During the 2020 election, left-leaning billionaires — particularly tech billionaires — who previously hadn’t been big political spenders emerged as a powerful political force. Several of Silicon Valley’s wealthiest, from Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz to LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, spent massive sums to help oust President Donald Trump and elect Joe Biden; it ended up being the most expensive election in history.
But in the face of a new crisis prompted by the June Supreme Court decision in Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health, which overturned Roe v. Wade and ended a constitutional right to abortion, the same liberal billionaires aren’t yet responding with a similar sense of urgency.
Though Democrats have outpaced Republicans in small-dollar fundraising this cycle, fundraising during the 2021-2022 cycle has been more difficult compared to 2018 and 2020, especially when taking into account that Democrats are the underdogs in the midterms. Throughout Biden’s term, major donors have expressed dissatisfaction with the White House, which could explain the slower-than-hoped-for pace of fundraising up until now.
Cooper Teboe, a political strategist and donor adviser, told Recode that among Silicon Valley’s major Democratic donors, there has likely been “a 50 percent-plus drop-off between last year and this year.”
But Teboe is hopeful that Roe was the jolt that donors needed. “I have seen a lot of those same folks, who might have been anti-Trump Republicans or even Libertarians or very moderate, reengaged since Roe came down,” he said.
With this re-energization, Teboe predicts an eye-popping amount of spending by the end of the 2022 election cycle.
How Democratic billionaires have wielded their influence so far
It’s nothing new that many political donors prefer to be low-key when they can. The etiquette among fundraisers and strategists is typically to not name names and instead talk in broad, optimistic strokes. But this tendency to remain in the shadows also makes it hard to gauge whether some of the most powerful political forces in our democracy are in fact responding to the attack on abortion rights with the urgency it merits.
What we can glean from public statements powerful billionaires have made so far isn’t all that stirring. A handful — many of them known more for their philanthropy than for their political activity — condemned the SCOTUS decision, including Melinda French Gates, Sheryl Sandberg, Bill Gates, George Soros, and Mike Bloomberg. Many tech companies, including Amazon, Meta, Netflix, Microsoft, and Tesla, are covering travel expenses for employees needing abortion care. Salesforce CEO and major progressive donor (at least until 2020) Marc Benioff tweeted that his company would help employees relocate out of Texas if they wished to.
The latest slate of Federal Election Committee filings, which disclose contributions through the end of June, offers some insights, though it’s hard to say if these donations were made in reaction to the Dobbs decision. Mike Bloomberg, a titan among Democratic donors and a major funder of reproductive rights, has so far contributed about $1.5 million to his own PAC this year, some of which was used to buy ads supporting pro-abortion rights Rep. Lucy McBath (D-GA). Bloomberg also made an individual contribution to Rep. Haley Stevens (D-MI), who is running against Rep. Andy Levin (D-MI) in the primary. Both are pro-abortion rights, but Stevens is the more moderate candidate.
The billionaire’s foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, says it began giving emergency grants to abortion access organizations immediately after the SCOTUS decision but declined to share more details.
Bloomberg Philanthropies director of communications Rachel Nagler told Recode over email that there hasn’t been any meaningful change in the philanthropy’s strategy post-Dobbs, given that “supporting pro-choice policy and legislation, and electing pro-choice candidates, has always been a priority for Mike Bloomberg.”
Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz, who emerged as a powerful political ally to the Democrats in 2016, spent at least $22 million in 2020 on ads to help defeat Trump. But he doesn’t appear to have made any political contributions so far in 2022. A spokesperson for Moskovitz told Recode they didn’t have anything to share about his current political spending plans.
Founder of cryptocurrency exchange FTX and effective altruist Sam Bankman-Fried, who was a top Biden donor in 2020, revealed in an interview in late May — after the Dobbs decision had leaked — that he expects to spend over $100 million in the 2024 presidential election.
Bankman-Fried indirectly funded a political candidate who doesn’t support full access to abortion by giving $1.3 million to America United, a super PAC that has backed Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX). Cuellar has come under fire recently for being an anti-abortion Democrat who only supports the right to an abortion “in the case of rape, incest, and danger to the life of the mother.” Emily’s List endorsed Cuellar’s pro-abortion rights opponent Jessica Cisneros, but Cisneros lost to Cuellar in the primary race.
Though Bankman-Fried has not said anything publicly about his stance on abortion rights, a group he funds called Guarding Against Pandemics gave $100,000 to abortion rights advocacy super PAC NARAL Freedom Fund. Bankman-Fried has not responded to Recode’s requests for comment on his stance and plans for political donations post-Dobbs.
Cuellar has also received financial backing from vocal anti-Trump Democratic donor Reid Hoffman, through a PAC called Mainstream Democrats to which Hoffman has donated millions.
“We didn’t tell them they had to spend in one race or another,” said Dmitri Mehlhorn, a political adviser to Hoffman. “We do believe that it is important to invest in keeping the Democratic Party politically viable in battleground geographies, which is not possible if the Justice Democrats and Our Revolution are successful.” These two groups work to elect progressive Democratic candidates; Our Revolution was started by key members of Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign team.
The Dobbs decision only means this strategy of electing centrists must continue “multiplied by a thousand,” Mehlhorn continued, claiming that Republicans in Texas are much more eager to run against Cisneros rather than Cuellar.
Hoffman is personally pro-abortion rights. But he has not made any public statements of support for abortion rights or condemnation of the Dobbs decision, as some other pro-abortion rights billionaires have done.
