Peter Thiel's army: Big Tech "disruptor" sets out to shake up the GOP

Thiel just made the biggest donation of his life and largest ever to a super PAC backing a single Senate candidate

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published June 17, 2021 6:00AM (EDT)

Donald Trump shakes the hand of Peter Thiel   (Getty/Drew Angerer)
Donald Trump shakes the hand of Peter Thiel (Getty/Drew Angerer)

Republican megadonors who ponied up huge sums of cash to fund former President Donald Trump's presidential runs and election-related legal battles are now investing in candidates who could mainstream Trumpism beyond the GOP base, namely Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Trump acolyte with his sights set on 2024.

Others big Trump donors are looking to invest in outsider candidates with no political experience -- or even their own campaigns. Few have made a bigger splash than Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal and Palantir, who has already doled out $10 million donations to super PACs backing J.D. Vance, the author of "Hillbilly Elegy" turned venture capitalist who is eyeing a Senate run in Ohio, and Blake Masters, a fellow Silicon Valley protege expected to launch his own Senate bid in Arizona. The donations are the largest individual contributions ever made by Thiel and the most ever to outside groups supporting single Senate candidates, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Thiel, a Facebook board member, was one of few Silicon Valley titans to publicly support Trump in 2016, buying face time with $1.5 million in donations to pro-Trump groups, making him one of the biggest Trump donors of the cycle. Thiel also served on Trump's transition team, though he later reportedly soured on his presidency and did not contribute to his 2020 run. However he recently brought Vance, who once said he had "no love" for Trump, to meet the former president at Mar-a-Lago, Politico reported last month.

Thiel has long supported Republican causes, backing Libertarian-leaning candidates like Sens. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Mike Lee, R-Utah. His massive investment in Vance and Masters is a sign not just of their personal relationships but their embrace of the anti-globalization rhetoric that attracted him to Trump in the first place, according to the Politico report.

Vance, who is also backed by far-right Trump megadonors Bob and Rebekah Mercer, became a hot commodity in the political world as some in Washington pointed to his best-selling memoir about life in Appalachia as insight to reaching working-class white voters Democrats struggled to win over in 2016. But as a would-be candidate, Vance, a Yale Law School grad and longtime tech investor, has resorted to Trump's culture warrior playbook while rebranding himself online.

Vance has railed on Twitter against "critical race theory," outdoor masking, the "fake news" media, echoed Fox News Tucker Carlson's "great replacement" conspiracy theory rhetoric, and has even adopted Trump's penchant for inexplicable capitalization.

And, like Trump, his statements are often tinged in glaring hypocrisy as he wages a newfound war on "establishment" Republicans. Earlier this year, he criticized Republican "apologies for our oligarchy," writing they should come with a disclaimer saying "Big Tech pays my salary" even though he has earned a fortune from his career in Big Tech.

The Thiel and Mercer money "obviously helps," a veteran Ohio Republican consultant told Salon. "But once you get the money you have to have the right message, particularly if you're going to… kind of skirt the Trump lane and try to be that traditional conservative with a populist bent that isn't an asshole. That's a fickle thing."

Masters, a fellow tech venture capitalist who met Thiel while attending Stanford Law School, co-wrote the book "Zero to One" with Thiel and heads the venture fund Thiel Capital and the Thiel Foundation, which backs tech nonprofits. Like Vance, Masters has railed against Big Tech censorship, teacher unions, the "media elite," and President Joe Biden's decision to cancel border wall construction. While he doesn't share Vance's penchant for provocative original statements, his Twitter feed is filled with retweets complaining about "wokeness" and "critical race theory."

But Masters enters a crowded field that includes Attorney General Mark Brnovich, who is trying to appeal to the Trump base after facing criticism for not doing enough to support the state's dubious election "audit," Arizona Republican strategist Paul Bentz told Salon, and businessman Jim Lamon, who is expected to self-fund his campaign and is even buying TV time in New York and New Jersey in an apparent bid to "get Trump's attention."

"It will be challenging - even with $10 million - to carve out a niche of GOP support," Bentz said of Masters. "The two major issues for Republican primary voters are immigration and election fraud. It will be difficult for the candidates to set themselves apart on either issue."

Thiel is also looking to grow his influence in the Republican Party by wading into next year's House primaries and is expected to back Joe Kent, an "America First" Republican challenging Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, one of the few House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump.

