Founded in 2021 by a Republican political operative, the Rockbridge Network seeks to disrupt the status quo of GOP politicking by funneling millions of dollars into right-wing causes and campaigns. Reporting in the New York Times has linked Rockbridge to a coterie of Republican donors and political candidates allied with former President Donald Trump. These include tech entrepreneur Peter Thiel, GOP megadonor Rebekah Mercer, and former U.S. Senate candidate Blake Masters.
According to The New York Times, the Rockbridge Network was founded by the Republican political operative Chris Buskirk in 2021. The stated goal of the coalition is “to bring together investors who are dissatisfied with the status quo of politics and raise capital to fund projects that will disrupt but advance the Republican agenda.”
A brochure produced by the Rockbridge Network, reportedly in the fall of 2021 and published by The New York Times, outlined four initiatives the coalition undertook.
The Rockbridge Network budgeted $8 million in 2021 to build a “new conservative ecosystem” replete with a rapid response communications team, influencer programs, polling, and other media projects “for cultural influence and renewal.”
In 2021, Rockbridge dedicated $3.75 million for “strategic litigation” against its adversaries. The coalition specifically identified “the media” as a target of this initiative.
With a budget of $3 million in 2021, the Rockbridge Network’s Transition Project seeks to create a “government-in-waiting” composed of hand-selected individuals who will staff the next Republican administration.
The Red State Project intends to build a “centralized, organizing force” to coordinate conservative groups and their allies at the state level. According to the Rockbridge Network’s brochure, the coalition has targeted Arizona, Nevada, and Michigan as part of this effort. In 2021, the group budgeted $6-8 million for each state.
In Arizona, Rockbridge reported that it coordinated the activities of conservative groups focused on special interests, like abortion and firearms, as well as religious issues. The coalition also hired a “political director” who has not been named publicly.
In 2021, Rockbridge conducted a voter registration program that identified 260,000 unregistered conservative Republicans in Arizona. The group set a goal of registering 75,000 of these potential voters.
In addition to its voter registration program, the Rockbridge Network worked to influence Congressional redistricting in 2021. The coalition claimed to have submitted maps and lobbied redistricting commissions in Arizona and elsewhere. The group reported that the results of this effort were “trending favorably” at the time they produced their brochure.
Chris Buskirk is the publisher of the online pro-Trump journal American Greatness and the founder of the Rockbridge Network. A resident of Arizona, Buskirk has worked as an operative in the state on behalf of Republican political campaigns. Most recently, Buskirk advised the Saving Arizona PAC, a super PAC formed in 2021, to support Blake Masters, the venture capitalist-turned-GOP Senate candidate.
Peter Thiel is a tech entrepreneur and conservative libertarian who has donated millions of dollars to Republican candidates and GOP-allied PACs. The New York Times named Thiel as one of the Republican megadonors participating in the Rockbridge Network. In 2021, Thiel spoke at Rockbridge’s first summit, which was held in Arizona.
One of Donald Trump’s biggest donors in 2016, Thiel has emerged as a key financier of Trump-aligned political campaigns since 2020.
Born in Frankfurt, Germany, to German parents in 1967, Peter Thiel immigrated to the United States with his family at the age of one and continued to move around the globe, including to South Africa and South West Africa (now Namibia), throughout his childhood.
Upon their return to the United States in 1977, the Thiels settled in the Bay Area, where Peter Thiel eventually pursued a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and later a Juris doctor at Stanford. While attending university, Thiel co-founded The Stanford Review, a conservative and libertarian newspaper. He served as the paper’s first editor-in-chief from 1987 until his graduation in 1989.
Thiel rose to prominence during the dot-com boom of the 1990s. In Silicon Valley, Thiel made several investments that proved to have long-term success. He helped create Paypal in 1998 and the software company Palantir in 2003. The following year, Thiel made a $500,000 angel investment in Facebook for a 10.2% stake in the company. From 2005 until 2022, Thiel sat on Facebook’s board of directors. At the time of Thiel’s resignation from Facebook (now called Meta), CEO Mark Zuckerberg hailed Thiel as “an original thinker” and a “valuable member of our board.” As of October 2022, Forbes has estimated Thiel’s net worth to be $4.2 billion.
Thiel has been outspoken against Silicon Valley’s closeness to the People’s Republic of China. In a 2019 op-ed for The New York Times, Thiel criticized the tech industry, principally Google, and Wall Street for their “inattention to geopolitical reality” in light of China’s growing global dominance. Thiel elaborated on these views in 2021, calling Silicon Valley administrators “useful idiots” and the Chinese Communist Party’s “fifth column collaborators” who have enabled the country’s repressive regime.
