6 GOP megadonors quietly propelling Republicans through Trump-era turbulence

With tech billionaire Peter Thiel showing reluctance to spend big, meet the other rich Republicans being wooed

By Rae Hodge

Staff Reporter

Published May 4, 2023 5:45AM (EDT)

Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal, delivers a speech during the evening session on the fourth day of the Republican National Convention on July 21, 2016 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal, delivers a speech during the evening session on the fourth day of the Republican National Convention on July 21, 2016 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

In the heady world of Republican mega-donors, news fell hard last week that Peter Thiel had sworn off funding the GOP in 2024 and had reportedly soured on the party's extremist candidates. Since then, whispers of meetings have begun circulating as the rest of the party's campaign-donor royalty are thrust further into the spotlight. 

Reuters reported that at least four sources close to Thiel have heard him say on several recent occasions that he's withdrawn from American politics. But then, other reports note that it's not the first time Thiel's reportedly sworn off politics after an embarrassing loss, only to be drawn back in during the next election cycle. 

"​​Thiel came to this conclusion by late 2022, the sources said. He believes Republicans are making a mistake in focusing on cultural flashpoints and should be more concerned with spurring U.S. innovation — a major issue for him — and competing with China," Reuters reported. Thiel confirmed as much in an interview released this week. 

"I do worry that focusing on the woke issue as ground zero is not quite enough." Thiel argued that "the focus on identity politics, on the woke religion, is a distraction from stagnation. It's a distraction from economics."

Fair enough. Thiel's financial withdrawal from the GOP could hardly come as a surprise. After all, what internationally strategic, data-analytics billionaire would be caught doubling down on the same failed strategy that lost Republicans both the White House and Senate? 

The GOP's anti-abortion and anti-trans rhetoric may be the most recently rumored causes for Thiel, who proclaimed "I am proud to be gay; I am proud to be a Republican" on stage at the 2016 Republican National Convention, to withdraw. But those same political philosophies didn't stop him from funding a slate of right-wing candidates in 2022. The bottom line, Thiel dropped $35 million to bet on the wrong horses

And Thiel's not the GOP's only spurned donor who's seemingly learned a lesson. 

Even though Illinois packaging magnates Dick Uihlein and his wife Liz have already dropped $7 million into 21 congressional races this year, they don't seem to be funding any Illinois candidates this cycle (except one). They spent $89 million from 2021 to 2022 to become the top GOP — and second-biggest overall — political donors of the cycle. Yet every one of the Illinois candidates the couple backed ultimately lost their races. 

There's also significantly less incentive for any megadonor to fund a crop of deeply unpopular greenhorn lawmakers in risky seats who appear willing to use market-hostile budget brinksmanship as a culture war proxy when (to the elite class' advantage) they should have been helping slow the Fed's portfolio-bleeding spree of interest-rate hikes. 

So, between Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and former president Donald Trump, who do the filthy rich like best for president in 2024? With Thiel sitting the 2024 cycle out, so far, here are six GOP megadonors who still have money on the table — and which candidates they're betting on in 2024: 

Kenneth Griffin

Citadel hedge fund founder Kenneth Griffin dumped $72 million into the 2021-2022 cycle, becoming the second biggest GOP donor in the U.S. after announcing Citadel's HQ would move from Chicago to Miami. 

And back in October — when Peter Thiel still thought he could avenge Trump's impeachment by ending the careers of the "Traitorous 10" — a spokesman for Griffin told CNBC that Griffin wanted to "elevate talented candidates and broaden the tent of the Republican Party to make it more representative of our country." 

All of these signs — along with Griffin's vow not to back a third Donald Trump run — would suggest an early lead for Florida Republican Gov. DeSantis in the race to secure the megadonor's endorsement. But, despite some earlier supporting statements about DeSantis, Griffin may have been turned off already. 

Griffin, who just bought Harvard University a building with his $300 million donation, was reportedly disturbed by DeSantis' statements and extreme politics. According to the New York Times, Griffin was put off when DeSantis described Russia's invasion of Ukraine as a "territory dispute" — and was again displeased by DeSantis signing Florida's six-month abortion ban into law. The Times' sources say Griffin is still likely to donate to DeSantis once he announces a formal run, though other candidates may get funding from Griffin as well.  

Jeffrey and Janine Yass

Jeffrey Yass is a Republican billionaire, the Cato Institute's vice board chair, the founder of Susquehanna International and the richest Pennsylvania resident to game the tax system. Yass — who also funds a far-right Israeli think tank — and his wife Janine spent more than $56 million on 2022 Congressional campaigns, with $15 million going to the School Freedom Fund through the Club for Growth Super PAC. 