"Thiel helped shape Silicon Valley into its current disruptive, monopolistic incarnation, he helped elect Trump, and he's shaping up to be a major player in 2022 and beyond," Max Chafkin, the author of the upcoming book "The Contrarian" about Thiel's pursuit of power, said on Twitter. "The political donations we already know about--$10 million to JD Vance, $10 million to Blake Masters--already put him in the ballpark of Koch, Mercer, Soros, etc. There are signs that this is just the beginning," he added.

It remains to be seen whether Thiel's cash will pay off.

Earlier this year, he donated to Brian Harrison, a former Trump administration official who ran in a special House election in Texas to "keep the Trump movement alive." Harrison finished fourth in the race with just 10.8% of the vote, failing to qualify for the runoff. Last year, he donated $2 million to back Kris Kobach, a staunch Trump ally and immigration hardliner, in his failed Kansas Senate primary bid to establishment-backed Republican Roger Marshall. Vance, who has launched an exploratory committee and is expected to formally announce his bid next month, is currently polling between 4% and 6%.

Thiel has also met privately with DeSantis, who is up for re-election next year and is already attending fundraisers across the country ahead of a potential 2024 presidential bid, according to Politico.

While Trump has soured on former allies like Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, blaming them for not doing enough to overturn his electoral loss in their states, the former president has continued to embrace DeSantis, even floating him as a possible running mate if he runs in 2024. Of course, DeSantis appears to have even higher hopes for 2024 and is quickly carving out a large berth in the Trump lane of the 2024 GOP primary, signing bills and executive orders to make voting harder, ban "critical race theory" in schools, ban vaccine passports, ban social media "deplatforming," ban transgender athletes from playing on public school teams that do not match their biological gender, require school prayer, and impose tougher criminal penalties on protesters.

Having hit just about all of the big Republican culture war issues, DeSantis has attracted a who's who of former Trump donors, raking in more than $11 million for his reelection from October to April, according to Politico, more than 25 times as much as Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Nikki Fried, the state's agriculture commissioner.

Along with interest from Thiel, DeSantis has received six-figure contributions from top Trump donors like Bernie Marcus, the Home Depot founder who gave Trump $7 million in 2016, venture capitalist David Blumberg, and developer Steven Witkoff, according to Politico. Much of the money has come from out-of-state. Chicago hedge fund manager Ken Griffin, one of the biggest GOP donors in the country, has also contributed $5 million. Other Trump donors like former United Nations ambassador Kelly Craft, mine owner Andrew Sabin, conservative activist Doug Deason, and Don Tapia, a businessman Trump tapped to serve as his ambassador to Jamaica, are also planning big fundraisers for the governor.

Republican donors have described DeSantis as a "nicer version of Trump" and numerous benefactors that did not give much money to Republicans before 2016 appear to be coalescing behind DeSantis as well.

Julie Jenkins Fancelli, an heiress to the Publix fortune, spent little on politics before contributing more than $2 million to Trump and Republican causes since 2016. After Trump's election loss, she contributed $300,000 to the January 6 rally that preceded the Capitol riot and is now backing DeSantis.

Ike Perlmutter, the reclusive chairman of Marvel Entertainment and Trump's Mar-a-Lago buddy who served as an informal adviser on veterans affairs, and his wife Laura donated less than $7,000 to political causes before 2016 but have since dropped more than $31 million to back Trump and GOP causes, according to ProPublica. The couple has since contributed at least $1.5 million to back DeSantis.

Republican strategist John Feehery told Salon that donors have gravitated toward DeSantis because he is a "better version of Trump."

"He takes on the left with relish. He doesn't back down from a fight. He believes in America and the free market," Feehery said. "But he is fundamentally better in two key ways. He was much better on Covid than Trump, who never could get a handle on the health bureaucracy. And unlike Trump, he knows what he's doing."

Mac Stipanovich, a longtime Florida Republican strategist, noted that DeSantis' response largely tracked Trump's before he began to muscle local governments on Covid restrictions.

"Florida has not suffered markedly worse than some other large states but on the other hand it hasn't done a lot better than many other states. We're kind of like everybody else," he said in an interview with Salon. "But because DeSantis is turning out to be a pretty able propagandist, he is turning the lack of disaster into triumph."

DeSantis has also benefited from the attention to his closely-watched re-election, allowing big donors to act as sort of early-stage investors by "establishing a relationship" with the governor "without actually committing" to his potential 2024 run, Stipanovich said.

 "These folks are percentage players," he added. "DeSantis is the shiny new thing. So they will gravitate toward you. That does not mean they will remain there."

