clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

A tech billionaire spent millions to elect his granddaughter. It’s working.

Another way in which Silicon Valley is shaping our politics.

Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs speaking onstage from behind a podium with his wife standing next to him.
Irwin Jacobs speaking at the LLIMF dinner on October 10, 2018.
Krista Kennell/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

Call it family love.

A tech billionaire has poured millions of dollars into a congressional race in San Diego — in order to help elect his granddaughter.

Irwin Jacobs, the founder and longtime chairman of the telecom company Qualcomm, and his wife Joan invested $1.5 million into an outside super PAC that backed the Democratic primary election bid of their granddaughter Sara Jacobs in California’s 53rd Congressional District. On Tuesday, Jacobs advanced to the runoff with about 30 percent of the Election Day vote, according to the Associated Press.

Jacobs’s grandparents’ political contribution is another reminder of how tech titan wealth in 2020 is often used to purchase political influence, whether for themselves or for their next of kin.

The Jacobs family have long been Democratic megadonors. With a net worth of $1.2 billion, Jacobs and his wife have donated about $12 million over their lifetimes to Democratic campaigns and outside groups, according to federal disclosures, and have hosted politicians like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama when those candidates were raising money throughout Southern California.

But the investment in their granddaughter reflects a different kind of political objective. Earlier this winter, the Jacobs couple started a new super PAC, called Forward California, and sank the $1.5 million into the group, which bought ads portraying Donald Trump as a Cheeto and portraying their granddaughter as a “new generation of leadership.”

The younger Jacobs, 31, has a thinner resume than her rivals — she worked in international relations, served as a policy adviser on the Hillary Clinton campaign, and then founded a nonprofit focused on child poverty. But in addition to the money that her grandparents put into Forward California, the Qualcomm heiress also put $1.5 million of her own money into the bid, all over the last three months.

Not that Jacobs’s opponents see much difference between all of this Jacobs money, adding up to $3 million in total. Super PACs are, by law, supposedly independent from campaigns.

“The idea that a PAC funded by millions of dollars from the Jacobs family is actually independent from Sara Jacobs is laughable,” a strategist for her main rival, San Diego City Council President Georgette Gómez, told one reporter.

And the Jacobs aren’t alone. Tech billionaires have been flooding the political system with their money in the age of Trump. People like LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman and Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz are undergirding the Democratic Party with their largesse. Tech money also financed the campaigns of Pete Buttigieg and Cory Booker, two Democratic presidential hopefuls who have since dropped out of the race. But at the same time, tech money has become more and more toxic, with some Democrats forswearing large checks from the tech industry.

The children of billionaires, not just in tech, have long had power. Nepotism is common: Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner have senior jobs in their father’s and father-in-law’s White House, for instance. These heirs direct their family’s philanthropic efforts, trade on their family names to notch plush gigs, and become society figures. And it’s not unheard of for these heirs, as they age and see candidates when they look in their mirror, to spend their money on (often quixotic) political campaigns.

But spending it on their grandkids? Less so.

Believe it or not, this is the second time the Qualcomm billionaires have tried to elect their granddaughter. In 2018, when the then-29-year-old Jacobs ran for Congress in a different California congressional seat, the grandparents gave $2.5 million to Women Vote!, a super PAC tied to the women’s group EMILY’s List that in turn spent $2.4 million in Jacobs’s race on her behalf. The money wasn’t enough to secure her a win that time.

So in 2020, Irwin and Joan Jacobs are proving to be relatively cheap — and with better results.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.