The Washington Whisperers

Peter Thiel
Peter Thiel brandishing a benjamin. Photo: Marco Bello/Getty Images
Theodore Schleifer
July 26, 2022

On Saturday, Election Day will be just 100 days away—a rollicking final stretch of midterm campaigning that will determine who controls the Senate next year, and set the stage for the presidential race to come. What happens this fall—and in 2024—depends in part on the money game in Silicon Valley, where the tech mega-donors who were activated by Donald Trump in 2016 are still ruminating on just how involved they want to be going forward.

This winter, I published a Grantland-esque, highly scientific power ranking of these nine Democratic and five GOP players in Silicon Valley. Now, six months later, and after a wave of F.E.C. filings over the past week or two, I’m revisiting the ranking with an updated portrait of who’s up and down in donorworld. Or put another way, whose call should you return first?

The Left 

1. There are few characters that we have been more obsessed with at Puck than Sam Bankman-Fried, the crypto-hawking, philosophy-spewing political mega-donor who has unleashed tens of millions of dollars on Washington over the last year or so. At just 30 years old, S.B.F. has become ubiquitous in our political culture—he’s popped up at Democratic congressional retreats, invested in Semafor, testified before Congress, and is laboring to refashion big-money politics in a peculiar effective-altruist direction. The only trouble for S.B.F. has been that, er, his romp through our campaign-finance system hasn’t gone so well: He burned $12 million on a longshot Democratic congressional candidate in Oregon—a race where S.B.F. became an unwitting boogeyman—before burning another $12 million on a California ballot initiative that wouldn’t even qualify for the midterms. Undiscouraged, S.B.F. recently dropped another $4 million into his own super PAC last month, putting him at $27 million total in the super PAC for the cycle. (That doesn’t include all the money S.B.F. has put into the ballot initiatives, his own lobbying organization or other super PACS.) This story is just getting started.

2. LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman is the epitome of a particular breed of Silicon Valley donor who was galvanized by the Trump Era. It’s easy to feel like you already know the Hoffman story, but Reid and his political adviser, Dmitri Mehlhorn, are drawing up new creative plays seemingly every month. Their two big priorities this cycle include funding progressive media projects, like the swing-state newsrooms set up by top digital operative Tara McGowan, and pumping money into second-tier Senate races, including a series of experimental efforts to move the needle in Tim Ryan’s Ohio Senate campaign, and a $250,000 care package to the super PAC behind independent Senate candidate Evan McMullin in Utah. Reid’s team is also engaged in a broader mission to beat back the progressive left in congressional primaries, fearing that their uncompromising rhetoric has made it too easy for the Tucker Carlsons of the world to attack the Democratic Party. 

3. Philanthropist and activist Karla Jurvetson continues her dominance among the leftmost bracket of the Silicon Valley donors. She’s had a particular focus on electing Democratic governors in 2024 battleground states who could be a bulwark against election shenanigans if Trump runs again—$2.5 million for Stacey Abrams in Georgia, $1 million to a PAC backing Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan, $1 million to boost Josh Shapiro in Pennsylvania. Other recently disclosed contributions include $1 million behind Wisconsin Senate hopeful Mandela Barnes, $1 million for the pro-Barnes Working Families Party, and $5.5 million more for EMILY’s List (which maybe should be renamed KARLA’s List, some Democrats have joked). Barnes has been a particular Jurvetson priority this cycle—she hosted a fundraiser for him in Silicon Valley a few weeks back—and if the progressive is to win his primary next month against billionaire scion Alex Lasry, Barnes will need all the big money he can get.

4. Eric Schmidt, the longtime Google C.E.O., squabbled with Politico early this year over his reported influence in Biden’s science office, which he vigorously defended as a normal public-private-nonprofit partnership. Still, Schmidt continues to be a powerful player in Washington. When it comes to campaigns, Schmidt has historically focused on Democratic campaign tech—I am told he is one of the initial major funders behind a new progressive tech startup, Trestle Collaborative, and is still a big backer of Stac labs, a tech consultancy for state Democratic parties. But Schmidt’s remit is broadening: I am told he and his team have been routinely talking with the D.N.C. to offer suggestions on how Democrats can improve their messaging.

