Gov. Sanders banned TikTok on state equipment on her first day in office, but a Sanders-affiliated group is being funded with TikTok cash.

A year and a half after Gov. Sarah Sanders assailed TikTok as a potentially dangerous tool of the Chinese government and banned it on state-issued devices, a group associated with her is working with one of TikTok’s leading investors to protect her signature legislative achievement.

Last month, a group fighting a proposed constitutional amendment that would alter portions of the LEARNS Act, the governor’s education overhaul legislation, accepted $250,000 from Jeff Yass, a Pennsylvania billionaire who is one of the leading investors in ByteDance LTD, the parent company of TikTok.

Advertisement

On Sanders’ first day in office in 2023, she signed seven executive orders, including one that banned TikTok from the state’s network and state-issued devices. The order noted that TikTok is owned by ByteDance, which it said has “significant ties to the Chinese Communist Party.”

The order described China as a “foreign adversary” that is “locked in an economic, political and military competition with the United States.” It said TikTok can harvest data from devices on which it is installed and share that data with the Chinese government.

Advertisement

Documents filed with the Arkansas Ethics Commission show that Sanders’ 2022 campaign manager, Chris Caldwell, is the treasurer for Arkansans for Students and Educators, the group fighting the Arkansas Educational Rights Amendment ballot initiative. Caldwell has been named campaign manager for Sanders’ 2026 reelection bid.

Bentonville energy executive Randy Lawson is the group’s chair and Rogers real estate developer John Schmelzle is the vice chair. Sanders appointed Schmelzle to the Arkansas Economic Development Commission last year and, on his LinkedIn profile, Schmelzle said his role on the commission is to “represent Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders” in attracting business to the state.

Advertisement

The Arkansas for Students and Educators group first raised eyebrows when it received $500,000 from Walmart heir Jim Walton. The group has also received donations from chicken mogul Ron Cameron, Simmons Bank executive George Makris and Lisenne Rockefeller. The group has also received $100,000 from Stronger Arkansas, a separate ballot question committee chaired by Caldwell. 

Yass, whose worth is estimated at $27.6 billion by Forbes, co-founded Wall Street trading firm Susquehanna International Group in 1987 and remains the company’s managing director. 

Advertisement

Yass’ company, also known as SIG, owns 15% of ByteDance and his personal stake is 7%, worth about $21 billion, according to CNBC. The New York Post estimated his stake at $33 billion. 

Yass has done more than invest in the company, he’s fought to protect it in the U.S. A source told the New York Post that Yass personally called members of Congress to discourage them from voting in favor of a bill that would force ByteDance to sell TikTok or be banned in the U.S. A spokesman for Yass denied he made the calls, the Post reported. A source told the Post that Yass is “largely credited with slowing the down the anti-TikTok momentum.”

Advertisement

In April, President Joe Biden signed into law a bill that would ban Tik Tok unless it was sold within nine months. 

Described as a libertarian, Yass is a major campaign donor who sent $47 million to Republican candidates and causes during the 2022 midterm elections. He is a major supporter of voucher programs that use public money to support private education, including a $2 million donation to the national pro-voucher group American Federation for Children.

Advertisement

Other pro-voucher candidates that Yass has backed include Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. Yass donated $6 million to support his election; Abbott later banned TikTok from government-issued phones and computers.

LEARNS, a behemoth omnibus education law, is one of a number of new state laws establishing universal voucher programs — by the 2025-2026 school year, all K-12 students in Arkansas will be eligible to apply. The program uses taxpayer money to help families pay the cost of students attending private or home schools.

Public education advocates have noted that LEARNS does not hold private schools accepting vouchers to the same testing, accreditation and accountability standards as public schools. Among other new education mandates, the Arkansas Educational Rights Amendment would require private schools accepting vouchers to follow the same standards.

In order to make the November ballot, the measure will need 90,704 verified signatures by July 5 and will need to hold off inevitable court challenges.

Advertisement

While Arkansans for Students and Educators is swimming in cash – $986,000 in total donations – thanks to the largesse of Yass, Walton and other big-money donors, For AR Kids has raised just $8,217.53. Stronger Arkansas, the separate ballot question committee that includes Caldwell and other Sanders associates among its leaders, has raised $375,000 to fight the education amendment and other measures. 

For AR Kids is relying entirely on volunteers to collect signatures. The measure polls extremely well, according to Bill Kopsky, the group’s treasurer, which helps explain why Caldwell and company hope to stop the amendment from even appearing on the ballot. If they succeed, TikTok cash will have played an important role.