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Peter Thiel is making the biggest political bet of his life

The billionaire investor is putting $10 million behind the author of Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance.

J.D. Vance holding a phone to his ear.
J.D. Vance stands to benefit from his ties to Peter Thiel, for whom he used to work.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Silicon Valley iconoclast Peter Thiel is placing the biggest political bet of his career, pumping $10 million into a super PAC that is supporting a former Thiel aide who may run for the US Senate in Ohio.

Thiel has cut a check of just over $10 million to an outside group backing J.D. Vance, the author of the bestselling book Hillbilly Elegy, a much bigger contribution than he made to support Donald Trump and Thiel’s largest disclosed political donation ever. Vance is one of several people in Thiel’s network who have weighed Senate bids in recent years and stand to benefit substantially from their ties to the billionaire investor.

The donations are the latest display of how Thiel is cultivating a network of young, populist, Ivy League-educated proteges and encouraging them to run for Senate all around the country.

Vance’s book turned him into a literary and cultural sensation after the 2016 election, especially for Democrats who were seeking clues about the working-class white voters that powered Trump to victory. The book, a memoir about Vance’s upbringing in Ohio and Kentucky, was recently made into a Netflix film.

Thiel’s $10 million donation, first reported by the Cincinnati Enquirer, offers Vance some immediate power in what is expected to be a hard-fought Republican primary for an open Senate seat vacated by retiring Sen. Rob Portman. Vance has not committed to running, and several current Congress members from Ohio, along with state GOP stalwarts, are weighing their own bids.

The contribution was made last Friday to Protect Ohio Values, a super PAC formed last month to support a possible Vance bid, a group spokesman confirmed to Recode. Another billionaire family deeply involved in conservative politics, the Mercers of New York, has also made a substantial contribution to back Vance’s potential bid, the group said.

Vance has long been in Thiel’s orbit. Vance briefly worked for Mithril Capital, a venture capital firm co-founded by Thiel, that has since fallen into disrepair. Vance last year started a venture capital firm based in Ohio that was funded in part with Thiel’s money.

Vance is the latest Thiel ally to start testing the waters, thanks in part to the expected backing from the Silicon Valley billionaire. One of Thiel’s closest aides, Blake Masters, considered running for the US Senate in Arizona in the last cycle and ultimately decided against it. But Masters once again is reportedly weighing a Senate bid in the state in the 2022 cycle.

And last year, Thiel focused his political energy on supporting Kris Kobach, the immigration hardliner who failed to win a GOP Senate primary in the state of Kansas. Thiel ended up donating over $2 million to a group financing Kobach’s bid.

That was more than Thiel spent on behalf of his previous big political bet, Trump. Thiel was one of the only prominent Silicon Valley leaders to publicly back Donald Trump when he ran for president in 2016, contributing a little over $1 million to a super PAC that backed his bid. But Thiel did not cut a check to Trump or any Trump-backing groups during Trump’s reelection campaign and is increasingly looking past him.