5. Making his inaugural appearance on this list is Jan Koum, the WhatsApp co-founder who was made fabulously rich when Facebook bought his company for a staggering $22 billion. Koum stepped away from Facebook in 2018, reportedly amid clashes with the mothership over privacy concerns, although he insisted it was to pursue his twin passions: playing more ultimate frisbee and “collecting rare air-cooled Porsches.” There’s no denying he’s plunged head-first into these hobbies—Koum actually co-wrote an exhaustive book last year, with only 993 first-edition copies available, about Porsche’s first GT2 model, in which the authors journalistically tried to catalog every version of the car. He bought a $125 million home in Beverly Hills from Jeffrey Katzenberg two years back, plus $200 million more on two adjacent homes in Malibu, and now travels the world in a $75 million superyacht named Mogambo, spotted last week off the coast of Norway. To manage affairs like these, he recently started a new personal investment shop called Newlands. 

But Koum has also been quietly engaged in far more revealing pursuits. Koum was born in Ukraine and is Jewish—he was spotted in ​​Tel Aviv last month—and his family foundation has been discreetly supporting various Zionist causes. And now, he is making a corresponding political turn: Koum, unlike his fellow WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton, did not #DeleteFacebook, and one year ago shared a piece on his Facebook page from a Times of Israel columnist about how he was “fed up” with anti-Israel rhetoric. Now Koum is speaking, for the first time, with his wallet too: He just cut a $2 million check to the United Democracy Project, the super PAC of the hawkish pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC. It is Koum’s first political donation ever, save a single max-out check in November to a G.O.P. congressional candidate.

Is this a pivot for Koum, who is worth some $13 billion and is one of the 100 richest people in the country? (Koum didn’t return a request for comment.) It’s true that the pro-Israel billionaire set in the Democratic Party has gotten much more active over the last few years, spending big money this cycle to beat back progressives they fear are pushing the party in an anti-Israel direction. Koum clearly has time to get more involved; one of the more fun aspects F.E.C. filings is how donors describe their occupation. Koum, at age 46, calls himself “retired.”

6. There has been plenty of speculation about whether Dustin Moskovitz would remain politically engaged in the post-Trump era. I noted this winter that Moskovitz had not yet made a political contribution this cycle, suggesting that could be a sign of his desire to return to pre-2016 levels of political engagement. Since then, there’ve been some signs of life from his shop: his philanthropy dropped half a million trying to oust a county executive in suburban Washington, D.C.; last month, he gave another half-million or so to a group he backed in 2020 called the Center for Essential Information; and then his trust cut a small check ($150,000) to the Progressive Turnout Project. None of this is significant, but he gets bumped up a few spots for having a pulse.

7. Ron Conway’s power as a donor has always been as an organizer with a bully pulpit rather than as a billionaire brandishing huge checks. Correspondingly, Conway fell a few spots since this winter’s power ranking for not doing much arm-twisting—though he has, in recent months, played host to people like Kirsten Gillibrand when she came to town to learn more about crypto, and to Barnes alongside Jurvetson. 

8. Melinda French Gates, after decades of trying to stay out of politics, has been investing more and more in campaigns. She recently donated $200,000 to Abrams, her single biggest political contribution ever, just after giving $50,000 to Nick Kristof’s aborted gubernatorial run. Melinda’s juice obviously comes primarily from her reputation and her relationships—the dollar amounts here are small, but I hear there’s more to come. 

9. I wrote a few months back about the rise of Jeff Lawson, another Benioff-esque software billionaire with political ambitions. Lawson’s new voting-rights super PAC, called DemocracyFirst, hasn’t put many points on the board yet, and while he and his wife have pledged a few million to the group, they’re only in for about $50,000 to date. The Lawsons have the juice to make this list. But where’s the dough?

