By Heather Somerville, San Jose Mercury News
SAN FRANCISCO — Peter Thiel has built and funded some of the most successful Silicon Valley startups, but the influence he wields in politics may be the cornerstone of his next legacy.
Thiel, co-founder of PayPal and billionaire tech investor, has become one of the most highly sought endorsements for conservative politicians looking to capture votes from Democratic-leaning Silicon Valley and the good will of powerful tech tycoons. A longtime political enthusiast — which friends say dates back to his unsuccessful run for class president in high school — Thiel, 46, has given millions of his self-made fortune to Libertarian and Republican candidates and advised them on business and technology matters.
“Peter is on the cutting edge of rapidly changing views inside the Republican Party,” said Matt Mackowiak, a Texas-based Republican consultant who worked on President George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign. “He’s had an increasing influence as a major donor.”
Through these political connections, and along with his tremendous wealth and influence in the tech industry, Thiel aims to revive research and innovation, which he says the government and industry have allowed to stagnate. He hopes to foster a new generation of startups that is more bold and creative, and a new generation of the Republican Party that embraces a platform of technology and innovation. Under Thiel’s agenda, Uber would be able to operate freely, Tesla could sell cars directly to consumers, and biotech startups wouldn’t have to wrangle with the Food and Drug Administration.
“Our political system does not work all that well to support the areas of science and technology,” Thiel said in an hourlong interview with this newspaper. “Theoretically there is a role for the government, but if it’s hard to get the website for the Affordable Care Act to work, how are you going to win the war on cancer?
“Silicon Valley is just one of the few places in the U.S. that is just booming,” he added. “So the question (politicians) have is: ‘What can I learn from it?’ ”
Thiel’s sphere of influence in both politics and tech is likely to grow with last month’s publication of his book Zero to One, a how-to manual on creating and running a startup. The book — which prompted a national media blitz for the usually shy Thiel, who sat down with this newspaper at his San Francisco office last week — is based on a series of class lectures he gave in 2012 at Stanford University. It also explores his own social and economic theories, such as the West’s loss of faith in the future and the challenges posed by European Union-imposed regulations. While Thiel said the book is meant for entrepreneurs, it is also making waves among policymakers.
“Peter has always been one of the most involved entrepreneurs in the political space, and I think that this book is a continued reflection of his interest and involvement,” said Aaron Ginn, co-founder of LincolnLabs, a tech group that advocates for libertarian values.
Strategists say Thiel can use his influence on lawmakers to push for regulation that doesn’t stifle innovation and immigration laws that make it easier for tech companies to hire. Thiel said he plans to “do more to foster more technological and scientific progress in our society,” and points to cancer research, which he says has made few advances in the last four decades, and laments that the government would never be able to lead a research effort as sophisticated as the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bombs used in World War II.
“There’s this sense of stagnation in this country,” he said. “The younger generation is expected to do worse than their parents. People feel that they are not progressing in their careers, their salaries are stuck and there is a sense that the future is going to be worse than the present. So the question is how do we get out of that. And it would be nice if our politicians thought about that more.”
Derek Khanna, a fellow with Yale Law School and author of The Party of Innovation, a tech-focused agenda for the Republican Party published in May, says Thiel has “been a strong benefit to the Republican Party in trying to get them to embrace a more technology-friendly direction. There are starting to be a lot of Republicans who are taking technology innovation seriously, and Peter Thiel has had a lot to do with that.”
Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky has pushed for more tech education, expressed support for Bitcoin and criticized the National Security Agency’s surveillance program. Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) has called for tax cuts for tech companies and helped pass a patent reform bill.
Thiel gave $45,800 to McCarthy and his 2012 campaign, according to the website Influence Explorer, and is expected to back Paul, who recently opened an office in the Bay Area in anticipation of a 2016 presidential run. A self-described libertarian, Thiel used his wealth to bankroll the 2012 presidential bid of Ron Paul, Rand Paul’s father, with a $2.6 million contribution.
Although he supports legalization of marijuana and gay marriage — Thiel is openly gay and has a boyfriend — he has backed candidates with more conservative social views, such as Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who has received $7,400 from him.
Thiel’s wealth comes from years of investing following PayPal, which he co-founded in 1998 and sold to eBay in 2002 for $1.5 billion, earning about $55 million in the process. Born in Germany and raised in Foster City, Calif., he made an early investment in Facebook, reportedly making more than $1 billion in that company’s IPO, and went on to start big-data firm Palantir Technologies, now worth $9 billion, and invest in and advise dozens of other startups.
Thiel’s office in the Presidio, where his investment firms Thiel Capital and Founders Fund are housed, is a regular stop for candidates from across the conservative spectrum looking for an endorsement check and the chance to hear the ideas of someone they consider “a thought leader, and certainly different than the traditional big donor that normally comes out of business,” Edward Rollins, a Republican strategist and consultant, said in an interview.
Corey Cook, a professor of American politics at the University of San Francisco, said Thiel offers the GOP a doorway to where Democrats have had a stronghold, but where business values more closely align with Republicans.
“This is about the Republicans cultivating a donor base and an industry base,” he said. “They are trying to get a toehold in Silicon Valley.”
Some have speculated that Thiel may run for office, using his limitless bank account and appeal among the wealthy and powerful tech community to vie for state office. But that is a proposition he hotly rejects.
“I would never run for office,” he said. “I think politics is very interesting, I think it’s very important and, generally, it’s endlessly frustrating. I’m much more focused on tech, not politics. I’m in Silicon Valley, not in D.C.”
But with the November election just around the corner, Thiel will hardly be staying on the sidelines.
“You get pulled into it every now and then,” he said. And he offers, laughing, that if he ever gets elected to city council, “You can call me to complain.”
Peter Thiel’s Political Contributions:
Amount: $2.6 million
Who: Endorse Liberty — the political action committee supporting former Rep. Ron Paul, a 2012 presidential candidate.
Amount: $2 million
Who: The Club Growth for Action — conservative political advocacy group led by Chris Chocola, a businessman and former congressman from Indiana that advocates for limited government, free trade and entitlement reform, and gives money to conservative Republican candidates.
Who: Revolution PAC — the smaller political action committee supporting Rep. Ron Paul’s run for president in 2012.
Who: Freedom to Marry Washington — the campaign for same-sex marriage in Washington, which the state voted to legalize on Nov. 6, 2012.
Who: Rep. Kevin McCarthy — the majority went to the McCarthy Victory Fund, the fundraising committee for the California Republican and House majority leader in Congress, with $5,000 going directly to McCarthy.
Who: Republican Party of California
Who: Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney — $6,000 went to the Republican presidential candidate defeated by President Barack Obama in 2012, and the remainder was donated to his political action committee.
Who: Josh Belinfante — a lawyer and Republican candidate for Georgia state Senate in 2012, although he lost in the primary.
Who: Sen. Ted Cruz — a Republican from Texas, a favorite among social conservatives and champions of religious liberty expected to run in the 2016 presidential race.
Sources: Opensecrets.org, Followthemoney.org, Center for Public Integrity
Photo: Ken Yeung via Flickr