WASHINGTON —Democratic billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried says he could spend $1 billion or more in the 2024 election, which would easily make him the biggest-ever political donor in a single election.
Bankman-Fried, the 30-year-old founder of the cryptocurrency exchange FTX, said in a podcast interview released Tuesday that he expects to give “north of $100 million” in the next presidential election and has a “soft ceiling” of $1 billion, with his spending likely to be on the higher end if former President Donald Trump runs again.
That kind of money would be “in a league of its own,” said Alex Baumgart, a researcher with the campaign finance tracker Open Secrets.
Bankman-Fried, who is estimated to be worth more than $20 billion and says he has already given away more than $200 million to various causes, cautions that his political plans are still in flux and will be contingent on what the landscape looks like.
“I would guess north of $100 million. As for how much more than that, I don’t know. It really does depend on what happens. It’s really dependent on exactly who’s running where for what,” he said on the Pushkin Industries podcast What’s Your Problem. “[$1 billion] is a decent thing to look at as a — I would hate to say hard ceiling, because who knows what’s going to happen between now and then — but at least sort of as a soft ceiling.”
That amount of money would be unprecedented and shatter existing records several times over — at least if it was all spent as so-called “hard money,” which includes donations to candidates, parties, super PACs and other groups who have to report to the Federal Election Commission.
It’s impossible to know how much other wealthy donors have spent to influence politics via so-called “dark money,” which includes donations to groups like think tanks and nonprofit advocacy organizations.
The most hard money any individual has spent in any election cycle was $218 million in 2020 by the late Republican casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam, according to Open Secrets.
The Adelsons have competed in recent years to be the biggest donors in the country with Democratic billionaires Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer, who have each spent between $75 and $150 million in the last three elections (not including the money they spent on their own presidential campaigns in 2020).
Liberal billionaire George Soros earlier this year committed to spending $125 million toward this year’s midterms.
Beyond those well-known names, even mega-donors typically top out around $40 to $60 million per election cycle, so even $100 million would put Bankman-Fried among a tiny handful of the country’s biggest donors.
“If this is sustained and it’s actually fully realized, it could have an immense impact on U.S. politics,” said Baumgart, comparing the scope of the potential spending to that of the Adelsons, the Koch Brothers’ donor network and Bloomberg.
“The question is, does his spending bear fruit in the midterms? And ultimately I think that will wade pretty heavily in his decision to keep this going or not,” Baumgart added.
Bankman-Fried has spent at least $20 million so far this year supporting candidates in Democratic congressional primaries who have pledged to push the U.S. government to invest in stopping the next pandemic.
Bankman-Fried is an adherent of Effective Altruism, a utilitarian philosophy which promotes ideas like earning lots of money in order to give it all away.
He went into finance and started donating large portions of his paychecks long before he made his first billion and still lives fairly modestly, with roommates and a Toyota Corolla, with a stated goal of giving away the vast majority of his fortune as he makes it.
Critics, however, question the motives behind Bankman-Fried’s increasing involvement in politics, noting that the crypto industry has been stepping up its lobbying in Washington as lawmakers and regulators look to apply new rules to the largely unregulated industry that has likely destroyed more fortunes than it has made.
He’s one of several crypto donors who have started spending large amounts of money in politics seemingly out of nowhere, just as the industry comes under scrutiny.
And Bankman-Fried’s biggest political investment so far did not pay off. He spent at least $12 million backing a little-known Oregon congressional candidate who ended up getting crushed in a Democratic primary last week.
In the podcast interview, Bankman-Fried said he would “do it a bit differently” if he could do it again, but fundamentally stood by the decision to intervene in the race, saying he always viewed it as a low-probability, high-reward situation.
“If you’re donating to political races that you think your candidate are 99 percent to win, you’re almost certainly doing something wrong,” he said, since the candidate doesn’t need the help. “You should be donating such that you think you have a pretty substantial chance of losing, and I stand by that.”