Tech resistance to U.S. President Donald Trump has reached its zenith. But the universe of Democrats who are willing to cut seven-figure checks to liberal causes is still very small.
By Silicon Valley standards, the amount of money required to be a top-tier player in political fundraising is shockingly small. One million dollars in political giving — a small part of some tech billionaires’ net worth — could make them revered and feared campaign donors. But we’ve seen little changing of the guard.
Now, there are some new, ascendant Democratic financiers in Silicon Valley. People such as venture capitalist Rob Stavis have been awakened this cycle after years of relative passivenes. And even traditional big-money givers like Chris Sacca are rethinking how they spend their money — turning to startups and nonprofits instead of the typical party-aligned establishment organizations that had a stranglehold on Democratic donorville.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, plugged-in Democratic donors in Silicon Valley say they’re detecting kicks beneath the surface that won’t catch eyeballs on campaign finance reports. Investors who in previous cycles gave a pittance publicly are now committing a few tens of thousands of dollars — not enough to move the needle in a race, but real movement from the past.
Then there are, unsurprisingly, Silicon Valley-style vanity projects: For instance, the multiple tech donors who have personally hired private investigators to uncover missed connections between Trump and Russia, as one person familiar with multiple donors’ activities described it.
Here, based on conversations with top Democratic donors, fundraisers and operatives — along with campaign finance records — is something of a cheat sheet to the liberal tech barons behind the gusher of cash flooding the airwaves in advance of Election Day.
Day job: Founder of SV Angel, one of Silicon Valley’s most prominent seed-stage venture capital firms.
Political hustle: Considered one of the Democratic bosses of San Francisco, Conway is a divisive figure in local politics, where he has traditionally focused his muscle. But the hyper-connected investor still dabbles in national politics, particularly on gun control issues.
Conway told Recode that he has spent over $1 million on federal issues already in the 2018 cycle. His actual giving directly to federal candidates — at least the giving that’s legally required to be disclosed — is as of now pretty meager, according to campaign finance records, but Conway is still a coveted endorsement in Silicon Valley given his stature as an elder statesman.
“I personally have focused on support for true grassroots organizations like Indivisible, working directly in swing Congressional districts, and with grassroots activists like the brave March for Our Lives students on gun law reform,” Conway told Recode, “Not traditional political parties and Washington D.C.-based groups.”
Day job: Co-founder and former CEO of LinkedIn, and a senior investor at Greylock Partners.
Political hustle: Hoffman is Silicon Valley’s most prominent donor on paper. The billionaire has disclosed more than $4 million in political donations, including $2 million to establishment organizations such as Senate Democrats’ primary super PAC, Senate Majority PAC. At a time when much of the Silicon Valley donor universe appears uncomfortable with the Democratic establishment, Hoffman’s actions suggest that he is willing to back it in a very traditional way: With millions of dollars.
Hoffman told Recode he had a two-fold approach.
“First, support traditional groups while enabling them to modernize,” he said. “Second, amplify new and innovative efforts to build tools and organizations.”
That second part explains checks to like the $250,000 he gave to Win the Future, a group he started with Mark Pincus. Hoffman has also supported a few Republican candidates, records show.
Hoffman is not just a checkbook, though. He is hiring a coterie of advisers that give him more political muscle than the average mega-donor, and is positioning himself as a lighthouse to other wayward billionaires who want to get involved in politics but don’t know where to send their money. Like some other, smaller donors, Hoffman is also trying to encourage the party establishment to grow more modern and think more cost-effectively about how they spend money like his.
“Trump is a serious threat to American democracy,” he said. “Shifting the balance of Congress this November will provide an important check to mitigate this threat.”
Day job: The head of Insight Venture Partners in New York, a late-stage venture capital firm.
Political hustle: Parekh, a close and visible Wall Street emissary for Barack Obama during his presidency, has kept a lower profile in the first years of the resistance. Parekh declined to comment for this story. But behind the scenes, Parekh is one of six finance-types playing a leading role in the House Victory Project, a group uncovered by the New York Times that is raising $10 million for Democrats running in two dozen battleground House races across the country.
Parekh, who doesn’t write enormous checks himself, is not paying too much attention now to presidential politics. But with a Rolodex that spans Silicon Valley and Wall Street, Parekh is likely to be among the most-courted Democratic fundraisers after November and 2020 presidential candidates begin asking for exclusive commitments.
Day job: CEO of the startup Asana and a (lower-profile) co-founder of Facebook.
Political hustle: Moskovitz entered the national political conversation out of nowhere — and we mean nowhere — in late 2016 when he announced that he would spend $20 million on Democratic candidates and liberal groups before Election Day (he would later add $15 million more). While Moskovitz is a well-known figure in Silicon Valley, the Facebook co-founder had barely given money to political groups. Overnight, he became one of the biggest donors on the left side of Sheldon Adelson — leaving reporters and even some Democratic fundraisers at the time scrambling to figure out: “Who is this guy?”
Now he doesn’t have the cloak of anonymity. Moskovitz, who declined to comment for this story, has an estimated net worth of about $14 billion and could very well be the next Adelson of the left if he is prepared to dig deep into his bank account.
Moskovitz and his wife, Cari Tuna, have together funneled almost $5 million to Democratic groups this cycle, according to campaign finance records, half of which went to MoveOn.org. That makes them some of the largest Democratic donors in the country.
Day job: The head of Y Combinator, the startup accelerator that is at the center of the Silicon Valley startup world.
