Blake Masters has surged in the Arizona GOP Senate primary after securing Trump's endorsement.
His main opponent, Jim Lamon, has made Masters' association with Thiel into a campaign issue.
Lamon is drawing on GOP suspicions of Silicon Valley, big tech, and wealthy financiers.
PRESCOTT, Arizona — Billionaire tech CEO Peter Thiel may be more responsible than anyone else for Blake Masters' ascent in the Arizona Republican Senate primary.
The PayPal founder and early Facebook investor has poured $13.5 million into a super PAC called "Saving Arizona" that's supporting his protégé. And Masters' opponents — particularly Republican businessman Jim Lamon — want voters to know it.
"Masters only ever worked for Peter Thiel, who, by the way, was a founding Facebook board member in 2005," Lamon told a crowd of roughly 200 people who showed up on July 15 at the Prescott Hotel and Resort, where the one-time Army Airborne Officer with a thick Southern accent was holding a town hall in the Goldwater Ballroom.
It was a Friday evening, and former President Donald Trump was set to speak the following day alongside Masters, who he endorsed last month, in an adjacent town in the mountainous Yavapai County — until the rally was postponed by nearly a week due to the death of Trump's first wife, Ivana.
The 35-year-old first-time candidate now leads the pack, despite polling in the single digits as recently as April.
Serving as the chief operating officer of Thiel's investment firm and the president of the Thiel Foundation until just four months ago, Masters has been associated with the conservative tech mogul for his entire adult life. He is the co-author with Thiel of Zero to One, a book about building startups that draws on notes that Masters took when he was an undergrad student of Thiel's at Stanford University.
Thiel, meanwhile, is associated with a variety of Silicon Valley companies; he co-founded PayPal and founded Palantir, a big data analytics firm. He was also the first outside investor in Facebook, serving on the board of the social media giant until earlier this year.
Despite their Silicon Valley ties, both Thiel and Masters are conservatives who are fiercely critical of so-called "big tech" and the world from which they come; Thiel also notably spoke in support of then-candidate Trump at the 2016 GOP convention.
But since being passed over for the Trump endorsement, Lamon has been hammering Masters over his relationship with Thiel — whose name he frequently mispronounces as "theel" rather than "teal" — and labeling the conservative tech billionaire as a "globalist Facebook board member" while trying to recast his relationship with Silicon Valley into well-worn Republican narratives.
"Oh by the way, just a little tidbit — again, because I'm on a little rail here about Big Tech," said Lamon as he addressed a question about "burdensome regulations" from government agencies. "Palantir, which is a Peter Thiel company, is one of the largest companies that the federal government is doing business with to spy on Americans."
Recent polling indicates that the primary campaign may be developing into a head-to-head race between the two candidates in the final two week stretch, and one of Lamon's main closing arguments against Masters — aside from highlighting his former libertarian leanings — is that Republicans should be suspicious of Thiel and his allies.
"Oh and by the way, Blake, stop trying to tell us that you're not a puppet for big tech, because you are," said Lamon at the event, prompting a murmur of agreement among the attendees.
Lamon, a self-funder, also frequently emphasizes the differences in the source of their respective campaigns' largesse; while Masters owes much of his campaign's viability to Thiel's money, Lamon has largely self-financed his own campaign.
"There is no amount of money I will not spend of mine to save my country," said Lamon, a solar energy tycoon who's loaned $15 million of his own fortune to his campaign, to applause.
An emerging megadonor
In addition to his investments in Masters, Thiel gave a total of $15 million to a super PAC supporting the Ohio Senate campaign of JD Vance, a fellow venture capitalist and the author of "Hillbilly Elegy."
But while plenty of Republicans may be aware of megadonors like the Koch brothers or Sheldon Adelson, Thiel has emerged only recently as a donor of that caliber.
Though he's made sizable contributions to Republicans like Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri and right-wing groups like the Club for Growth, the over $25 million that Thiel has spent in Ohio and Arizona combined dwarf all of his prior political contributions.
Masters has previously defended his ties to Thiel. At a FreedomWorks-sponsored event in late June, he said the PayPal founder was the "one America First billionaire that we have," prompting boos from some audience members.
"Okay, not a fan? I think he's great," Masters shot back at the debate. "If you know other America First billionaires, give them my cell phone number, okay? Get you a candidate who can marshal some resources."
Evidence of those resources abound across Maricopa County; yard signs financed by the outside group can be found at a smattering of major intersections, alongside all of the other signs competing for attention.
While Masters' own campaign has stuck with a simple, white-on-black design, signs financed by the Thiel-backed super PAC are bright yellow and include an image of Masters with his family.
An endorsement lost
Lamon has gone as far as to create an entire website of negative attacks on Masters.
"That's right," reads one section of the site. "The same Big Tech that's censoring conservatives and selling our country out to China are funding Fake Blake Masters' faux conservative campaign.
But Lamon's attacks on Thiel have already cost him at least one endorsement. Ric Grenell, a former Trump administration official who served as acting Director of National Intelligence and ambassador to Germany, announced on Twitter in June that he was withdrawing his endorsement of the businessman over the attacks.
At a Masters campaign event, Grenell said Lamon's rhetoric on Thiel "really burned me" and compared Lamon to Republican Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, who's drawn the ire of conservatives for her criticism of Trump and her service as vice chair of the January 6 committee.
"One thing that drives me crazy, and really convinced me that I needed to un-endorse Jim and endorse Blake Masters, was because I watched as Republicans on the committee began to attack their own," said Grenell at the event, condemning what he described as "Republicans attacking Republicans with phony messaging."
'The same kind of guy that George Soros is'
Milling around the hotel's Goldwater ballroom following Lamon's town hall, attendees told Insider that what they've heard about Thiel is giving them pause.
"It bothers me a great deal," Steve Zipperman, a candidate for state Senate in the Prescott-based 1st legislative district, told Insider following the town hall. "I'm looking at Peter Thiel as being the same kind of guy that George Soros is, trying to control things and manipulate things from outside."
Zipperman's wife, Sharon, told Insider that her "BS detector" went off at a recent dinner she and her husband had with Masters.
While complimenting him as a "delightful young man, very smart," she said he failed to sufficiently address Lamon's critique of him when it was presented to him.
"It would be easy for him to answer that," she said. "But instead, what he did is what a consultant would advise him to do, which is just laugh it off."
Meanwhile, others say they're hearing about Thiel for the first time.
"That's the first I heard about Blake and that connection," said Laura Stewart, a 52-year-old town hall attendee. "So I don't know."
Pat Newbert, 66, told Insider at the event that she had ultimately decided to support Lamon despite some of her friends' enthusiasm for Masters.
"Well, Trump endorsed him, so he must have looked into him and everything. But yeah, he also endorsed Dr. Oz," said Newbert, referring to Pennsylvania Senate candidate Mehmet Oz. She added that she doesn't "necessarily agree with a lot of people that Trump's backing."
She added that Lamon's broadsides against Thiel and his connection to Facebook were an "eye opener" that had convinced her to not support Masters.
"I don't know why Trump's backing Masters after everything that I've learned about him now," she said. "Because Facebook is — I mean, they're squashing our First Amendment."
It was at that point that her husband Ray, 71, interjected.
"I just got out of Facebook jail," he said. "For posting the truth!"
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