Peter Thiel helped bankroll Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016 when most other would-be donors found Trump too repulsive for their taste. The gay billionaire got a speaking slot at the GOP convention and an embarrassing hand-fondle from Trump as a reward.
Now Thiel is going all-in on another race. This time it’s the Senate race in Ohio, where Thiel just dropped $3.5 million for J.D. Vance, the Hillbilly Elegy author who is running for the GOP nomination.
The donation comes just after Vance won Donald Trump’s endorsement after a long effort to suck up to Trump at every possible turn. Vance had a lot to overcome on that front. During Trump’s first presidential campaign, he made it clear he was no fan of the president, going so far as to compare him to Hitler.
Now Vance is doing his best to emulate the man he once thought of as the Fuhrer of Mar-a-Lago. He’s called for seizing the assets of nonprofits that he thinks are too woke and firing public servants, to be replaced by Trump lackeys. Vance also likes to traffic in transphobia to prove his Trumpist bona fides.
While Thiel looks like he decided to bet on Vance once he secured Trump’s endorsement, the donation was hardly dependent on the former president’s blessing. Vance is a protege of Thiel’s, having served as a principal at Thiel’s venture capital firm. (Vance doesn’t talk much about that, given the working man image he is trying to cultivate, in spite of his elite, Ivy League background.)
Moreover, Thiel was reported to have lobbied hard for Trump to endorse Vance. Indeed, Thiel already sank $10 million last year into Protect Ohio Values, the PAC backing Vance. The donation is part of an effort on Thiel’s part to play an outsized role in this year’s midterm elections.
The problem for Vance is that he’s not very popular in Ohio. He’s been lagging in the polls, thanks in large part to his past denouncements of Trump. A poll conducted by his pollster showed him in a three-way tie for first place at 18 percent, but other polls showed him languishing in third place in a field of five.
Of course, money can buy a lot of attention, and Trump’s endorsement can help as well. The primary is on May 3, and Vance is hoping that momentum is on his side.
For Thiel, the donation is a bet and an investment. It’s a bet on a candidate who is a like-minded friend. It’s an investment in someone who is willing to move the country into the weirdly libertarian, non-democratic realm that Thiel seems to prefer.
For those who share Thiel’s vision, Vance’s candidacy is a must-win effort. Thiel has a lot of interests, and he can easily shift to something else if he’s losing his political battles. (He sat out the 2020 presidential campaign because he thought Trump was incompetent.)
“On some days Thiel is a political obsessive with probing questions about individual districts, but he also expresses the desire to focus on other passions, from Bitcoin to his new family,” according to Puck’s Theodore Schleifer. “Which narrative bears out depends in part on how Vance fares two weeks from today when Ohio Republicans decide on their nominee.”
While none of the GOP options are attractive, Vance carries that extra point against him. As a reminder, Thiel is the man who gave us Ted Cruz. Vance promises to be just as bad and could be the first of many others just like him.