MIAMI — Hedge fund CEO and philanthropist Ken Griffin smiled when asked if he wants to be the No. 1 political donor in 2024.
He has given nearly $60 million to federal Republican candidates and campaigns this election cycle. That puts Griffin behind just liberal billionaire George Soros, who’s given more than $128 million to Democrats, and Richard Uihlein, who aligns himself with far-right candidates and organizations, at about $62 million.
“Do I get a bronze medal?” Griffin asked, chuckling while allowing that “it’s not a competition.”
Bronze-level giving by Griffin, 54, would be welcome news for one potential 2024 hopeful: Ron DeSantis. During an interview in his temporary offices in downtown Miami, detailing how he directs his political contributions, Griffin told POLITICO that he’s prepared to back the Florida governor if he runs for the White House. Griffin was the leading donor to DeSantis’ reelection campaign this cycle, dropping $5 million.
“I don’t know what he’s going to do. It’s a huge personal decision,” he said of DeSantis. “He has a tremendous record as governor of Florida, and our country would be well-served by him as president.”
Griffin, the head of Citadel, an investment firm, has been donating to political campaigns for more than 20 years, giving $5,000 and $10,000 increments in those early days to Republicans and Democrats alike when he was living in Chicago. Mayors Richard M. Daley and Rahm Emanuel, both Democrats, were beneficiaries. And in 2008, he raised money for both presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama.
Back then, he was focused more on giving to cultural institutions. A wing of the Art Institute of Chicago is named after him, and a portion of the iconic Lakefront Trail along Lake Michigan was improved with his $16 million donation. He also gave $1 million to the Obama Foundation in 2017.
Griffin, who pulled Republican ballots in Illinois, wrote a $500,000 check for Joe Biden’s 2020 inaugural committee, but his donations have otherwise shifted rightward in recent years, fueled, he said, by concerns about public safety, schools and politicians’ lack of fiscal discipline. One mantra Griffin threads through his philanthropic and political giving is a focus on “protecting the American dream for future generations.”
“Charitable giving was the lane that I was most focused on for many, many years of my life as a means of moving society to a better place,” Griffin said. “Watching so much of what I did on the philanthropic side be undermined by poor policies from our political sphere has pulled me more into politics with a portion of my resources.”
Politically, he’s also tired of Donald Trump.
Griffin liked his fiscal policies while in the White House, but his only financial support to Trump came in donating $100,000 to his inaugural committee.
“He did a lot of things really well and missed the mark on some important areas,” Griffin said. “And for a litany of reasons, I think it’s time to move on to the next generation.”
While he’s supporting one of this cycle’s biggest culture warriors in DeSantis, Griffin said most hot-button issues — abortion rights, battles over sex education and LGBTQ rights — don’t define his interests. He wants to improve the diversity of the GOP and blunt the vein of populism that has complicated the party’s relationship with the corporate world — two things he’s consulted with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy about.
Public safety, however, is top-of-mind for him, and he uprooted his family and company to his native Florida because of his concern about it in Chicago.
Amid the protests over the killing of George Floyd in 2020, much of Chicago’s Magnificent Mile commercial corridor was smashed and looted. Griffin publicly feuded with Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker, a fellow billionaire, about doing more to stop the destruction.
Griffin acknowledged that rising crime isn’t isolated to Chicago, and said it’s “a significant factor” in how he endorses candidates or campaigns. He shakes his head that during his more than 30 years in Chicago, more than 20,000 people have been murdered, according to Chicago Police Department statistics. Crime in general has been on the upswing around the country in recent years, but murders have dropped in Chicago since the 1990s.
Last month, Griffin gave $2.5 million to the Protecting Americans Action Fund, which works to elect traditional local prosecutors and district attorneys who run counter to the progressives working to reduce the number of people serving jail time for minor crimes. It’s a conservative group, but Griffin said he doesn’t fit the far-right mold.
He’s also donated more than $36 million to the University of Chicago Crime Lab, which studies ways to reduce gun violence as well as the harms of the criminal justice system. That work includes policing fairness and effectiveness.
Griffin shrugs at populist movements that are driven by single issues, whether its reproductive rights on the left or 2020 election denialism on the right. But he said he doesn’t expect to align with candidates all the time on every issue.
As an example, Griffin openly disagreed with DeSantis’ provocative move to fly nearly 50 Venezuelan migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard this summer. It struck a personal chord with Griffin, who grew up in Boca Raton playing soccer with Latino immigrants.
And DeSantis’ blow up with Disney World — one of the state’s largest employers — this spring also ran afoul of Griffin’s focus on mending Republican relationships with corporate America. After the company criticized the governor and GOP-controlled state legislature for passing contentious LGBTQ legislation, dubbed the “don’t say gay” law, DeSantis led a successful push to dismantle its longstanding “independent special district” status.
“I have no qualms with the very public fight,” Griffin said, “but the revocation of Disney’s special tax district felt like retribution.”
Still, Griffin thinks there’s a lot more he likes about the Florida governor.
“Would I support him? The bigger question is, is he going to run? That bridge has to be crossed,” he said.
Griffin has been able to walk the line between establishment Republicans and the far right, maybe because of his wealth but also because he doesn’t put himself in silos when it comes to endorsing the way Soros does on the left or Uihlein on the right.
During the 2022 cycle, Griffin sat down with GOP leaders to talk about endorsing women and minority candidates, which he sees as the future of the party.
“Many of the conversations with Kevin McCarthy about candidates are really about ‘How do we bring more people from different backgrounds into the Republican Party?’” Griffin said. “Kevin is really thoughtful about thinking how to make sure minorities feel the Republican Party is focused on areas important to them, whether it’s education, crime or other issues they care about.”
Griffin donated $50 million to a moderate Black candidate for Illinois governor, Richard Irvin, who ultimately finished third to Trump-backed GOP nominee Darren Bailey. And he put money into Steve Kim, an Asian American candidate who ran for the state’s attorney general this year. But he’s also showered campaign cash on several Republican candidates of color, including Jennifer-Ruth Green in Indiana, Allan Fung in Rhode Island and Lori Chavez-DeRemer in Oregon.
Griffin said it’s important to be engaged in government and politics, regardless of party affiliation, which carries into his company, too.
“There are a substantial number of my colleagues who are really passionate supporters of Democrats. I encourage that engagement and focus on supporting the candidates who they think are the strongest for the country,” he said.
But while Griffin is happy to back candidates who align with his priorities, he gets repulsed by some of the more calculating elements of politics.
He particularly took offense to the Democratic Governors Association’s strategy of promoting far-right GOP candidates during the primary season on the assumption they would make for easier takedowns in the general election.
While Irvin had his own flaws as a candidate, the DGA also spent some $35 million to prop up the more conservative Bailey, who Pritzker is expected to defeat handily on Tuesday.
“That’s what I find disgusting about politics,” Griffin said of the political maneuvering. “The point of our elections, in my mind, is for our voters to have a choice between two really good candidates. They’re of course going to disagree on the issues that Republicans and Democrats tend to disagree on, but that’s OK. That debate is healthy for our country.”