The Republican shadow primary is now in full swing among Silicon Valley megadonors. I have recently learned that Joe Lonsdale, the outspoken investor and Palantir co-founder, is preparing to introduce Ron DeSantis to his network next month in Austin, his adopted hometown. About 200 of Lonsdale’s business and political contacts are expected to attend, including some who are flying in specifically for the event and the chance to meet the Florida governor.
Lonsdale spends much of his time running his venture firm 8VC, but he is also an ascendant player in Republican fundraising and, since he moved to Texas a few years ago, state politics. Notably, he’s set up his own lobbying shop-cum-conservative think tank, the Cicero Institute, which is set to feature DeSantis as a “special guest” at its first annual “Cicero Courage Awards,” for “courageous citizen legislators,” according to an invitation to the event from him and his wife Tayler passed my way. Lonsdale hasn’t formally committed to raising money for him yet, but the event strikes me as the clearest sign yet that Lonsdale, who has ties to everyone from Elon Musk to Peter Thiel, is likely to eventually back DeSantis in his putative presidential run. Lonsdale declined to give an on-the-record interview about the event, but he’s previously told me that DeSantis is a candidate who he “could really see as someone I’d be strongly behind.”
While the April 22 invitation-only event is not a fundraiser—it is a cocktail reception followed by a dinner and a keynote by DeSantis—it figures to be DeSantis’s most intentional overture to the tech world so far this year. I’m in touch with many Republican fundraisers with ties to Silicon Valley, and the general consensus is that the wealthy community of tech executives and investors in Republican politics are likely to consolidate around the Florida governor. DeSantis’s big-money operation, guided by a phalanx of ex-Ted Cruz aides like Jeff Roe and fundraiser Lauren Lofstrom, is likely to rake in tons of six- and seven-figure checks from the governor’s superfans, along with various stripes of Trump haters who see DeSantis as the only other candidate in a two-person race.
There will be some exceptions across the industry, of course: I’ve reported that Peter Thiel, who recently turned down a Trump super PAC fundraising request, is still most likely to either back Trump or sit out the Republican presidential primary, entirely. Larry Ellison, meanwhile, has told friends that he very much wants Tim Scott to run for president. (Scott is scheduled to host a donor summit next month in South Carolina, and it will be interesting to see whether Ellison is committed enough to attend. His aides didn’t return requests for comment.) “Tim Scott is making a lot of entreaties to Bay Area donors,” noted one G.O.P. operative following the fundraising scene. “Scott would appeal well to the big Romney donors who stayed out in 2016, along with the ones who supported Biden.”
One Silicon Valley G.O.P. donor who may be something of a bellwether is Marc Andreessen, the early internet entrepreneur who was a “Gore-Tech” donor in the late ’90s before moving rightward during the Obama years and becoming a big Romney guy, himself. I recently stumbled on a fundraising invitation from 2013, a relic from a bygone era, for an “afternoon meeting” with then-House Budget Chair Paul Ryan on Sand Hill Road hosted by Andreesssen and Mary Meeker, then a partner at Kleiner Perkins. But after Trump’s election, Andreessen effectively exited stage right from political fundraising, saying that he went on a “spirit walk” as he tried to remold his understanding of the political system.
Will he have come to some realization in time for 2024? In a podcast last week with Erik Torenberg, Andreessen both inveighed against the “oligarchic elite” and said that he suffered a “soul-shattering” moment over the last few years. “I lost all faith in my own ability to understand what was going on,” he said. “And just realized that basically all of my assumptions around how people behave, at least in politics and current events and social dynamics, basically are just wrong.”
The Elon Backchannel
Of course, appealing to “Silicon Valley” donors in 2023 doesn’t necessarily mean visiting Silicon Valley. DeSantis is likely to enjoy the support of the Keith Rabois-led expat community that has congregated around Miami, (although Rabois isn’t doing much yet), and his upcoming trip to Austin is likely to cultivate as much tech money as any pilgrimage to Hillsborough or Woodside. The folks attending the Lonsdale event are not solely tech players, but tech is the core industry of Lonsdale’s friend group, and so they’ll be plenty represented at his confab alongside local government officials.
