When tech billionaire Peter Thiel pours his money into candidates, he isn’t just donating; he’s buying into a new strategy to reshape the way campaigns are run—a strategy that legal experts say is subverting traditional campaign laws.
Despite the way Thiel’s donations are often framed in headlines, he doesn’t give the bulk of his money to individual candidates. That’s largely because he can’t. Federal law caps individual campaign contributions at a comparatively low amount—$5,800 for a full election cycle.
Instead, the bulk of Thiel’s cash is going to outside groups called super PACs, which unlike campaigns can accept unlimited amounts of money, both from individuals and corporations.
But the super PACs Thiel bankrolls aren’t just any super PACs. They each focus on one candidate, and one candidate only. In Ohio, Thiel has J.D. Vance, and in Arizona, he has Blake Masters.
The singular focus is part of a trend in Republican politics. According to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, while there are currently about 100 fewer single-candidate super PACs than in the 2018 midterms, they’ve already raised and spent more than $30 million above the 2018 totals—with the home stretch still months away.
The GOP dominates this landscape. In 2018, one in three single-candidate super PACs (or “SCSPs”) were liberal. This year, the proportion is half that, according to CRP data. The GOP groups have also outspent their Democratic counterparts $144.1 million to $10.6 million. (Democrats tend to launch more “pop-up” PACs in the weeks just before an election.)
Watchdogs say these groups create unique concerns about corruption and fairness in elections. And in Thiel’s case, it’s part of a broader attempt to influence the shape of the political playing field itself.
As the head of the pro-Vance super PAC, Luke Thompson, recently put it, it’s “a means of taking on myself, as a super PAC, some of the roles traditionally played by campaigns.”
“That is a new and disturbing development,” said Adav Noti, vice president and legal director of the Campaign Legal Center.
“Super PACs are premised on the idea that they operate completely independently from any candidate,” Noti explained, referring to the Citizens United Supreme Court decision that gave rise to super PACs a decade ago.
“However, over time, we’re seeing fewer and fewer separations. And when you have a super PAC that’s essentially functioning as the day-to-day operations of the campaign, that is obviously corruptive,” he said.
Noti’s group, CLC, recently filed a legal complaint against Thiel’s pro-Vance super PAC, “Protect Ohio Values,” and the Vance campaign. It accuses the groups of using a secret website to unlawfully coordinate political strategy.
Thompson, the head of Protect Ohio Values, recently offered a candid assessment of that allegation.
Citing “concerns of some aspects of campaign finance law,” Thompson said in an interview that he had been “putting a lot of information up on a blog” and “hoping that the campaign would see it.” In doing so, he said, the super PAC was “taking on some of the roles traditionally played by campaigns.”
He also thanked Vance personally. “Credit also to J.D. for being willing to trust me on it,” Thompson said, adding that “this was a professional trust that I really appreciate.”
Aaron Scherb of government watchdog Common Cause observed that “sometimes people say the quiet part out loud.”
“Super PACs are often seen as proxies for campaigns, but they can’t work with the campaign,” Scherb said.
“It’s illegal,” Noti said. “Either the FEC or the Department of Justice should put an end to this entire game and shut down super PACs operating as a campaign apparatus. There’s no conceivable understanding under which a super PAC is allowed to do this.”
Thompson would appear to differ. The current system, with its limits on direct campaign donations, he said in the interview, “rewards the fabulously wealthy” and “encourages deceit.”
The limits give an unfair edge to independently wealthy candidates, he said, who can self-fund their campaigns while upstarts and outsiders might struggle to cobble together a budget.
But while that explanation could theoretically carry water, it’s not what’s happening on the ground. Vance and Masters are both wealthy investors with deep connections to the corporate and financial world. And five of the seven highest-grossing SCSPs are supporting candidates of means—Masters, Vance, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), former GOP Pennsylvania Senate candidate and hedge fund guru Dave McCormick, and McCormick’s conqueror, Dr. Mehmet Oz.
“There’s definitely disproportionate involvement of single-candidate super PACs this cycle,” Scherb observed. “These groups tend to have a small number of donors, and they often silence and drown out the voices of small donors and everyday voters.”
Take the case of Masters, Thiel’s longtime friend and protégé. Almost all of his financial depth lies in the Thiel-backed Saving Arizona super PAC. That group has just 52 individual donors, and Thiel dominates, accounting for $15 million of the group’s $16.2 million in receipts.
The bulk of the other contributors come from executives in the tech and financial world, most of them bearing some connection to the crypto community. Exactly four of the 52 hail from Arizona. The pro-Vance group’s numbers have a similar distribution.
“From an anti-corruption perspective, it’s more about how many people are bankrolling a super PAC,” Noti said. “If you have one funder who’s underwriting the activity, then any candidate supported by that super PAC is going to be indebted to that funder.” (GOP megadonor Richard Uihlein single-handedly funded a super PAC backing Eric Greitens, the disgraced Missouri governor who lost his primary this Tuesday.)
Scherb agreed. “Often these donors want something in return,” he said.
Thiel has said he “no longer” believes that “freedom and democracy are compatible.” His super PAC strong-arming certainly aligns with an autocratic view of campaign finance.
His two main bets—Masters and Vance—have been criticized for flirting with autocracy. And they cite the influence of “new right” intellectual Curtis Yarvin, who advocates for a monarchical takeover in the United States.
Neither candidate has a diverse fundraising base, and both have struggled to raise money. Vance’s campaign committee was broke at the end of June, and Masters has loaned himself about $200,000 more than he received from Arizona donors, who in turn have given him $14.6 million less than his friend and business partner, Thiel.
“There’s definitely more danger of a quid pro quo with these groups,” Scherb said. “At the very least it creates the perception of corruption, which in many ways can be just as damaging.”
“This is all terrible,” Noti said. “The fact that small numbers of rich people are dominating major campaigns for Congress is a big flashing red alarm for our elections. It has a lot of complicated causes, but in the end we have to fix this. We have to find a way to enforce the rules that prevent any one person or corporation from just dominating an entire campaign.”