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Meet David Sacks, the friend of Elon Musk who could play kingmaker for Ron DeSantis

Zenefits CEO David Sacks speaks at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco, Calif.

Paul Chinn | San Francisco Chronicle | Hearst Newspapers via Getty Images

Venture capitalist and early PayPal executive David Sacks had a bundle of cash to deploy early in the 2022 midterm campaign, and he wanted to figure out the best ways to help Republicans up and down the ballot.

So he called Caroline Wren for advice, according to people familiar with the matter.

Wren is a veteran Republican fundraiser who raised money for former President Donald Trump’s failed 2020 campaign. She also reportedly helped gather cash in support of the pro-Trump rally that occurred on Jan. 6, 2021, before hundreds of the then-president’s supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol.

Sacks asked Wren how Republicans are planning to fend off well-financed Democratic-aligned nonprofits, according to a person with direct knowledge of the call. Some of those nonprofits, for instance, are funded by billionaire George Soros. Wren told Sacks that Republicans lagged behind in creating and funding a formidable network of nonprofits that could boost the GOP in elections, this person said. These people and some others in this story spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private matters.

Federal Election Commission records show that Sacks donated more than $1 million during the 2022 election cycle, with many of his big checks going to political action committees that supported Republicans. Sacks also helped create a 501(c)(4) nonprofit to wield political influence, the news outlet Puck previously reported.

These moves and his recent support for the presidential campaign of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — including hosting the candidate’s kickoff event on Twitter — demonstrate how Sacks is working to become a GOP kingmaker. Peter Thiel, a big donor in past election cycles who worked with Sacks at PayPal during the dot-com era, has said he will not help individual candidates in the 2024 election.

Sacks has also backed Democrats. Recently, he donated to and hosted a fundraiser for Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., whose district includes Silicon Valley. Khanna’s office didn’t make him available for an interview, but the lawmaker said in a statement to CNBC that he’s aligned with Sacks on “stopping defense contractor price gouging and defending Americans’ First Amendment rights.”

But with Democratic President Joe Biden in the White House, Sacks has positioned himself as a vocal GOP booster going into the 2024 election cycle.

The investor has a long resume in tech and entertainment. After leaving PayPal, he founded enterprise collaboration platform Yammer that Microsoft acquired in 2012 for $1.2 billion, then served as the CEO of human resources startup Zenefits during a troubled time for that company. He also produced the 2005 movie, “Thank You for Smoking,” about a trio of lobbyists working for the tobacco, alcohol and firearms industries.

But Sacks has never had the clout or the cash of Thiel or Elon Musk, another former PayPal executive and friend.

“It sure seems you have a guy who has lived in the shadow of peers who have engaged in big ways and are loud and he – like many of us – thinks government can be better. So he found a clear lane and is enjoying the celebrity,” a veteran venture capital executive told CNBC.

Sacks did not respond to CNBC’s email seeking answers to more than a dozen questions. A DeSantis campaign spokesman did not return a request for comment before publication.

A spokeswoman for Sacks later told CNBC that the veteran venture capitalist doesn’t recall the conversation with Wren taking place.

The drive for DeSantis

Widespread anti-Trump sentiment among the tech community may be the driving force behind Sacks and fellow venture capitalist Joe Lonsdale’s support for DeSantis, according to Julie Samuels, the president of tech advocacy group Tech:NYC.

“There’s still a feeling in many tech circles that you can’t be a Trump supporter in ‘polite’ circles,” Samuels said. DeSantis’ appearance with tech execs may help him with younger voters.

“And if DeSantis is in with some segment of the tech community, then he really positions himself as younger and hipper than Trump, which is where I think he sees his lane. ‘Move out of the way old man, I’ve got it from here,'” Samuels said.

With the first primaries months away, Trump is the clear leader in early primary polls, well ahead of DeSantis. The latest Morning Consult primary tracker shows the former president with a 34 percentage point lead over the Florida governor.

Sacks’ efforts in 2022 included donating just over $300,000 to the Purple Good Government PAC, according to FEC records. That group, in turn, sent $100,000 to the Friends of Ron DeSantis PAC, which supported DeSantis’ successful run for reelection in Florida. Sacks also donated $50,000 to the pro-DeSantis group last cycle, according to Florida campaign records.

The FEC doesn’t track contributions donors make to nonprofit advocacy groups that can also support candidates. Last year, Sacks launched a 501(c)(4) nonprofit group called Purple Action Inc. that “would seek to influence the world of politics and policy,” Puck reported.

Sacks, according to Puck, serves as one of the group’s directors. That nonprofit will not be required to publicly disclose its donors.

