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Trump Will Be a (the?) Major Factor in Ohio's Senate Race. So Why Did Peter Thiel Just Drop $10 Million Into the Contest?

Josh Mandel (AP Photo/Phil Long, File)

Tech entrepreneur Peter Thiel just dropped a massive donation into a PAC supporting author and venture capitalist J.D. Vance for the open U.S. Senate seat in Ohio. Vance has not officially entered the race, but his name has been discussed as a possible candidate to replace incumbent Republican Sen. Rob Portman, who announced earlier this year that he will not seek another term. Thiel’s donation has raised some eyebrows in the state, where there’s every indication that the primary election will be a referendum on President Trump.

Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy, which portrayed the struggles of Vance’s family in Middletown, Ohio, briefly pondered entering the race to unseat incumbent Democrat Sen. Sherrod Brown in 2018 after Republican Josh Mandel dropped out of the race, but ultimately decided not to run.

A political action committee (PAC) called Protect Ohio Values was formed on Feb. 24 by Timothy Koch of political accounting and compliance firm Koch & Hoos, according to Federal Election Commission records. The super PACs website states, “We’re a network of grassroots conservatives committed to electing a Senator who will stand for and defend Ohio’s values in Washington, DC.” As such, the group believes that ” J. D. Vance is the right man for the job and we are signing up supporters and raising funds to demonstrate a groundswell of support in the Buckeye State.”

Thiel, the founder of PayPal and an early investor in Facebook, recently donated $10 million to the super PAC, according to the group’s communications advisor, Bryan Lanza. Thiel also is a key investor in Vance’s Narya Capital, which supports start-ups in flyover country. After the success of Hillbilly Elegy, which was later turned into a Netflix movie, Vance, who has never run for public office, left California and moved his family back to Ohio, “in search of a better life.”

In addition to Thiel, the Mercer family has made a “significant contribution” to the Vance-supporting PAC, according to Lanza. The Mercers have been key Trump supporters and have also given generously to support Breitbart News.

The relationship between Trump and Thiel, who spoke on Trump’s behalf at the Republican National Convention in 2016 and donated $1.25 million to his campaign that year, seems to have cooled considerably. Thiel did not speak at the 2020 convention and according to some reports, he was unhappy with Trump’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Not much is known about Vance’s political positions — he identifies as a Republican, writes for National Review, voted for Evan McMullen in 2016, and has not publicly said whether or not he voted for Trump in 2020. Of late, he’s been tweeting about:

  • The crisis at the border: “Many of the migrants said they had spent their life savings and gone into debt to pay coyotes — human smugglers — who had falsely promised them that the border was open after President Biden’s election” and “A predictable consequence of Biden policy that is basically an invitation to illegal immigrants.
  • The U.S. military going woke: “We should eliminate the university degree requirement from the officer corps. It’s dumb to make people get a BA before becoming officers anyway, and it may just make the military leadership less woke.”
  • Covid: “Florida is a lot older and did better on an age-adjusted basis.
  • Bill Kristol: “Bill Kristol’s fundamental contribution to American public life is that he pushed us into the Iraq War when we were totally unprepared, we didn’t have a strategy, and we didn’t have an exit plan … In a country where that doesn’t end your career, the elite is broken”

He’s also recently given interviews to Seb Gorka and Charlie Kirk, who, of course, are among Trump’s most ardent supporters.

Enter: Josh Mandel and Jane Timken.

Mandel, the former two-term state treasurer, is a leading contender in what promises to be a crowded primary field. Mandel has already declared his candidacy for the 2022 race, along with former Ohio Republican Party Chairwoman Jane Timken and a handful of other, lesser-known candidates. Mandel, a Marine intelligence specialist who served two terms in Iraq, ran against Sherrod Brown in 2012 and lost by 6 points in a highly contentious race that attracted high-dollar donors from around the country. He was also the nominee in the 2018 election to unseat Brown, but backed out of the race, citing his wife’s health issues. The 43-year-old came to prominence in Ohio politics in the TEA Party era and was a popular speaker at rallies demanding an end to profligate government spending. He had some notable accomplishments as state treasurer:

  • Severed contracts with two major banks that were “systematically exploiting public pension funds and taxpayers”
  • Launched OhioCheckbook.com, a website that reports every expenditure in state government, in an effort to increase government transparency
  •  Was awarded the “Transparency in Government Award” by the State Financial Officers Foundation
  • Made Ohio the first state to enable taxpayers to pay taxes with cryptocurrency
  • Helped Ohio retain the highest possible rating from Standard & Poor’s for the state’s $4 billion government investment fund

Mandel spurned Kasich in 2016, backing Trump. He also supported Trump in 2020. Since announcing his candidacy, he has given high-profile interviews to outlets like Breitbart News and spoke at CPAC. A frequent critic of Ohio Gov. DeWine’s draconian lockdown orders, Mandel has also spoken at events in Ohio for the pro-Trump, anti-lockdown Patriot America group. He currently has $4.3 million in his Senate campaign account and about $500,000 in a leadership PAC. If mainstream media coverage is any indication, Mandel is thought to be the frontrunner—the knives have been out for him since the day he announced he was running.

Timken, a Harvard grad and American University-trained lawyer, claims to have close ties to Trump, having worked with him to engineer a takeover of the ORP in 2016 from loyalists of former governor and thrice-failed presidential candidate John Kasich, the son of a mailman. Timken had backed Kasich in the primary but took back her endorsement and supported Trump in the general election. In a Twitter video announcing her bid for the U.S. Senate seat, she said, “As Chairman of the Ohio Republican Party, I was a conservative disruptor. With the support of President Trump, I built a party that delivered conservative, America First victories at every level. Now I’m taking that same work ethic and attitude to Washington.” In January she resigned her position as ORP chairman to focus on her Senate campaign. Like Vance, Timken has never run for public office and her lack of name recognition will be a significant impediment to her campaign.

If Vance were to enter the race, he’d need to find a way to carve out a space for himself in a primary race that may come down to which candidate is seen as most loyal to Trump and the America First agenda. Mandel and Timken both seem well aware of that fact and would love to have the coveted Trump endorsement. Advisors to Trump reportedly “talked out” him out of an early endorsement of Timken. “It’s way too early to make endorsement decisions in many of the races, particularly when primaries are more than a year away,” Trump advisor Jason Miller told Axios. “This is much broader than any one race.” He added that the Trump organization will be vetting candidates to “help ensure all endorsees are conservative America First Republicans.”

Vance’s recent tweets seem to indicate that he could potentially be on board with Trump’s America First agenda, but how does Thiel’s support fit into this equation? Thiel, a self-described libertarian, may see in Vance a candidate who is not in the Trump mold. While the mood in Ohio seems to favor Trump’s brand of national populism, a $10 million war chest could go a long way toward making the case for a wonky, policy-focused candidate and a less-rancorous style. Still, it would be a long shot. I asked some seasoned Ohio political veterans what they knew about Vance. The answers didn’t bode well for the first-time candidate as no one I spoke with seemed to know anything about his political positions. One said, “I guess I need to watch Hillbilly Elegy.” That’s a problem if you’re planning to run in one of the most high-profile races in the country.

Still, it’s early. Candidates have more than a year to define themselves and promote their campaigns. Candidates will rise and fall between now and the primary. Trump’s support promises to play a major role, as will the candidates’ ability to raise money.