Political hustle: By pure dollar amounts, the 33-year-old is not an A-list money player in Silicon Valley politics. Altman cut a quarter-million dollar check to the same group that Hoffman backed, Senate Majority PAC, in April — sizeable, though not earth-shattering money — but Altman has also helped place some staff at the super PAC to help give him and other tech leaders a direct line of communication to Senate leadership, according to a person familiar with his activities.
That’s given him some added clout in campaign finance circles, observers say, as he tries to make the Democratic big-money apparatus more friendly to technology and digital platforms. Altman does not have as deep pockets as some billionaires on this list, but Altman — who has floated himself as a future political candidate — is positioning himself as a bridge between the younger tech community and older-guard Washington money-chasers.
For now, the lion’s share of Altman’s money is going to the Senate, records show.
“I think of the Senate as a really important check in our system of checks and balances,” Altman told Recode.
Day job: Psychiatrist in Silicon Valley. Also the former wife of venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson.
Political hustle: Jurvetson made an unusual donation this May.
The little-known doctor from Los Altos contributed $5.4 million to a super PAC tied to the women’s group Emily’s List — but, get this, in stock. Payment in equity might be normal in the startup world, but it’s very, very out of the ordinary in campaign finance. Jurvetson’s donation came in the form of shares of the Chinese giant Baidu — making it even more controversial since only American citizens are allowed to donate to U.S. elections. How about non-American companies? “We cleared the donation through our lawyers,” the super PAC said.
Sketchy or not, the bigger question is whether Jurvetson is planning to become part of the Silicon Valley political firmament. She didn’t respond to requests for comment. But it’s safe to note that $5 million to a super PAC is rarely a one-off occurrence (if it was to one particular candidate, perhaps a personal friend of the donor, it’s possible to imagine the check as an isolated incident). One person familiar with her activity described her as “super serious” about political giving.
Jurvetson has given money before — about $100,000 in the 2016 cycle — but not at this scale. If she’s got more stock left in her coffers, expect aspiring candidates to hit her up for it.
Mike and Jackie Bezos
Day job: The parents of the world’s wealthiest person, Jeff Bezos. (Okay, that’s not really a job, but who needs one at that level of family wealth?)
Political hustle: How much wealth? Bloomberg estimates they could be worth as much as $30 billion, thanks to a $245,573 check they put into their son’s company in 1995. The parents oversee the family foundation, which cuts real checks, unlike their famously philanthropically challenged son. The Bezos parents have said very little publicly about how they treat politics — their foundation did not respond to requests for comment — but they did begin to spread their fortune this cycle on one particular group: With Honor.
The couple has given $2 million to the super PAC that recruits candidates, of either party, who previously served in the Armed Forces. (The couple also cut some small checks to Democratic candidates, which gives some insight into their affiliation.) They very well could be purely motivated by recruiting veterans, which would be disappointing to partisans seeking big money from what could be one of the great untapped fortunes in American politics.
Day job: Investor at Bessemer Venture Partners, a venture capital firm that is the child of the Carnegie steel fortune.
Political hustle: Stavis is this cycle’s dark horse. Here’s how he describes his political awakening.
“After Trump was nominated, I think that’s when it first really came into focus,” he told Recode in a rare interview about his political giving. “I think I said something like, ‘If he does win and I didn’t try to stop it, I don’t know how you face your children.’
“I have a bunch of friends who are a little bit miffed by it but think it can’t be that bad. But I think it can be really bad. This can be how you lose a democracy.”
A self-described moderate, Stavis said it’s not always clear that he’d even call himself a Democrat. But he’s donated about $1 million to Democratic candidates and groups this cycle, such as Forward Majority Action, an organization trying to win control of local statehouses, and American Bridge, the leading Democratic opposition research firm.
Stavis admits he’s still very green on the scene, and he said that after coming out of the political woodwork, he is — surprise! — being flooded with calls from 2020 presidential candidates and political consultants trying to convince him to retain their services. The venture capitalist describes himself as very hands-on with the organizations he does fund, asking operatives to explain the return on investment he’ll get for his money, for instance.
He anticipates playing a role in the 2020 presidential election. But he says he is beginning to worry about the party trending too far left.
“It appears that there’s some tension between the center-left part of the party and the left-left part of the party,” Stavis said. “I think reconciling that and finding leadership who can reconcile that is important.”
Day job: Investor at Lowercase Capital but, at age 43, he’s retired from full-time investing.
Political hustle: Ever since the flamboyant venture capitalist stepped back from his gig, Sacca began using his time to cultivate a crop of startups and political groups and recommend the best to his network across Silicon Valley and Hollywood. Sacca hired staff steeped in politics and began seeking out organizations that weren’t just big-money television advertising bombs.
That’s a departure from his history; in the 2016 cycle, Sacca and his wife, Crystal English Sacca, were major donors to Hillary Clinton’s campaign. But this cycle, his giving to candidates is modest. Now Sacca’s team is elevating a series of startups that try to generate votes more cheaply, including many that came out of Higher Ground Labs, an incubator for political tech groups. Some Sacca-backed groups include MobilizeAmerica, an organizing platform that links volunteers to advocacy efforts, and Team, an app that campaigns can use to organize their activists. Together with his wife, Sacca says he’s given millions this cycle to organizations on the left.
“Starting the day after the 2016 election, friends came to us asking ‘What do we do now?!’ Crystal and I didn’t have a good answer, so we got to work looking for the best places to invest our time and money,” Sacca told Recode. “We’re sharing what we learned with friends so their talents and contributions can stop this dangerous tyrant and save the country we love.”
It’s all part of an effort from Sacca to reorient his political work toward digital-minded startups and away from big-check deposits.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.