When tech billionaire Peter Thiel throws his money at candidates, he doesn’t just donate. is adopting a new strategy to reshape how campaigns are run—one that legal experts say upends traditional campaign laws.
Despite the way Thiel’s donations are often framed in the headlines, he doesn’t give most of his money to individual candidates. This is largely because it cannot. Federal law limits individual campaign contributions to a comparatively low amount—$5,800 for a full election cycle.
Instead, most of Thiel’s cash goes to outside groups called super PACs, which unlike campaigns can accept unlimited amounts of money from both individuals and corporations.
But the super PACs Thiel bankrolls aren’t just any super PAC. Each focuses on one candidate and one candidate only. In Ohio, Thiel has JD Vance and in Arizona, he has Blake Masters.
The singular focus is part of a trend in Republican politics. According data from the Center for Responsive Politics, while there are currently about 100 fewer single-candidate super PACs than in the 2018 midterms, they have already raised and spent more than $30 million above their 2018 totals—with the House is still months away.
The GOP dominates this landscape. In 2018, one in three individual candidate super PACs (or “SCSPs”) were liberals. This year, the rate is half that, according to CRP data. Democratic Party groups have also outspent their Democratic counterparts $144.1 million to $10.6 million. (Democrats tend to start more “pop-up” PACs in the weeks just before an election.)
Watchdogs say these groups raise unique concerns about corruption and fairness in elections. And in Thiel’s case, it’s part of a larger effort to influence the shape of the political playing field itself.
As head of the pro-Vance super PAC, Luke Thompson, recently put it onit’s “a means for me, as a super PAC, to take on some of the roles that campaigns traditionally play.”
“This is a new and troubling development,” said Adav Noti, vice president and legal director of the Campaign Legal Center.
“Super PACs are based on the idea that they operate completely independently of any candidate,” Notis explained, referring to the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling that led to super PACs a decade ago.
“However, over time, we see fewer and fewer separations. And when you have a super PAC that essentially functions as the day-to-day operations of the campaign, that’s obviously corrupt,” 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 illegally coordinate political strategy.
Thompson, the head of Protect Ohio Values, recently offered a candid assessment of that claim.
Citing “concerns about certain aspects of campaign finance law,” Thompson said in one interview that he was “putting a lot of information on a blog” and “hopes the campaign will see it.” In doing so, he said, the super PAC “has taken on some of the roles that campaigns have traditionally played.”
He also thanked Vance personally. “Also credit to JD for being willing to trust me with this,” Thompson said, adding that “that was a professional trust that I really appreciate.”
Aaron Scherb of the advocacy group 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 whole game and shut down the super PACs that act as campaign vehicles. There is no intelligible understanding under which a super PAC is allowed to do this.”
Thompson seems to differ. The current system, with its limits on direct campaign donations, he said in the interview, “rewards the fabulously rich” and “encourages fraud.”
The limits give an unfair advantage to wealthy independent candidates, he said, who can self-finance their campaigns, while first-timers and outsiders may struggle to raise a budget.
But while this explanation could theoretically transport water, that’s not what happens on the ground. Vance and Masters are both wealthy investors with deep connections to the corporate and financial world. And five of the seven top-grossing SCSPs support media candidates—Masters, Vance, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), former Pennsylvania GOP Senate candidate and hedge fund guru Dave McCormick and McCormick’s successor, Dr. Mehmet Oz.
“There is certainly disproportionate participation by individual candidate super PACs in this cycle,” Scherb observed. “These groups tend to have small numbers of donors and 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 is in the Thiel-backed super PAC Saving Arizona. That group has just 52 individual donors, and Thiel dominates, accounting for $15 million from the group 16.2 million dollars in the evidence.
Most of the other contributors come from executives in the tech and financial worlds, most of whom have some connection to the crypto community. Exactly four of the 52 are from Arizona. The pro-Vance team numbers have a similar distribution.
“From an anti-corruption perspective, it’s more about how many people fund a super PAC,” Noti said. “If you have a funder taking on the activity, then any candidate supported by that super PAC will be beholden to that funder.” (GOP philanthropist Richard Uihlein single-handedly funded a super PAC backing Eric Greitens, the disgraced Missouri governor who lost his primary this Tuesday.)
The Serb agreed. “Often these donors want something in return,” he said.
Thiel has he said “no longer believes” that “freedom and democracy are compatible”. His super-powerful arming of the PAC certainly aligns with an authoritarian view of campaign finance.
His two main bets-Masters and Vance- have been criticized for flirting with autocracy. And they mention the influence of the “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 disbanded in late June, and Masters has borrowed about $200,000 more than he received from Arizona donors, who in turn gave him $14.6 million less than his friend and business partner, Thiel.
“There’s definitely more risk of a tie with these teams,” Scherb said. “At least it creates the perception of corruption, which in many ways can be just as damaging.”
“This is all terrible,” said Noti. “The fact that small numbers of rich people dominate major congressional campaigns is a big red light flashing for our elections. It has many complicated causes, but in the end we have to fix it. We have to find a way to enforce the rules that prevent any one person or company from simply dominating an entire campaign.”