As Republicans try to salvage their troubled quest to win the Senate majority this fall, party operatives are pointing their fingers at the fundraising failures of two GOP nominees and their idiosyncratic tech mogul backer, Peter Thiel.
Thiel’s $15 million super PAC investments helped boost Ohio’s J.D. Vance and Arizona’s Blake Masters in their competitive primaries earlier this year, with the California billionaire even influencing former President Donald Trump’s decision to endorse both candidates.
But since the two candidates won their respective nominations, Thiel has not stepped up with additional investments as Vance and Masters have struggled to raise money on their own – while both have been massively outraised by their Democratic rivals. The disparity has prompted Republican observers to question why Thiel has so far refused to help his chosen candidates in the general election through a big donation to a super PAC.
“This is a Thiel problem that has a Thiel solution,” said Liam Donovan, a Republican lobbyist and strategist. “Anybody that emerged from these primaries with 30% was going to need help. The difference here is there’s a patron that has the capacity to help.”
Washington Republicans tell CNN the particular problems in Ohio and Arizona reflect larger issues that are hurting the GOP’s Senate hopes. President Joe Biden’s slightly improving approval rating, a Democratic base energized by the recent Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade and lower gas prices have limited an already narrow window for Republicans to take back the majority after losing it in 2021. High-risk candidates and a Senate map with plenty of GOP seats to defend complicate the situation, as does Trump’s own unwillingness to use his hefty war chest to help the Republican effort.
Poor fundraising from Thiel’s twin champions, meanwhile, does not mean the campaigns are doomed. Every Republican who spoke to CNN expressed confidence Vance would defeat Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan in Ohio and that Masters remains competitive against Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly in a sharply divided Arizona. But their money deficits further limit where Republicans can make crucial decisions about where to spend finite dollars in the final months of the midterms.
“Candidates need to understand that winning the majority is a team sport, and when you aren’t getting the job done in your race, it affects candidates in other races,” said one Republican operative who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “Republicans aren’t playing with monopoly money here. … Outside groups will never be able to equalize the playing field. It really makes it difficult.”
Without a new infusion of cash, the poor fundraising from Vance and Masters has prompted a shift in Republican outside spending. The leadership-aligned Senate Leadership Fund announced last week it would cancel $8 million in ad reservations in Arizona in September and instead spend an additional $28 million in Ohio to shore up Vance. The super PAC still has ad time reserved in Arizona throughout the month of October.
“We’re leaving the door wide open in Arizona but we want to move additional resources to other offensive opportunities that have become increasingly competitive, as well as an unexpected expense in Ohio,” Steven Law, the president of SLF, said in a statement last Friday.
Still, the thinly veiled message to Thiel was clear: Without a dramatic shift in fundraising or the races themselves, Republican super PACs would be investing in one of his chosen horses, but not both. That message follows weeks of periodic conversations between Thiel and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, beginning shortly after Vance won his primary in May. In some of those conversations, which were first reported by Puck, McConnell urged Thiel to donate to SLF, a request Thiel has flatly rejected, according to a person familiar with knowledge of the talks. Another Republican familiar says the donation request did not come directly from McConnell but instead from an ally of the Kentucky Republican.
Recent back-channeling between Thiel and McConnell allies has also proved fruitless, this person said, noting that the conservative tech mogul has been closely monitoring Masters’ performance and wants to see his campaign improve before making any decisions. Thiel’s thinking is that SLF could be compelled to make a new investment if Masters becomes more competitive, this person said.
McConnell himself has not given up on Masters. The Republican leader is hosting a fundraiser in Washington on September 6 with Masters, according to an invitation obtained by CNN.
But the spending shift from SLF last week also reflects a sense throughout the GOP establishment in Washington that Thiel’s deep-pocketed play to shape the party has been inconsistent and problematic.
“If you want to be a kingmaker, you have to elect your kings,” said the Republican operative.
An unsettled map
The frustration with Thiel comes at an unsettled time for Republican hopes of taking back the Senate – and money concerns are at the fore.
In addition to questions about Ohio and Arizona, Republican Mehmet Oz is being outraised and outspent by Democrat John Fetterman in Pennsylvania; a contentious primary in New Hampshire has allowed Don Bolduc, a Trump-aligned candidate that many establishment Republicans believe can’t win a general election, to lead in recent public polls; and a series of questionable comments and shaky campaign appearances has raised Republican fears about football star Herschel Walker’s campaign in Georgia.
The uncertainty has led McConnell to temper expectations that his party could take back the legislative body in 2022.
“It’s a 50/50 proposition,” McConnell said recently. “We’ve got a 50/50 Senate right now, we’ve got a 50/50 nation and I think the outcome is likely to be very, very close either way.”
He added: “Senate races are statewide. They’re just different in nature from individual congressional districts. Twenty of my members up and only 14 of the Democrats, so that’s to their advantage. Many of these states are purple states and could go either way. I think it’s just going to be a really close race.”
That uncertainty has only heightened frustration with Thiel, amid a growing sense that the tech mogul – who according to Forbes is worth nearly $4 billion – effectively abandoned his top recruits at their most critical moment.
“What’s another 10 million to Peter Thiel?” said a second Republican operative working on Senate races. “That puts Arizona in play.”
“You got these guys through Peter,” said another operative, paraphrasing the general feeling about Thiel right now. “You get them out.”
Even still, the same operative believes Thiel is done spending on campaigns for the midterms, echoing what people close to the billionaire have suggested for months: “He has been pretty clear from what I have heard that he felt like he shouldn’t have to spend any more money in the general.”
Frustrated Republicans are not limiting their criticism to Thiel. A third Republican operative said the candidates themselves have thus far failed to meet their fundraising responsibilities as Senate hopefuls in major races, criticizing both Vance and Masters for raising less than some Republican House members in relatively noncompetitive races.
Through the end of June, for instance, Vance had raised a total of $3.5 million, while Ryan had raised nearly $22 million. Masters had raised nearly $5 million, while Kelly had raised $54 million.
“These guys got to get to work,” said the operative, who also questioned why the National Republican Senatorial Committee has not done more to help Vance and Masters to raise more money. “They should have been training these guys.”
A source familiar with the Vance campaign told CNN that Vance “has seen a significant increase in his fundraising since last quarter’s numbers were released.” A spokesman for the Masters campaign declined to comment for this story.
A spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee declined to comment on whether they have put pressure on Vance or Masters to prioritize fundraising.
Another Republican strategist pointed to the other missing factor in boosting troubled Republican Senate candidates: Trump.
A spokesman for the former President did not respond to a request for comment. While he has used his endorsement to power candidates to primary wins, he has been stingy in doling out money from his own coffers. Republican operatives worry that Trump’s behemoth war chest is also making it harder for Senate candidates to raise money, noting that top donors are less likely to give to candidates when they feel like they have already given to Trump.
“The Trump mothership is hoovering up everything that’s out there in terms of small-dollar donations,” said the strategist. “Trump’s not going to spend it on winning elections. This is a scenario where he should be called out.”