Tech billionaire Peter Thiel is establishing a reputation as a financial powerhouse in GOP circles, shaking up marquee 2022 races with contributions that could make him among the biggest players in the midterm elections.
Thiel raised eyebrows with separate $10 million donations — believed to be the largest in history to outside groups supporting Senate candidates — to super PACs supporting two of his proteges, venture capitalist and “Hillbilly Elegy” author J.D. Vance in the open Ohio Senate race and Thiel Foundation executive Blake Masters in the Arizona race against Sen. Mark KellyMark KellyOvernight Defense & National Security — Congress begins Afghanistan grilling Businesses want Congress to support safe, quality jobs — so do nearly all Americans GOP sees Biden crises as boon for midterm recruitment MORE (D).
He’s also expected to write checks for candidates in House and gubernatorial contests.
The investments from the early Facebook investor and PayPal cofounder, who also has ties to former President TrumpDonald TrumpCapitol fencing starts coming down after 'Justice for J6' rally Netanyahu suggests Biden fell asleep in meeting with Israeli PM Aides try to keep Biden away from unscripted events or long interviews, book claims MORE, are early signals Thiel intends to use his financial largesse to disseminate his avowed libertarian stances.
“Peter has a vision for America that includes more personal freedom and less government intervention, and he’s willing to put up his own money to make it a reality,” said GOP donor Dan Eberhart.
“The combination of Peter’s money and his libertarian political views could be a powerful force in the GOP this cycle,” he added. “Peter is a serious power broker in Republican politics right now.”
The massive donations are just the latest – and largest – from the longtime GOP contributor.
Thiel, a 53-year-old German-born entrepreneur, first burst onto the conservative scene in 2009 with an essay detailing his libertarian beliefs, a departure from the overwhelmingly liberal bent of Silicon Valley.
He’s since written checks to several lawmakers who share his worldview before seeing his influence expand via his relationship with Trump. Thiel served on Trump’s transition team after his 2016 victory, and their relationship grew from there, expanding his access to the White House.
His donations to Vance and Masters indicate a desire both to up libertarianism's presence in Congress and to elevate close allies. Vance worked for Thiel in Silicon Valley and later obtained an investment in his own firm from the entrepreneur, while Masters rose to become chief operating officer of Thiel Capital and president of the Thiel Foundation.
“You put those two things together, the personal relationship, along with the fact that they're supportive of his worldview, and I think that very likely explains the level of support,” said one Republican operative who’s supportive of both Vance and Masters’s campaigns.
Thiel’s power play comes amid shifting dynamics within the GOP.
Trump’s departure from the Oval Office set off shockwaves throughout the party, leaving no figurehead in public office to advance the “America First” populism that Trump unleashed, which remains popular with the grassroots and at times aligns with Thiel’s ideology.
That sets up an opportunity for Thiel to elevate candidates he believes could satisfy Republican voters’ hunger for more populist voices but who don't irk centrist voters the same way Trump did.
“The base is changing,” Eberhart said. “Republicans need candidates who reflect the new populist direction Trump has taken the party and who are also acceptable enough to voters that they can win a general election. Peter may be able to do that better than anyone else right now.”
Observers say Thiel’s sway in GOP circles is formidable given the heft of his donations, suggesting he could be a growing influence as elections become increasingly more expensive.
“I think he's seeing what a lot of these folks have seen over the last 10 years, which is these races are getting more expensive, and if I want to have influence and I want my guy to win or my gal to win, you're going to be spending a lot more money,” one GOP official said.
“He does pull up a seat at the table as a big player, for sure.”
The investments in Vance and Masters also provide tangible impacts for both of their campaigns.
As first-time candidates, both, particularly Masters, will have to boost their name recognition, as well as build up email lists and other campaign infrastructure. But with the $10 million investments to supportive outside groups, they’ll be able to go beyond those basic building blocks and even start going on the attack.
“What these donations do, is it made both of them automatically real candidates, right from the get go. Because when you have $10 million sitting in a super PAC, no one can deny that you should now be taken seriously as a candidate,” said the GOP strategist who’s supportive of both.
“I think J.D. would have gotten a lot of media attention, regardless. Blake probably wouldn't have gotten any attention without that donation,” the strategist added. “I think that's the most tangible immediate effect. And then the long-term effect is, that's $10 million that could be spent to raise their name IDs; that's $10 million that can be spent to kneecap their opponents. And it's not something that you usually see with first-time candidates.”
Beyond the specific donations, Vance and Masters could also benefit from Thiel’s existing contributions to conservative groups and proximity to Trump, which may make other figures and groups wary of endorsing their opponents for fear of losing Thiel’s money or rankling his allies.
“It makes them think twice about endorsing because they'd like to get some of Peter Thiel’s money too. And a good way to make sure you don’t get Peter Thiel’s money is to endorse against his candidate,” said one GOP strategist involved in Senate races, including one against a Thiel-backed candidate. “So, he essentially freezes some of the most powerful forces in politics with the threat of…retribution and not continuing to spend his money on their projects.”
Already, Thiel’s donations have swayed other donors to get off the sidelines.
An adviser to Rep. Ted BuddTheodore (Ted) Paul BuddOn The Money — Yellen sounds alarm on national default GOP lawmakers urge Cardona against executive student loan wipeout The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden to reboot COVID-19 plan MORE (R-N.C.), who is running in North Carolina’s open Senate race with Trump’s endorsement, said the campaign got a jolt of support after Thiel cut a check.
“I can’t speak to other states, but here in NC, the Thiel contribution on the national level layered with maxed out contributions from prominent NC job creators have opened up a lot of new pathways for our campaign,” the source said. “Folks who had earlier indicated that they were going to sit out the primary on the sidelines are now proactively calling us to offer support.”
While Thiel's support for Vance and Masters has yet to deliver a Trump endorsement in either of the Ohio or Arizona Senate race, his backing has already swayed other donors to get off the sidelines in the midterms.
Vance, Masters and other Thiel-supported candidates will have to prove themselves as attractive contenders in their own right, and other Republicans in top races are expected to raise hefty sums as well.
But even those on the wrong end of Thiel’s donations concede the entrepreneur’s giving is significant.
“It's an elite impact,” said the strategist involved in a campaign running against a Thiel-backed hopeful.
However, Thiel’s gargantuan donations also make him a target, and critics say they’ve stocked early ammunition against him.
Neither Vance nor Masters have longstanding ties to the conservative movement, raising criticisms of their bona fides, and Thiel’s own background at Facebook could be a knock amid conservative grievances about Big Tech.
Defenders rebut that criticism by pointing to Thiel’s early support of Trump in 2016 and well-known libertarian beliefs in liberal California. But opponents are nonetheless expected to use it as a way to knock their newly well-funded opponents.
“A board member of Facebook is funding my opponent’s campaign? That's pretty easy to get out of your mouth,” said the GOP strategist working on a rival campaign.