Jul 27, 2021 - Politics & Policy

A political bogeyman of Silicon Valley

Tech billionaire Peter Thiel is seen speaking.
Peter Thiel. Photo: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Tech billionaire Peter Thiel is injecting huge sums into some crucial 2022 midterm contests — and drawing fire from Republicans eager to tie their rivals to the GOP's Silicon Valley bogeymen.

Why it matters: Whether he's backing a candidate or being attacked by one, Thiel embodies the present GOP zeitgeist. His brand of nationalist conservatism mimics the party's Trump-era shift. Yet the fortune he's using to bankroll like-minded candidates derives from an industry reviled by much of that base.

  • This dichotomy has produced at least one notable example this year of a candidate publicly attacking Thiel just months after trying to arrange a sit-down with him.

Thiel's $10 million infusion into a super PAC supporting the Ohio Senate bid by "Hillbilly Elegy" author J.D. Vance represented his first major foray into the 2022 cycle. It also opened up a line of attack.

  • During an interview last week, one of Vance's primary rivals, former Ohio state treasurer Josh Mandel, hit Vance for positioning himself against Big Tech while he has "a guy who is on the board of Facebook as his biggest political funder."
  • Mandel declined to name Thiel. He also didn't mention the multiple overtures he himself made to Thiel early in the campaign.
  • Text messages reviewed by Axios show Mandel flagged his candidacy announcement for Thiel and followed up to request meetings with him in February and March. Thiel does not appear to have responded.
  • Additional text messages show Mandel praising Thiel in 2018 over his portrayal in a New York Times profile. "I think by in [sic] large people here in the rust belt agree with you," Mandel wrote.

What they're saying: "While J.D. Vance tries to talk tough on big tech, he depends on their money in every aspect of his life," Mandel campaign manager Scott Guthrie said in an emailed statement.

  • "His campaign is funded by a board member of Facebook, and his personal income from his VC firm comes from the former CEO of Google and former CEO of AOL," Guthrie said. "Ohioans know that J.D. Vance is a Never-Trumper and a phony whose bills are literally paid by big tech."

Last week, the Washington Examiner reported Thiel is putting another $10 million into a super PAC supporting Arizona Senate candidate Blake Masters, an executive at Thiel's venture capital firm and foundation.

  • While locally branded, Saving Arizona PAC's focus so far appears to be national. Its digital ads are running nationwide and plugging Masters as the candidate who can tilt the Senate majority in Republicans' favor.
  • The group's website domain was registered by James Blair, a Republican consultant and former top aide to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Blair didn't respond to inquiries about his role with the group.

In Missouri, Thiel has put a smaller sum — just $250,000 — into a super PAC backing the Senate bid by state attorney general Eric Schmitt.

  • Thiel also backed Schmitt's predecessor as AG, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), during his 2018 Senate bid.
  • Hawley is now arguably Washington's leading purveyor of the nationalist wing whose ranks Thiel hopes to swell next year.
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