Missing the cut: Laurene Powell Jobs, whose lack of public engagement in the midterms might be a liability to the causes she holds dear; Connie Ballmer, like L.P.J., on the list earlier this year, now not; and Vinod Khosla and (Sir) Michael Moritz. Also keep an eye on the Airbnb founders, particularly Brian Chesky, who’s friendly with Obama, and Joe Gebbia, who just stepped down from a full-time role and is the most politically inclined of the three.

The Right

1. No donor, of either party, has had as much on the line in 2022 as does investor Peter Thiel, who could end the year having played a pivotal role in helping elect two G.O.P. Senators molded in his image. Thiel is now in for $30 million behind his two protégés—Blake Masters in Arizona and J.D. Vance in Ohio—and he is working hard on their behalf. Thiel symmetrically seeded both of their super PACs with an initial $10 million, followed by a $3.5 million Series B, topped off by a final $1.5 million donation just before the primary. Still, Thiel will likely have to spend more on these two in a general election. Other G.O.P. outside groups aligned with Mitch McConnell have also reached out to Thiel for funding to support his candidates, although as I’ve reported, Thiel is more likely to back his own PAC with more money before giving to a third party. Either way, both candidates will surely need more funding in the general election—particularly Masters, who would face an extraordinarily competitive race against Mark Kelly in November.

2. Oracle founder Larry Ellison has doubled and tripled down on his favorite politician, Tim Scott, to the tune of $25 million over the last 18 months. Indeed, Ellison has all but single-handedly financed Scott’s big-money operation (although Ken Griffin just chipped in $250,000). Scott, in turn, is using that money to advertise for other G.O.P. Senate candidates around the country. The donations to Scott, a comparatively moderate Republican, also raise questions about his fairly lukewarm support for Donald Trump. The big one I’m hearing from Republicans: How actively might Ellison oppose Trump in 2024, if it comes to that?

3. I’ve written a ton in these digital pages about Bankman-Fried, but not enough about one of his underlings at FTX, Ryan Salame. Salame, 28, has put $15 million of his own money into a super PAC he recently founded, American Dream Federal Action to support “forward-looking Republican candidates who want to protect America’s long-term economic and national security.” Salame’s slate of candidates includes G.O.P. Senate hopefuls like Katie Britt in Alabama and incumbent John Boozman in Arkansas, who each won tight primaries this summer. Salame has also gotten very involved in crypto advocacy, or as he endearingly calls it, “crypto education within politics.” He recently donated $1.5 million to the crypto industry’s main super PAC he helped found, called GMI, and his crypto girlfriend, Michelle Bond, is running for Congress in Long Island. Keep an eye on him.

4. David Sacks has been stereotyped as a Thiel sidekick, going back to the days when they terrorized Stanford liberals at The Farm. While that sells Sacks short, he clearly takes at least some political cues from Thiel. P.T. introduced Sacks to J.D. Vance, and Sacks then hosted a Vance fundraiser in San Francisco last fall. I also noticed in the latest F.E.C. filings that Sacks and Thiel ended up donating to the Vance super PAC, perhaps coincidentally, on the exact same day. Sacks has a political adviser that helps him and his firm think through political decisions, and he is a likely major DeSantis supporter in 2024, as I wrote the other day. 

5. Despite his caustic Twitter feed, his evangelism for Miami, and unvarnished hatred for the wokes of San Francisco, Keith Rabois’s political footprint, I’d argue, had been greatly exaggerated. He didn’t consistently make big political contributions in the Obama or Trump eras. Now, though, that has changed: During this cycle, Rabois has sent millions of dollars to down-ballot G.O.P.-ers, mostly to party-led committees.

Missing the cut: Chamath Palihapitiya, the SPAC king and Sacks’s podcast buddy whose political impact is more bark than bite; Doug Leone, the longtime Sequoia Capital leader who, like Chamath, made the cut for this winter’s list but whose influence has faded; Palmer Luckey, the Oculus and Anduril founder who spent $1 million on Trump in 2020 and hosted him just before Election Day; and Scott McNealy, the Sun Microsystems co-founder with Khosla who told me the other day he still talks, from time to time, with Trump.