PACs and lobbying ties

FEC records show that the Purple Good Government PAC is still active, an indication it could end up backing DeSantis for president. The PAC saw its biggest individual contributions from Sacks and his wife.

The group quietly amassed a team of influential consultants, including some with ties to the Republican Party.

The PAC also paid a little-known limited liability company called Bay Strategies. The FEC filings say that the Purple Good Government paid Bay Strategies about $16,000 in the 2022 cycle for “consulting services” and “political strategy consulting.” Those filings do not say who is running the LLC.

Stewart Hall and Jill Kendrick, two of the consultants who helped launch Bay Strategies, have links to the powerful lobbying shop Crossroads Strategies and the Public Policy Holding Co., according to business records obtained by CNBC.

Crossroads co-founder Hall, who was once an aide to former Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., lobbies through the organization for major companies including Altria Group, AT&T, Boeing, General Electric and Hearst Corp., according to nonpartisan tracking group OpenSecrets. A 2016 business registration form filed in Washington, D.C., list Hall as a “governor” for Bay Strategies.

Hall is also CEO of the Public Policy Holding Co., a business that says it is “a group of premier advisory firms specializing in government relations, public relations, strategic research, grassroots influence and digital campaign solutions.” The advisory firms include Crossroads Strategies and Forbes Tate Partners, according to the company’s website.

Kendrick, who once worked as the chief financial officer at Crossroads Strategies and is now the chief operating officer of the Public Policy Holding Co., signed the 2016 business registration form for Bay Strategies as a “governor or an authorized person,” according to the form.

Kevin McGrann, a lobbyist at government relations juggernaut Forbes Tate Partners, is also linked to Bay Strategies, according to Hall.

McGrann, who also used to work for former House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, “mostly helps Sacks with machinery and compliance,” according to Puck. As a registered lobbyist for Forbes Tate, McGrann currently represents AT&T, the Association of Independent Mortgage Experts and United Wholesale Mortgage, according to OpenSecrets.

Hall has lobbied this year on issues related to banking, aerospace, homeland security, telecommunications and trade, according to OpenSecrets. McGrann has worked on issues linked to media information, finance, telecommunications and consumer product safety, OpenSecrets says.

Other Forbes Tate lobbyists represent SpaceX, Musk’s space exploration company. Musk was a top executive at PayPal with Thiel when Sacks worked there, and Musk pulled Sacks in to help run Twitter after his $44 billion acquisition last year, CNBC has reported.

Hall referred questions about Bay Strategies to McGrann, whom Hall said in an emailis involved with that work” with the Purple Good Government PAC. Kendrick and McGrann did not return requests for comment.

In the shadow of the valley

Sacks could help fill the money void left by Thiel, the billionaire investor and early Facebook backer who was a pivotal Trump booster in 2016.

Thiel gave $35 million toward Republican causes in the 2022 election cycle, making him the 10th ranked donor in the country, according to OpenSecrets.

The Silicon Valley titan said in a recent podcast with conservative commentator Bari Weiss that he isn’t getting involved with helping candidates in the 2024 elections. Still, Thiel said in that same interview he thinks DeSantis could be a great president and he would support him in the general election if he becomes the Republican nominee.

When CNBC asked whether he would back DeSantis, a Thiel spokesman told CNBC, “Peter never planned to financially back candidates in 2024.”

Sacks has already been turning to his network in the tech community, which includes Musk, along with the “All-In Podcast” featuring Sacks and fellow tech investors Jason Calacanis, David Friedberg and Chamath Palihapitiya, to help promote the candidates that he likes.

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Sacks moderated the Twitter Spaces event in May featuring Musk and DeSantis as the Florida governor officially announced his run for president. While the event suffered delays due to technical difficulties, the DeSantis team says they ended up raising just more than $8 million over the course of the first 24 hours of the campaign.

Sacks has also opened his sphere of influence to other politicians. The “All-In Podcast” has featured Democratic candidate for president Robert F. Kennedy Jr. The Kennedy episode has more than 500,000 views on YouTube, making it the top episode this year.

Before Kennedy came on the podcast, Sacks said in a previous episode that he was “endorsing” the long-shot candidate over Biden. A recent CNN poll has Kennedy with 20% of support among Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters. Biden had 60% of support among that cohort in the same survey.

The “All-In” crew also discussed potentially bringing GOP presidential candidate Nikki Haley onto the show. And Sacks said during a recent episode that he plans to ask the DeSantis campaign for the Florida governor to agree to an interview.

Calacanis, a co-host on the podcast, suggested during the episode that Sacks’ donations to back DeSantis should help the group secure an interview with the Florida governor.

“Whoa, whoa whoa! You put 150 dimes in – get him on here,” Calacanis told Sacks.

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