As 2024 moves closer, he will likely have to compete for big donations with other Trump backers like Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. Oculus founder Palmer Luckey, who never contributed to political campaigns before dropping over $2.7 million to back Trump and GOP causes since 2016, is planning to host a fundraiser for the Texas senator.

Former Vice President Mike Pence, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are also expected to compete for the 2024 nomination if Trump does not run.

Trump also appears to have inspired a growing number of major Republican donors to launch their own campaigns rather than invest in other candidates.

Lynda Blanchard, who served as Trump's ambassador to Slovenia after donating $1 million to pro-Trump super PACs, has already contributed $5 million to her own campaign for a Senate seat in Alabama. But Blanchard has apparently angered Trump by implying that he was backing her, prompting the former president to throw his support behind Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., who has been linked to the organizer of the January 6 "Stop the Steal" rally that preceded the Capitol riot. Blanchard's implication prompted former Trump campaign manager to warn Republicans against faking Trump's endorsements, telling Politico that most candidates claiming to have Trump's support are "full of shit."

Lewandowski and former Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway have signed on to help Trump megadonor Charles Herbster in his Nebraska gubernatorial campaign. Herbster owns numerous agricultural businesses across the country and helped the Trump campaign's fundraising operations after befriending the former president at Mar-a-Lago.

Craft, the former UN ambassador who along with her husband donated over $1 million to pro-Trump groups, is considering a 2023 run against Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, according to Politico. MyPillow founder Mike Lindell, who has spent months pushing lies about the election, has also expressed interest in challenging Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz but raised baseless concern that the voting machines would "steal" the election.

And Vance is not the only big-money candidate in Ohio. Jane Timken, the former Ohio GOP chief who along with her husband donated nearly a quarter-million to Trump's 2020 campaign and loaned $1 million to her own campaign, and Mike Gibbons, who co-chaired Trump's fundraising in Ohio, are both vying to run in the Trump lane as well.

"YUCK," an Ohio Republican consultant told Salon describing the Senate race, which he said he chose to avoid this cycle after working for numerous top Republicans in the state because "I have to look at myself in the mirror in the morning."

Trump is a "bit of a model, if you have the resources," he said, adding that even with deep pockets it may be difficult to outspend donors like Thiel and the Mercers. At the same time, candidates who perhaps hoped to rely on Timken's and Gibbons' donations will have to look elsewhere.

"This is probably a $30 to $50 million campaign," he said. "That's a hell of a lot of money. So that's why when you have $10 million coming to J.D. and then whatever the Mercer family is raising, that's significant. That puts you in the upper echelon resource wise."

While megadonors and PACs have long provided the bulk of the money raised by many Republican candidates, the rise of WinRed has allowed other Trump allies who have scared off major donors to raise staggering sums of money. Republicans have tried for years to launch a service to rival the success of ActBlue on the left but it was only when Trump put his people in charge that the party cut off other vendors.

"WinRed succeeding is one of the many ways that the infrastructure of the Republican Party now belongs and continues to belong to Trump," Dave Karpf, a George Washington University professor who studies online political fundraising and organizing, said in an interview with Salon.

While corporate PACs and some major donors pulled back after the Capitol riot, small-dollar donations from grassroots donors on WinRed skyrocketed for lawmakers like Hawley and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., two of the most prominent backers of Trump's "Big Lie," as well as committees that raise money for House Republicans, most of whom voted to block the certification of the election results.

"The way you make a ton of money as a Republican candidate is that you say things that get you on Breitbart and Fox News," Karpf said. "Marjorie Taylor Greene is raising a ton of money [because] she is saying and doing doing things that make her insanely popular on these big conservative platforms that talk her up."

But while some big donors pulled back after the Capitol riot, many are already returning and there is little difference between what attracts megadonors and grassroots supporters, Karpf argued.

The small-dollar donations and big money contributions "go hand in hand with saying and doing very Trumpy things that get you seen and heard in conservative media," he said. "There's basically no daylight between their interests and so it's just another spigot for them bringing more money into politics."

Both big and small donors are expected to throw money behind a growing group of QAnon followers running for Congress in the wake of the Trump era. At least 33 candidates who have expressed support for the QAnon conspiracy theory are currently running for federal office, according to a Media Matters analysis.

"We are going to have more QAnon believers in Congress after 2022 than we have now," Karpf said. "And that is part and parcel of the stealing of American democracy. Big money in politics certainly doesn't help… [but] now big money is one of the ensemble cast members ruining politics. There's all these other forces also making America entirely uncomfortable."

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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