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Illinois Billionaire Spends Millions to End Majority Rule in Ohio

Issue 1, which will come before voters in a special election on August 8, would increase the voter approval threshold for new constitutional amendments to 60 percent.

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By Donald Shaw and David Moore, Sludge

Republican megadonor Richard Uihlein has donated more than $5.1 million to support an effort by Ohio Republican politicians to amend the Ohio Constitution so that it is harder for voters to pass citizen-initiated constitutional amendments in the future. 

Uihlein, the billionaire founder and CEO of Wisconsin packing supplies company Uline, has donated $4 million to the Ohio group Protect Our Constitution PAC and $1,125,000 to the federal super PAC Save Our Constitution, according to recent campaign finance filings. Both groups are working to pass Ohio Issue 1, which will come before voters in a special election on August 8, 2023. Uihlein’s donations make him by far the largest donor to the Ohio group and the sole donor to the super PAC, according to the most recent public filings. 

Issue 1 would increase the voter approval threshold for new constitutional amendments to 60 percent and make the signature-gathering requirements for citizen-initiated amendments to appear on the ballot more difficult. The measure was started earlier this year by Republican lawmakers in the Ohio Legislature who passed a joint resolution calling for the special election to be held on the changes to the constitution. 

If the measure is adopted, it will make it harder for Ohio voters to override the state’s law, signed by Republican Gov. Mike DeWine in April 2019, banning abortions once embryonic cardiac activity can be detected—often as early as six weeks, before many women know they’re pregnant. That law, which is on hold by courts, does not contain exceptions for cases involving rape or incest and is opposed by a coalition of groups including the ACLU of Ohio, Pro-Choice Ohio, and Planned Parenthood Advocates of Ohio.

Abortion rights activists have gathered enough signatures to get a measure on the November general election ballot that would effectively overturn the so-called “heartbeat law” by amending the state constitution to guarantee a “fundamental right to reproductive freedom.” Under current law, only a simple majority of voters would be required for the amendment to pass. A recent poll found that 58% of Ohio voters supported the abortion rights amendment. 

Protect Our Constitution has spent more than $1.5 million to promote Issue 1, according to information from the Ohio Secretary of State website. Its largest expenditures have been for digital advertising, direct mail, and grants to allied organizations. 

The group’s ads do not mention the issue of abortion, rather warning voters about out-of-state “radical extremists” who are spending millions to “hijack” the state’s constitution. 

With his wife Liz, the president of Uline, Richard Uihlein is one of the largest donors to Republican politicians and causes nationally. He has donated tens of millions of dollars to Republican super PACs such as Club for Growth Action and Restoration PAC, and his nonprofit family foundation has made large donations to conservative organizations like the Conservative Partnership Institute, Turning Point USA, and the Federalist Society. Uihlein was also a major donor to pro-Trump groups in 2016, and he has been a top donor to the PAC of the Tea Party Patriots, which is one of the organizations that sponsored the “Save America” rally on January 6, 2021 that preceded the events at the Capitol building. 

Other Issue 1 Backers

In the past few months, Ohio business groups joined in making five- and six-figure donations to the Protect Our Constitution PAC, according to a pre-special election report filed with the state last week. The group Save Ohio Jobs LLC, which was formed just on June 14 by Cincinnati lawyer David Langdon and is tied to the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, donated a total of $150,000 in late June. Langdon has previously represented the anti-choice group Susan B. Anthony List and the controversial Christian organization Alliance Defending Freedom, as well as Tea Party groups suing the Internal Revenue Service. The nursing home association 55 Green Meadows gave $100,000 to the PAC, after previously contributing at least $135,000 to a “dark money” group controlled by former Ohio Republican House Speaker Larry Householder, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for a bribery scheme. The Wholesale Beer and Wine Association gave $50,000 and the Ohio Restaurant Association gave $25,000 to the PAC, both in June.

Millions more in spending supporting Issue 1 came from Protect Women Ohio, a coalition consisting of a dark money 501(c)4 nonprofit group based in Virginia, state advocacy groups, and a state PAC. The coalition’s members include ​​Ohio Right to Life, which has been described as the state’s oldest and largest anti-abortion organization. One group in the Protect Women Ohio network has received $5 million from The Concord Fund, a dark money hub tied to conservative legal activist Leonard Leo. Another top donor to the pro-Issue 1 coalition has been the national anti-choice group Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, which gave over $6.1 million since March of this year, according to data from the Ohio Secretary of State’s office.

Together, the coalition supporting Issue 1’s constitutional change has had a financial advantage over its opponents, which are led by a PAC named One Person One Vote, according to the Ohio Capital Journal. Protect Women Ohio has spent nearly $8.7 million campaigning for Issue 1, including nearly $6.4 million on broadcast ads and $1.7 million on digital, as disclosed in state data. Early voting turnout has been remarkably high.

The president of Ohio Right to Life is state lobbyist Mike Gonidakis, an ally of state Republicans who met with state business groups earlier this year to push for Issue 1’s passage. Last year, Gonidakis filed a federal lawsuit that resulted in the implementation of Republican-drawn state House and Senate districts, providing an enormous assist to the Ohio GOP in a gerrymandering challenge ahead of the midterm elections. Months later, Gonidakis was re-appointed to the Ohio Medical Board by DeWine, in a position meant to uphold the interest of consumers. His previous Ohio lobbying clients include healthcare companies like WebMD Health Corp. and Health Compliance Associates. Gonidakis had recently praised DeWine’s anti-choice administration as Ohio groups readied efforts to cut off legal access to abortion care.

To build support for the Issue 1 special election, Ohio Right to Life in March pitched the Ohio Chamber of Commerce and Ohio Business Roundtable in favor of the 60% threshold for a constitutional amendment to pass. “We need to prevent out-of-state interest groups, whether they be liberal interest groups or conservative interest groups, from coming into Ohio,” Gonidakis said at the time. 

Among individual donors to the Protect Our Constitution PAC, billionaire Republican donors Susan and Jim Haslam gave $50,000 at the end of June. Their business holdings include the Pilot Flying J truck stop chain and the Cleveland Browns. The Haslams have given hundreds of thousands of dollars to national Republican committees and at least $125,000 to the Ohio Republican Party, according to data from OpenSecrets.

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