As anxiety mounts within the Democratic Party over which candidate is best suited to defeat President Trump in November, Democrats on Capitol Hill are increasingly turning to someone who’s saved their bacon before: Mike Bloomberg.
The billionaire former mayor of New York City—who spent tens of millions of dollars to help Democrats win back the House in 2018—is rising in Democratic primary polls as former Vice President Joe Biden falters. He seems primed to compete in states that are holding primaries on Super Tuesday and beyond, where he’s flooded the airwaves with TV ads and set up scores of field offices.
After receiving his first endorsement from a congressional Democrat on Jan. 13, Bloomberg has since picked up eight more, giving him more support on Capitol Hill than Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), or former Mayor Pete Buttigieg of Indiana.
Most of those backers are moderates, and several have announced their support for Bloomberg since last week’s primary-muddling Iowa caucus debacle. Democratic lawmakers and aides told The Daily Beast that outreach from the Bloomberg campaign has ramped up dramatically in recent days: Rep. Dan Kildee (D-MI), who’s made clear he does not plan to endorse a candidate in the primary, said he’s heard from Bloomberg-world “almost every day for the last week.”
Bloomberg, said campaign co-chair Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL), “is the buzz in the caucus. That’s the buzz right now.”
For a sizable faction of Democrats, it’s not hard to see the appeal. Bloomberg marries fiscal centrism with staunchly liberal stances on key Democratic issues like gun control and climate change; his record as New York City mayor, to them, is a unique strength and offers a compelling alternative to other candidates’ backgrounds.
But there are also some closer-to-home reasons for Democratic lawmakers to back Bloomberg: some suspect that backing the billionaire—who’s used his massive fortune to benefit the political fortunes of dozens of members of Congress—could be a way for some lawmakers to increase their chances that he air-drops a few million into their own races this year.
Asked if that was factors into the calculus for some Democrats, Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA)—who has not endorsed any candidate for president—paused. “Oh,” he said with a sarcastic edge, “I’m sure it doesn’t.”
A New York City Democratic elected official, speaking anonymously to discuss the issue candidly, said the possibility that Bloomberg might support them down the road is almost certainly playing a role in Democrats’ endorsement calculations.
“I’m sure that’s part of it,” the official said. “Whether it’s real or imagined, discussed or not, Bloomberg is a guy who can fund an entire campaign for somebody.”
No Bloomberg supporters, of course, say that any hopes for an influx of his money are informing anyone’s decision to endorse. “That’s a ridiculous assertion,” said Rep. Max Rose (D-NY), the first House Democrat to back Bloomberg. “If that were the case, everyone would have endorsed Tom Steyer a year ago. Come on, man.”
A spokesperson for the Bloomberg campaign also downplayed the idea that this calculation played into Bloomberg backers’ decisions, noting that the billionaire candidate has already committed to investing millions of dollars to help Democrats keep the House and take the Senate. He has already cut a $10 million check to House Majority PAC, a group committed to supporting House Democrats, no matter who they’ve endorsed for president.
Any calculations of future support aside, Bloomberg’s prolific past support of congressional Democrats puts him in a category all his own in the 2020 primary—and perhaps even in modern campaign history. As presidential candidates hustle to woo lawmakers who could give them an edge in what’ll be a long, painstakingly-fought primary, only one of them can credibly say they have played a role in making a bunch of seats blue.
It’s an ironic turn for a former Republican who endorsed George W. Bush in 2004 and, up until very recently, was still giving generously to Republicans. In 2016, for example, Bloomberg was more supportive of GOP candidates than Democrats, and dropped $6 million to back Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA)—a leading Republican on gun control—in a race Democrats wanted desperately to win.
But the Trump era saw Bloomberg shift decisively to Democrats. He pledged to spend $100 million to help Democrats take back Congress in the 2018 midterm, and his personal PAC spent every dime of a $38 million sum boosting Democrats and attacking Republicans. To many, that is reason enough to consider his past GOP support water under the bridge. “There’s probably nobody who did more to elect the current class of freshmen and give us a majority,” said Kildee.
Several Bloomberg endorsers, such as Reps. Haley Stevens (D-MI) and Mikie Sherrill (D-N.J.) are freshmen Democrats who won that year in races where Bloomberg money flowed freely. On Tuesday, Stevens told The Daily Beast that the formerly GOP-aligned billionaire would be able to win over Democrats and voters in midwestern districts like hers. “His vision is the exact opposite of Donald Trump's,” she said. “It's not divisive, it's unifying.”
When it was noted that Bloomberg was heavily involved in her 2018 race, Stevens responded “a lot of people were very involved in my race.”
Plenty of lawmakers are able to recall a time Bloomberg came to the rescue. Connolly, for example, faced a tough re-election fight in his northern Virginia district during the tea party-fueled wave in 2010. In the race’s home stretch, Bloomberg’s political organization bankrolled $150,000 in TV ads touting Connolly’s record on gun control—an important issue in a district touched by the Virginia Tech mass shooting years earlier.
Connolly ended up winning by 981 votes. “I’d never met Michael Bloomberg, I’d never talked to him,” he told The Daily Beast. “That's the kind of thing you don't forget… when I needed help, who was there? Michael Bloomberg was there.”
Bloomberg’s lengthy and generally cozy history with House Democrats is just one of several advantages he’s poised to turn to as his standing in the primary increases. Ironically, some said, his back-and-forth partisan alignment has given him a reputation that defies orthodoxy, even though elements of his record—particularly his embrace of stop-and-frisk policing as mayor of New York—carry toxic baggage with Democratic voters that could be as hard to overcome as his financial support of Republicans.
“He’s sort of a safe pick because you’re not really aligning yourself,” said the New York City elected official. “Everyone is in a bucket: If you’re with Bernie or Warren, you’re in that bucket; If you’re with Biden or Pete, you’re seen as moderate. I think Bloomberg, even though he’s probably falling into that bucket, he’s an outlier. He’s got his own money and will do whatever he can.”
Rose, the Staten Island congressman who first endorsed Bloomberg, has a unique history with the candidate he’s endorsed: he’s actually been on the other end of the former mayor’s millions. Bloomberg personally contributed $5,400 to the campaign of former Rep. Dan Donovan, the Republican incumbent who Rose defeated in 2018.
But less than two years later, Rose couldn’t be more bullish on Bloomberg’s prospects to pick up support on the Hill.
“You’re gonna see more and more and more each and every day, each and every week,” said Rose. “Mike Bloomberg is going to be the nominee. And then Mike Bloomberg is going to win the presidency.”