DeSantis still has most of his campaign war chest left over from 2022, but he has already raised $12 million more this year — with a seven-figure donation from Yass. In the last five years, the GOP-aligned Club for Growth PAC took in nearly $3 million from Yass.

Notably, Yass' Susquehanna Group has a 15% stake (estimated to be worth $33 million) in TikTok parent company ByteDance. Yass has given Republican Sen. Rand Paul, of Kentucky, more than $10 million since 2020 -- and Paul has coincidentally become a fierce opponent of recently proposed TikTok bans

Timothy Mellon 

Finally, we have the heir and grandson of a Gilded Age Wyoming bank tycoon, Republican billionaire and racist children's book author Timothy Mellon — who dropped $41 million into the 2022 cycle. 

Mellon, chairman of Florida-based Pan Am Systems, is one of a handful of primary funders for Club for Growth (along with Griffin). He was a prodigious Trump donor in 2020 and perhaps among the last of the GOP mega-donors still visibly backing Trump now. 

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He donated $20 million to the America First Action super PAC, then run by Linda McMahon -- the wife of former WWE head Vince McMahon, and the former Trump-appointed administrator of the Small Business Administration. Eventually, Mellon went on to throw $30 in the 2020 races. He came back again in 2021, bankrolling Texas Gov. Greg Abbot's $54 million border wall

Per reporting from Politico, Mellon is back in Trump's corner again this year and already donating to Trump's super PAC, MAGA, Inc. It's worth pointing out that, even as some GOP mega-donors have shied from Trump's 2024 bid, the former president's fundraising surged following his recent indictments and he's so far raised more than any other candidate in Q1 — the majority of which came through his super PACs. 

Thomas Peterffy

Griffin wasn't the only GOP mega-donor turned off by DeSantis' extreme positions. Citing the Florida governor's recent abortion and book bans, billionaire Interactive Brokers chair and Hungarian-born immigrant Thomas Peterffy gave a cold shoulder to DeSantis in mid-April when he hit pause on donations.

"I have put myself on hold," Peterffy told the Financial Times in April. "Because of his stance on abortion and book banning . . . myself, and a bunch of friends, are holding our powder dry." 

DeSantis, he added, "seems to have lost some momentum."

However, Trump is still going to have to work the mega-donor if he wants to get cash flowing again. Even though Peterffy -- the richest man in Florida -- previously said he would vote for Trump if he became the GOP's nominee, he would "do whatever I can to make sure he is not." Peterfy was one of the five major donors who iced Trump after the GOP's disastrous showing in the 2022 midterms.

"The problem with Trump is he has so many negatives, he can't get elected, period," Peterffy told Bloomberg in November. "I think we need a fresh face."

Peterffy seems to have found that fresh face seems in Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin

Steve Schwarzman

If you were wondering how such an obnoxiously contrived and decidedly un-catchy GOP slogan -- "a new generation of leaders" -- got such wide circulation in Republican lawmakers' talking points, you can thank megadonors. For instance, when Blackstone Group CEO and prominent former Trump-backer Steve Schwarzman closed his wallet to Trump after the 2022 midterms, he used the euphemism to signal his funding intentions. 

"America does better when its leaders are rooted in today and tomorrow, not today and yesterday," Schwarzman told CNBC in November. "It is time for the Republican Party to turn to a new generation of leaders and I intend to support one of them in the presidential primaries."

Although Schwarzman's unlikely to back Trump in the primary, there's no clear line of sight yet on who his favorite contender is at the moment. But South Carolina's Republican Sen. Tim Scott pulled had a warchest of $22 million leftover at the end of 2022 and Blackstone was his second-biggest donor.  

Miriam Adelson

Republican mega-donor and so-called "$30 billion woman" Miriam Adelson isn't sitting the 2024 races out. In fact, she's been talking about them since she first returned to politics in 2021 following the death of her husband, GOP kingmaker Sheldon Adelson. Back then, her political huddles included both DeSantis and Republican Nikki Haley -- the former U.N. Ambassador and current presidential candidate. Haley would go on to land a private meeting with Adelson in 2021. 

By 2022, an un-redacted tax filing revealed that Haley's PAC was the first federal donation Adelson made following her husband's death, and that Adelson's support for Haley in 2019 reached $250,000 -- making Adelson Haley's second-biggest donor. The documents provided a rare and early glimpse into Haley's growing network of conservative donors. 

With Haley tanking in the polls so far, however, there's no way to predict how many more donors she'll be able to attract — even with Adelson's earlier votes of confidence. 

By Rae Hodge

Rae Hodge is a science reporter for Salon. Her data-driven, investigative coverage spans more than a decade, including prior roles with CNET, the AP, NPR, the BBC and others. She can be found on Mastodon at @raehodge@newsie.social. 


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