For months the polling has shown basically a dead heat between California Republican Congressman Steve Knight and Democratic challenger Katie Hill. Third-party spending in the race has been pretty even, too. The money part, however, is about to change, drastically: on Monday, the first part of a $5.4 million TV ad barrage backing Hill starts to land, thanks to Michael Bloomberg. “Los Angeles is an incredibly expensive ad market right now, with the ballot propositions and the governor’s race,” says an awed and envious California Democratic strategist. “This is a lot of firepower. It’s a potentially difference-making investment, and it’s going to put Katie’s message on jets for the final weeks of the campaign. I wish Bloomberg was spending in my race.”
The multi-billionaire former New York City mayor announced in June that he would be spending $80 million to help try to elect Democrats to the House. In early October, just after the spectacle of Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings, Bloomberg said he will be contributing $20 million to try to flip the Senate as well. Then Bloomberg re-registered as a Democrat himself, and traveled to New Hampshire, South Carolina, and, this Sunday, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia to publicly boost Democratic candidates. All of which has been interpreted as really being about preparing the way for a Bloomberg presidential run in 2020.
Maybe that finally happens this time around: Bloomberg’s enthusiasm for giving a speech in Camden, New Jersey, last week was unusual. Yet what’s gotten lost in the presidential speculation is that Bloomberg is setting himself up to have an enormous impact right now, in a handful of 2018 midterm contests. “People assume we’re taking $80 million and spreading it in a lot of places,” a Bloomberg insider says. Instead, in early June, the mayor’s political team polled 30 House districts that appeared to have close races and conducted focus groups of voters. Then it targeted the most promising ones, usually where the contenders were separated by the margin of error or less. Policy positions were also a factor: it helped if the Democratic candidate lined up strongly with Bloomberg’s views on gun control, climate change, and abortion. The ex-mayor also wanted a diverse slate, especially when it came to gender.
The result is that Bloomberg’s $80 million is being deployed on behalf of just 16 lucky beneficiaries at the moment; the number will likely grow to a still-select group of 20. The current list includes Hill, who is running for a House seat just north of Los Angeles; Angie Craig, in southern Minneapolis-St. Paul; Jason Crow, vying to represent a district covering eastern Denver; Sharice Davids, in Kansas City, Kansas; Steven Horsford, in Las Vegas; Chrissy Houlahan, of suburban Philadelphia; Mike Levin, who is taking on incumbent Darrell Issa north of San Diego; Elaine Luria, running in a district that covers Virginia Beach, Williamsburg, and part of Norfolk; Dean Phillips, in suburban Minneapolis; Harley Rouda, who is up against incumbent Dana Rohrabacher in Orange County, California; Kim Schrier, running for an open seat outside Seattle; Donna Shalala, in Miami; Elissa Slotkin and Haley Stevens, in southern Michigan and suburban Detroit, respectively; Jennifer Wexton, in northern Virginia; and Mikie Sherrill, in northern New Jersey. Sherrill’s opponent, Republican Jay Webber, is trying to see Bloomberg’s involvement as a backhanded compliment. “It tells you that Mikie’s message hasn’t closed the deal,” Webber says. “She set fund-raising records around here, and she still needs outside help. Mike Bloomberg and Nancy Pelosi are propping up an ideological soul mate, someone who is far to the left of this district.”
Some of Bloomberg’s House money is being funneled through simpatico interest groups, including the League of Conservation Voters, Emily’s List, and Planned Parenthood. His clout is being amplified by other, more-directly-affiliated groups, like Everytown for Gun Safety, which is spending Bloomberg bucks to support Bloomberg-friendly candidates. (On the Senate side, Bloomberg’s $20 million is being parceled out by the Senate Majority PAC.) The bulk of the midterms cash, however, is being spent directly, through Bloomberg’s Independence USA PAC. His longtime political adviser, Kevin Sheekey, is involved in the effort, with Howard Wolfson directing the day-to-day strategy. Wolfson is probably best known, outside political circles, as a top strategist for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign. Before that, though, Wolfson was executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee during the 1998 midterms, a cycle in which the Dems gained five seats despite the headwinds of the President Bill Clinton–Monica Lewinsky scandal.
“Mike’s effort starts from the premise that we have an out-of-control president who is doing terrible things,” Wolfson says. “In the midterms, we have an opportunity not to address Trump directly, but to address a Congress that has done nothing to provide oversight. You have this president who is essentially unchecked by the Congress of the same party, and that is a dangerous thing. Mike has been involved in other midterm cycles. What’s different this time is him getting comfortable with being partisan, and the scale involved in flipping a chamber of the House.”
Wolfson is dividing Bloomberg’s money roughly 3–to–1 between traditional TV and digital ads. Several million dollars worth of Bloomberg-funded TV ads began running today in Luria’s Virginia race and Stevens’s Michigan race. “Most of our TV stuff will hit late,” Wolfson says, and it will be sharpened by more polls and focus groups. The web spots began running in early September. “We will end up spending north of $10 million just on digital,” Wolfson says. “It will make us the biggest player in digital ads for Democrats this cycle.”
A strategist for one of the leading potential candidates for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination doesn’t think Bloomberg would have much of a shot in that contest, but recognizes the current maneuvering. “We are all in the friend-making business right now, by helping to elect Democrats,” the operative says. “Bloomberg is trying to create a narrative that he played a big role in helping the Democrats take back some power. But ask Tom Steyer how that is working out. Nobody loves Daddy Warbucks, even if he’s working for the good guys.” Perhaps. For now, Bloomberg’s new Democratic friends are plenty happy to have his $100 million. And Bloomberg, unlike Steyer, has a long and deep history of engagement in Democratic issues, and a 12-year record of success running a major city.
“He certainly is thinking about running for president. But he would be doing this regardless of that,” Wolfson says. “Mike was very clear with me. The goal right now is to get to 218. Then I will sit down with him and help him think through the rest.”