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Amid Trump’s Upcoming California Visit is a New Breed of Polarized Silicon Valley Donors

Once centrist, billionaire tech donors are playing a huge role in 2020 campaign funding

By Evan Symon, February 15, 2020 2:06 am

Next week, President Donald Trump is due to visit California for several rallies and fundraising events in Los Angeles, Beverly Hills, Bakersfield, and the Palm Springs area as part of an overall swing through several western states.

A Rancho Mirage fundraiser for Trump

President Donald Trump. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for California Globe)

The biggest event is taking place in Rancho Mirage, just outside of Palm Springs in the Coachella Valley. Oracle Chairman and billionaire Larry Ellison will be hosting a “golf outing and reception” fundraiser at his estate. Tickets begin at $100,000 and go as high as $250,000.

While the event itself is about standard for larger political fundraisers these days, it shows a radical change among Silicon Valley billionaires and who they choose to fund. Most now align themselves with a party, with many choosing the GOP because of their fiscal and business beliefs despite being in one of the most liberal areas of the country.

When Silicon Valley began rising in technological prominence and producing more millionaires and billionaires in the 70’s and 80’s, it was politically tone deaf. While there were some exceptions, most tech millionaires in the area generally gave to both major parties or didn’t give at all. While the dotcom boom brought out a new round of more politically minded tech leaders in Silicon Valley, they were still generally politically neutral until the 2000’s and 2010’s. By then, rapidly changing technology, more business friendly laws, a growing number of billionaires, and the rise of more internet and and wifi based webpages and apps brought in a new political culture.

Even in 2014 neutrality was still big. 40% of the top 32 tech donors still gave to both parties. Bill Gates was giving money to both parties, as was Ellison, who not only split his donations between parties, but gave money to political rivals former Senator Harry Reid and Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY).

A sudden change in 2016

U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy (Peter Houck)

But the election in 2016 between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton changed that. Conservative beliefs of business and fiscal issues were finally brought head to head over the Bay Area’s liberal principles. Paypal founder Peter Thiel, a Libertarian who had given to both parties in the past, became firmly attached to the Trump Campaign with over $1 million in donations.

Salesforce founder Marc Benioff, another former bipartisan supporter who had given money to Republicans such as former Congressman Paul Ryan and Congressman Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), went fully Democratic, giving money to the Clinton campaign and has since then given only to Democrats such as Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA). HP executive Meg Whitman, a staunch Republican, even switched it up and changed her support to Clinton in 2016.

Ellison himself sided with Republicans. He even started early, giving $5 million in 2015 and 2016 to Marco Rubio’s campaign and then giving money to several Republican candidates during the midterm, including Congressman McCarthy and Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC). This year he is fully backing Trump, something he himself hadn’t done in 2016.

In the tech world this all would have been laughable twenty even fifteen years ago. Now tech billionaires throwing their money around is the norm. Companies that still give to both, such as Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook, are the new outliers.

“There’s always been tech giants like IBM or Apple or Microsoft,” said David Kennedy, a San Jose tech consultant who has helped with fundraising events in the past. “But now we are in the App and Startup based culture in an industry that has gone through the dotcom bubble and the 2009 recession. Older companies and their leaders remember this and are now more money-minded.”

“You also have the rise of millionaires and billionaires here who want to keep their money or, now that there is no more ‘bar’ anymore on political support, give to who can help them the most. There are also start-ups that had to go through hell to survive, and see the need for more business friendly practices. And yes, there’s greed in there too.”

“You put it all together and you have something that shocks a lot of people: A large group of tech billionaires and millionaires who generally support Republicans in the liberal nerve-center of the United States. A lot of money winning over voters in battleground states like Michigan and Ohio is actually coming out of here.”

“Now almost everyone has a side.”

A new point in Silicon Valley fundraising

And the polarization is starting to clash. Oracle employees have been demanding that Ellison cancel the Trump fundraiser because of their opposition to the policies of the administration. Groups of smaller Silicon Valley donors, mostly comprised of wealthier tech workers, have also been giving to numerous Democratic candidates.

But despite this, Ellison’s fundraiser next week also marks a new point in Silicon Valley fundraising.

“It’s now okay for direct fundraisers. That’s the message,” added Kennedy. “There’s been some in the past, but to do it so blatantly with a candidate that most of your employees don’t like hasn’t really been done before. Usually it’s cutting a big check and getting a picture taken. This can spark a wave of new fundraisers this year and give us another new Silicon Valley normal.”

“They don’t need to play it safe anymore. They can go all out now like they couldn’t do before.”

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