Lonsdale, who has been involved with the Koch political network, typifies the thinking of lots of conservatives in tech these days: Hardly sympathetic to Trump, but also more animated and perturbed by the left, with its “woke” ideology and suppression of free speech rights. (To wit: Lonsdale is the board chair of the Bari Weiss-led anti-cancel-culture University of Austin.) Every few months, Lonsdale ends up engulfed in some culture-war controversy or another, accidentally or not.
But off of the Internet, Lonsdale gets attention for actual policy. He’s particularly influential with a younger generation of tech entrepreneurs who see him as an ideas guy on issues like homelessness and healthcare, and he’s surrounded himself with about a dozen political and policy aides in his family office and at his nonprofits. Blake Brickman, a former chief of staff to Kentucky governor Matt Bevin, is Lonsdale’s Head of Public Affairs and runs his think tank; Bryan Sunderland, another old Kentucky G.O.P. hand, runs Lonsdale’s lobbying, dark-money arm. Lonsdale has even talked about running for office himself, possibly.
Over the last two years, since I first interviewed him for Puck, Lonsdale has gotten much more active in lobbying. (He now has a full-time “Policy Chief of Staff,” for what it’s worth.) Lonsdale’s think tank and its lobbying arm are active in nine states, including Florida. And Cicero has notched some significant wins: A number of states, mostly recently Missouri this year, have passed bills crafted in part by Cicero staffers that offer a new comprehensive approach to homelessness, including a controversial plan that would, among other things, criminalize public encampments. “Cicero’s model legislation on homelessness is now serving as a baseline for reform for legislators across the country,” Lonsdale has claimed. “In just two legislative sessions, the Cicero Institute has become the premier policy organization working on this issue.” The 501(c)3 and c(4) arms were both officially incorporated in late 2020 and took in a combined $15 million in revenue in 2021, according to tax records; Lonsdale has said he spends “millions of dollars per year” on this work.
As of now, Lonsdale isn’t exclusively boosting DeSantis, who, of course, isn’t officially running: He hosted Nikki Haley at his house in Austin earlier this year and introduced her to several local area donors, I’m told. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy attended a big event at Lonsdale’s home earlier this year, too. Still, the splashiness of the DeSantis event—in the heat of the shadow primary, when DeSantis is competing hard for big donors—probably provides a clue to Lonsdale’s ultimate loyalties. The timing itself is coincidental: During the holidays last year, Lonsdale sent an email to his network about the need to reschedule the awards event from January to April in order to accommodate a “courageous US leader we think you’ll enjoy hearing from.” Presumably that’s DeSantis.
In any case, the Lonsdale event is already generating chatter, given their longstanding, increasingly cozy relationship. Lonsdale previously hosted DeSantis at his home in mid-2021, during which he first introduced the governor to Elon Musk; last April, when DeSantis wanted to pass along a message of solidarity to Musk as he attempted to buy Twitter, DeSantis called Lonsdale to share his ideas for the new Twitter owner, according to texts that came out during the ensuing litigation. Lonsdale offered to be a go-between for Musk and DeSantis and put the two of them in touch. Lonsdale’s company also donated $50,000 to DeSantis’s reelection campaign, last year, and has contributed almost $200,000 total to political committees in Florida over the last two years, much of it to pro-DeSantis efforts.
Those are not jaw-dropping amounts in the grand scheme of things, to be sure. But Lonsdale’s value is more as a validator and fundraiser than a megadonor. Outside of the event, Lonsdale is planning on introducing DeSantis to fellow wealthy friends while the governor is in town, I’m told. The event may have been planned quite a while ago, but it is happening at a time when just about every major donor in Republican politics wants to kick the tires on the man. Lonsdale is happy to oblige.