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The biggest donor in the 2024 election holds a $15 billion stake in TikTok’s parent company

Mar 13, 2024

As some of the harshest Republican critics of TikTok soften their stance on the China-backed social media app, one billionaire donor’s name is ricocheting around Washington.

The prospect that the app will be banned has thrust Jeff Yass, the trading mastermind behind market-maker Susquehanna International Group, into an uncomfortable spotlight. That’s because he owns a stake in TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, that’s worth $15 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, the largest single asset in his $40.8 billion fortune.

Yass has used that wealth to become the biggest donor in the 2024 election cycle, with $46.4 million spent so far, mostly focused on the issue of school choice. He’s also been mentioned as a possible candidate for Treasury secretary — along with hedge fund billionaire John Paulson and former US trade representative Robert Lighthizer — should Donald Trump win in November, according to people familiar with the matter.

The clearest signal of a reversal came last week when Donald Trump said he was opposed to the bill. That declaration came after he attended a donor event in Palm Beach, Florida, put together by conservative organization Club for Growth, which counts Yass as one of its biggest backers. (Trump said he hadn’t discussed the issue with Yass in a subsequent interview with CNBC.)

Club for Growth has also dispatched former Trump aide Kellyanne Conway to lobby lawmakers to oppose the TikTok ban. Meanwhile, Vivek Ramaswamy went from calling the platform “digital fentanyl” to opening a TikTok account himself after a super PAC that supported his failed bid for the Republican nomination received money from Yass last year.

A spokesperson for Yass declined to comment.

The legislation, which passed the House by a vote of 352 to 65, next heads to the Senate, where the outlook is less certain. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has so far declined to endorse it, and members including Republican Rand Paul have come out against it. Some proponents of a ban include Republican politicians who Yass has backed, like Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Senator Ted Cruz.

Tough Sell

If the bill becomes law, and withstands the expected wave of legal challenges, finding a buyer for TikTok might not be so easy.

The largest US technology companies, with some of the deepest pockets in corporate America, would likely face regulatory scrutiny over a purchase, though Microsoft Corp. was said to be exploring an acquisition of TikTok’s US operations in 2020.

Bobby Kotick, the former chief executive officer of Activision Blizzard Inc., has expressed interest, the Wall Street Journal reported, but he would need to raise more money through partners. (ByteDance denied its co-founder, billionaire Zhang Yiming, was approached.)

And any divestiture would also require approval by the Chinese government, which said last year that it would firmly oppose a forced sale.

As well as TikTok, Beijing-based ByteDance operates a China-only version of the app called Douyin. ByteDance offered to buy back its shares at a valuation of about $268 billion in December. 

Yass is far from the only investor with billions riding on ByteDance. Carlyle Group Inc., KKR & Co., SoftBank Group Corp. and General Atlantic have all invested, according to data provider PitchBook. 

But Susquehanna was one of the first to back the company. SIG China, a venture capital firm Yass established in 2005 to place bets on China’s technology industry, invested in 2012 and owns about 15% of the company. Art Dantchik, co-founder of Susquehanna, is on the ByteDance board.

Back then Yass wasn’t a significant donor in elections, giving about $78,000 in the 2012 federal election cycle, according to data compiled by OpenSecrets. That ballooned to $56.2 million in the 2022 midterms, when he was the fourth-largest donor.

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