Thiel is also a critic of what he views as pervasive “political correctness” in American society and has likened “wokeism” to Wahhabism, the fundamentalist ideology underpinning Saudi Arabia’s government and society.
Rebekah Mercer is a Republican donor and the daughter of the American billionaire Robert Mercer. In April 2022, The New York Times identified her among the conservative political donors affiliated with the Rockbridge Network.
Rebekah Mercer and her father gained considerable influence within the Republican Party following the Citizens United decision in 2010, which removed nearly all limits on corporate political giving. Beginning in 2012, the Mercers poured millions of dollars into right-wing causes and political campaigns. The family contributed at least $10 million to the far-right, online news site Breitbart News and was closely allied with Steve Bannon, the publication’s former editor-in-chief, for much of the 2010s. In 2017, Breitbart News Network CEO Larry Solov identified the Mercers as part owners of the news site. That same year, Steve Bannon told The New Yorker that “the Mercers laid the groundwork for the Trump revolution.”
Although she initially supported Ted Cruz for President in 2016, Mercer’s allegiances quickly changed after Donald Trump secured the Republican nomination. In September 2016, she took over the pro-Trump Make America Number 1 PAC, whose largest donor was her father. The group paid out more than $1.5 million to the now-defunct, London-based political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, in which Robert Mercer had invested $15 million. The same company later became the subject of an investigation into whether it had improperly harvested data from Facebook to develop psychological profiles of the platform’s users. In 2018, the government watchdog group Common Cause filed complaints with the Justice Department and the Federal Election Commission accusing Cambridge Analytica of violating federal law, which bars foreign nationals from participating in American elections. The Make America Number 1 PAC was named in both complaints.
In 2020, the Mercer Family Foundation invested nearly $20 million in Donors Trust, a nonprofit donor-advised fund that finances right-wing organizations and dark money groups, like Leonard Leo’s 85 Fund, Project Veritas, and the National Rifle Association. The family has also invested in companies that espouse a far-right worldview, like Parler. As of 2021, Mercer held the majority stake in the controversial social media site and controlled two of the three board seats.
Like Peter Thiel, Mercer contributed heavily to Republican candidates allied with former President Trump during the 2022 midterms.
Blake Masters was Arizona’s Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in 2022 and a purveyor of false conspiracy theories surrounding the 2020 presidential election. He lost the 2022 U.S. Senate election to incumbent Senator Mark Kelly. In April 2022, Masters spoke at a Rockbridge Network event hosted at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida. Former President Donald Trump also spoke at the gathering.
During the 2022 Republican primary, Masters promoted claims that Democrats fraudulently stole the 2020 presidential election. Just weeks after receiving Donald Trump’s endorsement in June 2022, Masters told a group of voters that Democrats “pulled out all the stops” to turn the previous election in their favor, according to a video posted to the online platform Rumble. After winning the Republican nomination in August, Masters backed off these claims.
Masters is closely associated with the tech entrepreneur Peter Thiel, who was an early and close ally of then-candidate Donald Trump in 2016. In February 2014, Masters became a principal at Peter Thiel’s investment firm Thiel Capital. Since April 2018, Masters has served as the company’s chief operating officer. Masters’ reported annual salary at Thiel Capital was roughly $450,000 as of August 2022, according to a disclosure report filed with the SEC. Masters has also received royalties for a book he co-authored with Peter Thiel in 2014. In August 2022, Masters reported bringing in more than $300,000 in a single year for Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future. This sum was paid to him by Thiel Capital, bringing the total amount he received from the firm between August 2021 and August 2022 to more than $750,000.
Between April 2021 and July 2022, Peter Thiel contributed $15 million to the Saving Arizona PAC, an outside group that supported Masters during the midterm election. Thiel’s donations collectively accounted for roughly 92 percent of the political action committee’s total income.
Ned Ryun is the founder and CEO of American Majority, a self-proclaimed “conservative training organization” that identifies, mobilizes, and equips individuals to run for public office. Ryun attended the April 2022 Rockbridge Network event hosted at Mar-a-Lago.
Tom Emmer is a former U.S. Representative from Minnesota and the current chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee. According to The New York Times, Emmer was slated to speak at a Rockbridge event in Palm Beach, Florida, in April 2022.