As young undergraduates at Stanford in the late 1980s, Peter Thiel and Reid Hoffman bonded over dorm-room political debates, relishing the back-and-forth so much that they ran for student office together on a joint ticket that promised to tackle the university’s bureaucracy, from the right and the left, respectively. When they left The Farm, the two even took their show on the road, launching a talk show that ran briefly on public-access television in San Francisco before, mercifully, the plug was pulled.
Three decades later, the two billionaires are still fighting over politics—just now by proxy. Today, both former PayPal executives, who remain close friends, are on opposite sides of one of America’s most closely-watched Senate races in Ohio, one of several states that could determine control of Congress next year. Thiel, of course, has pumped $15 million into groups backing J.D. Vance, the Hillbilly Elegy author and Thiel mentee who has become a Fox News favorite. Hoffman, meanwhile, is less interested in Democratic nominee Tim Ryan than in gleaning voter insights from Ohio itself, which his team hopes to deploy in other Rust Belt states in 2024. “This has been a hobbyhorse of theirs,” said one person familiar with their strategy. “They are obsessed with Ohio, and they want to fund and experiment in the state.”
Despite their differences, both Thiel and Hoffman are motivated by the same underlying assumption—that Vance is a heavy favorite in a Trump +8 state, and that it would take something close to a miracle for Ryan to win. That’s partly why Thiel has signaled some early reluctance to spend much more of his own money on the general election. Why bother when the race is already won? Ryan’s relative weakness also helps to explain why Hoffman’s team is able to A/B test new messaging and tactics in the state: Whether or not they can get him elected, they’ll have learned something important.