools, high taxes, crime, and the need for pension reform.
If it sounded the outline of a platform for a Republican gubernatorial candidate, it could have been. But Griffin hasn’t said who, if anyone, he’s supporting yet.
Politics aside, Griffin has been a prolific donor to Chicago’s cultural and civic institutions. $125 million to the University of Chicago economics department. $17 million for Chicago’s lakefront trail. $125 million to the Museum of Science and Industry. $7.5 million to bring broadband to more than 100,000 Chicago students and their families. In all, $1.3 billion to a variety of institutions and causes.
“Ken Griffin has been an incredibly generous contributor toward helping Chicago thrive from a civic point of view,” said Tillman. “Dick Uihlein does similar things, a little different philosophy and more behind the scenes. But a tremendous philanthropist.”
But Mooney wonders if the billionaire donors...the Griffins, Uihleins, and the Pritzkers as well...don’t undermine the base-building and party building that comes with old-time retail fundraising, the stump speeches, chicken dinners and small donations.
“Just because you can talk one guy into giving you a hundred grand, that doesn’t mean you’re a good candidate. A good salesman, maybe,” said Mooney. “But if you can go out and talk many, many people into giving you 20 bucks, 50 bucks, 100 bucks, that shows you’re a good candidate. Because those folks, those small givers are locked in. They haven’t just said they’re going to vote for you. They’re actually going to cast a ballot.”
Wagner Horta contributed
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