“A leftist billionaire talking about choice in California — does that help in our political moment to protect abortion rights?” Mehlhorn said.
“This is not about what Reid thinks about the substantive issues,” he said. “This is about getting everybody to agree that we cannot let the extremists take power.”
The loud whispers around abortion funding
But it isn’t the case that an influential donor needs to choose between being a staunch and publicly outspoken defender of abortion rights or making strategic donations to elect the Democratic candidates that have a chance of winning in battleground regions.
Some Democratic strategists and pro-abortion rights advocates say prominent figures need to be more vocal and more unequivocal in this fight over reproductive rights. Time is of the essence, and it’s more difficult to hold powerful people to commitments that they haven’t made publicly. It’s difficult enough to hold billionaires accountable by any measure, but public scrutiny is at least one way. Flying under the radar — and defending it as a smart political strategy, as many donors try to do — dodges even that.
“We need to have a fight. This is not a time for measured words,” said Erica Payne, a longtime progressive strategist and founder of Patriotic Millionaires, a group of millionaires who advocate for higher taxes on the wealthy.
Payne pointed to the gender of many major Democratic donors as a factor in how the donor class has responded so far. “We would sure not be having this issue if the male funders of the Democratic Party thought there was a chance they would get knocked up,” she mused.
“We cannot stand on the sidelines when this fundamental right is taken away from half our population,” said Pamela Shifman, president of the influential progressive donor network Democracy Alliance, which Payne helped start in 2005.
Shifman was more optimistic about donors being energized to fund political action on abortion. “I think donors are seeing how much courage is being shown by activists and are really wanting to step up,” said Shifman. There are currently a little over 100 members in the Democracy Alliance, and some of the most powerful names in the Democratic Party have been associated with the group — George Soros was a founding donor.
But Shifman did acknowledge a gender disparity. “There are men who are funding this work, but I think we also need more public voices about this,” she said.
One such public voice is Bob Fertik, a longtime reproductive rights activist and founder of the #voteprochoice advocacy group. “I’m pretty unique, as a man donating to abortion. There are not a lot of other men who do,” he said.
Famous men who do fund abortion rights advocacy include George Soros, Warren Buffett, and Mike Bloomberg. Though men generally spend more on political donations than women, some of the biggest recent donations to pro-abortion advocacy groups have come from women. Planned Parenthood Votes received $1 million from Andrea Soros, George Soros’s daughter, in late June, as well as $500,000 from Jennifer Allan Soros, the billionaire’s daughter-in-law. Julie Packard, David Packard’s daughter, also gave $500,000 in June. Billionaire philanthropist Dagmar Dolby gave $300,000 to NARAL Pro-Choice America’s super PAC in late May.
Fertik believes that powerful donors are certainly paying attention, even if they aren’t currently funding abortion and aren’t speaking up. “Billionaires are generally not comfortable speaking publicly about abortion,” he said.
“It absolutely would make a tremendous difference if one or more billionaire men said they were going to fund the election of a pro-choice candidate and put their money behind it,” said Fertik.
Teboe, the donor adviser, suggests that one reason donors, including tech billionaires, responded and made political donations so forcefully in 2020 was because they connected the possibility of Trump’s reelection with a direct threat to democratic systems — that he was a leader who they thought didn’t believe in free, fair elections.
The connection between abortion bans and democracy is perhaps less obvious for donors. “I think that a lot of folks saw their involvement as a one-time thing — get rid of Trump, and we get back to a little bit of normalcy; we can choose between big government or small government or high taxes [and] low taxes,” he said. Some of the money that poured in from Silicon Valley in 2020 stemmed from the desire to deal with Trump rather than an intention to stay involved in politics. For example, before Trump, Hoffman’s role in politics was much more low-key.
But Teboe believes some of the initial hesitancy from progressive male funders stems not from a place of disinterest, but from a sense that it isn’t their place to take the mic. He expects that more and more major donors will make announcements soon. “I think they’ll come as the FEC reports come out, and people get to ask questions. I think these folks like to try to fly under the radar as long as they can,” Teboe told Recode.
A billionaire-led fight for democracy is a flawed democracy
If political spending is speech, there’s more talking in politics today than ever before — including a worrying amount of dark money on both the right and the left. Federal election spending has steadily risen over the years, but it soared in 2020. The cost of the 2016 elections was a little over $7 billion; in 2020, it was $14 billion. According to a New York Times analysis, Democrat-aligned dark money groups spent over $1.5 billion in the last election. Much of this money comes from billionaires who have enormous influence over our democracy and public policies, even if they aren’t elected and don’t have the same checks on their power that elected officials do.
Even with public disclosure rules, the complex structure of political funding can create fog around what exactly donors are doing — they might give to a PAC with broad or vague aims that in turn makes a donation to another PAC, that makes another donation to a different PAC. Or they might give to a nonprofit advocacy group that isn’t required to disclose its donors at all. By passing the money down the line, donors can choose to claim or defer credit or blame for their political influence.
In the face of such extreme attacks against abortion rights, many want to know whether influential elites plan on speaking up or staying quiet. But that in itself highlights a big problem at the heart of how politics works in the US. The destruction of abortion protections, against the will of the people, presents another chance for billionaire donors to try to preserve our flawed democracy, as some of them attempted to do in 2020 — even if the very existence of billionaires and the extent of their influence is something many people see as undemocratic.