Peter Thiel finally ponied up: The most prominent conservative figure in tech reportedly plans to give up to $5 million in additional funds to Blake Masters’ Arizona Senate campaign.
Thiel had originally been reluctant to spend any more on Masters, the Thiel Capital COO, beyond an initial $15 million donation to the Saving Arizona PAC. Instead, he wanted Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to foot the bill. After all, did McConnell want to win the Senate or not? But by playing hardball on funding, McConnell got Thiel to throw more funds at his pet political project, all while still reserving the McConnell-associated Senate Leadership Fund for other tight races.
McConnell’s gamble paid off. Now it’s time to see if Thiel’s will pay off too.
There’s a lot at stake, as the Senate races in Arizona and Ohio will determine Thiel’s role in shaping the future of the Republican party. Thiel has donated to over a dozen Congressional campaigns in this midterm cycle. But unlike the more established politicians in this cohort, J.D. Vance and Masters are homegrown, one-time employees of the man himself — Thielian without compromise.
If Masters and Vance win, so does Thiel’s vision for the GOP. It’s a vision of moving beyond the country club, NAFTA Republicans; it’s a more buttoned-up, competent version of Trumpism, capable of translating the former President’s blustery anti-establishment, anti-technocrat rhetoric into an actual social and economic program.
As it stands, Vance holds a strong lead in Ohio. Election models from FiveThirtyEight give Vance around a 71% chance of winning the race, despite his opponent Tim Ryan having outraised him nearly 11 to 1. At a recent GOP fundraising event, Thiel reportedly told guests Vance didn’t need more funding because the Ohio race was “done in my mind.”
But out in Arizona, Masters is still playing catch-up against incumbent Sen. Mark Kelly. Those same FiveThirtyEight models give Kelly an 80% chance of winning. And leading up to Election Day, Kelly will have a huge amount of money to spend on television ads since he outraised Masters by nearly 8 to 1, even accounting for Thiel’s latest $5 million pledge.
Masters dismissed polls that showed Kelly with a comfortable lead. He’s right to point out that this race is very much up for grabs — let’s not forget those 2016 election meters. In either case, Masters undeniably has a tougher road ahead compared to Vance.
Thiel is backing Masters and Vance in part because he believes Democrats have hitched their wagon to Big Tech, to the detriment of the American middle class. In his keynote speech at this year’s National Conservatism conference, Thiel took the established resource curse theory from economics and reconfigured it as the “tech curse,” which he defines as when a “strong technology industry is associated with social dysfunction rather than progress.” In both cases, the general idea is that an overabundance of wealth allows corrupt and incompetent governments to stay in power, while the economy sustains itself with minimal ingenuity.
Thiel posits that tech wealth enables distorted political dynamics, which have in turn led to the real estate crisis and broader hollowing out of the middle class. And though he identifies “wokeism” as the religion of our resource-rich state, Thiel still says it shouldn’t be mistaken as “the main thing that’s going on.”
Accordingly, Thiel tells us, Democrats have no choice but to hitch their wagon to tech and “pretend that they can make [the] California [model] work for the country as a whole.” Alternatives such as the “fake blue-collar” model or the redistributionist “globalist finance model” work even less well than California, he claims.
So where does that leave Republicans? Thiel criticizes the party as it stands now for being too nihilistic — only defining itself in opposition to wokeism and the broader California model. He instead wants the party to get back to “some broad-based growth that is not inflationary, not cancerous, and not some kind of narrow real estate racket.”
But that’s just about where the prescription ends. We can extrapolate from other Thiel statements that he wants more investment in non-software technology (“atoms, not bits”), and of course, he’ll always be in favor of less regulation. But other than that, Thiel’s vision seems more defined by what it isn’t rather than what it is. Ironically, then, it suffers from the same ideological nihilism he identifies within the conventional GOP.
It’s important to note that Thiel doesn’t want Republicans to kill the golden goose: A tech executive reading this might think Peter Thiel wants nothing more than to wrest the state power from the Democrats and use it to destroy tech companies, but that’s only half right: He wants state power, but not as a means of destroying tech.
“It’s just like Saudi Aramco isn’t the main problem in Saudi Arabia — it’s the most functioning institution,” Thiel analogized to suggest we should blame political dysfunction on the superstructure surrounding Apple and Google, not the companies themselves. So Thiel identifies tech as fundamental to the problem, but doesn’t want to destroy it as part of the solution.