Two weeks into his presidential campaign, Michael Bloomberg’s strategy for winning the Democratic nomination is perfectly clear: spend lots of money. The former New York City mayor has poured his vast personal wealth into record-setting ad buys and refused campaign donations. Bloomberg seems to believe he and his fortune are meant to save the country from President Donald Trump.
As audacious (some would say misguided) as his plan is, Bloomberg does have plenty of experience throwing his cash around in the political process—with some notable success.
Since leaving City Hall in 2014, Bloomberg has spent billions of dollars on the issues and candidates he supports. As David Callahan wrote this year for Inside Philanthropy, Bloomberg is an “exceptionally sophisticated” donor who targets strategically crucial races and significant but tractable issues. Bloomberg Philanthropies has spent a total of $8 billion on issues he cares about, including curbing deaths from tobacco (nearly $1 billion), traffic ($259 million), guns ($50 million), and opioids ($50 million), as well as combating climate change ($500 million).
Those donations show some of Bloomberg’s priorities, but his donations to political candidates are better indications of whether his money has the power to swing an election. A man who prides himself on his independence, Bloomberg has retained more control over his spending than other megadonors have, picking and choosing relatively moderate candidates who appealed to him and growing more aggressive each election cycle.
The result: Bloomberg has largely backed winners. According to the FEC filings from Bloomberg’s personal contributions and, more significantly, his political action committee, Independence USA, candidates he’s supported have won 45 of the 54 (often highly competitive) races he’s spent money on. The story of those donations is also the story of Bloomberg’s transformation, as a former Republican mayor emerged as one of the nation’s most prominent Democratic boosters.
The 2014 Election
In 2014, Bloomberg still identified as an independent and shelled out to Republicans and Democrats alike. (When examining his spending, we limited ourselves to Bloomberg’s donations after he left office.)
Presidential candidate Bloomberg has already faced criticism over his past coziness with Republicans, including speaking at the 2004 Republican National Convention in support of George W. Bush. It would take several more years for his identity as a Trump-hating-but-aisle-crossing Democrat to coalesce; Bloomberg left the Republican Party in 2007, flirted with the idea of a presidential run as an independent in 2016, and finally registered as a Democrat in 2018.
Bloomberg, as an individual, made a handful of contributions in 2014. Most were to Democrats, but one was to the moderate Republican Susan Collins.
• Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hi.
• Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass.
• Seth Moulton, D-Mass.
• Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine
• Rep. Joe Crowley, D-N.Y.
• Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y.
• Brad Ashford, D-Neb.
His PAC spent significantly more cash. Its biggest expenditure in 2014 went to a Republican: former Rep. Bob Dold in Illinois.
• Bob Dold, R-Ill.: $1.9 million
• Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn.: $513,000
• Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, R-Pa.: $174,000
Dold was competing against Democratic Rep. Brad Schneider, who had defeated him in 2012. Independence USA ran ads praising Dold as a “fiscal conservative” who supported gun control measures and gay marriage. Overall in 2014, Bloomberg spent $2.1 million on Dold and two other Republican candidates—almost four times as much as on Democratic candidates that year.
It should be noted, though, that Bloomberg also donated $2.8 million to a super PAC dedicated to electing Democrats in support of abortion rights, $2.2 million to the House Democrats’ super PAC, $1 million to support Planned Parenthood’s PAC, and $1 million to the Committee to Elect an Independent Senate, which lobbied against Republican Sen. Pat Roberts. In the 2014 election cycle, Bloomberg’s most significant spending went to outside groups that did much of the political strategizing for him. Even as he personally stepped up for Republican candidates, behind the scenes, his money was doing the Democrats’ work.
The outcome: Every candidate he supported won his or her campaign.
The 2016 Election
One race stood out during this period: Pennsylvania’s Senate race between Republican incumbent Pat Toomey and Democrat Katie McGinty. It was an extremely close race, and one, as the New York Times notes, that seemed key to Democrats’ strategy for retaking the Senate. Toomey, the Republican incumbent, had led an unsuccessful effort to expand background checks for guns, and it may have been this effort that won over Bloomberg. In the end, Bloomberg showered Toomey with $11.7 million, one of the largest contributions in the most expensive Senate race ever at the time. Toomey won by less than 2 percentage points, and Republicans held onto their Senate majority by two seats.
The PAC’s other big spending—$6.2 million—went toward punishing New Hampshire Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte, who had opposed a gun control bill Toomey co-authored after the Newtown shooting. Ayotte was narrowly defeated by Democrat Maggie Hassan.
Both of these races revealed Bloomberg’s emergence as a powerful and targeted campaign funder, less narrowly issues-based than Tom Steyer and less partisan than Sheldon Adelson.
His PAC also donated a half-million dollars to Rep. Val Demings in Florida, but the rest of the candidates he backed received personal donations from Bloomberg, which come with tighter spending caps:
• Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo.
• Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill.*
• Rep. Joe Crowley, D-N.Y.
• Anna Throne-Holst, D-N.Y.*
• Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass.
• Rep. Pete King, R-N.Y.
• Rep. Dan Donovan, R-N.Y.
• Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
• Kamala Harris, D-Calif.
His personal donations included a number of Republicans, all but one of whom won their races. (Mark Kirk was defeated after making offensive comments.) In terms of pure spending, Bloomberg favored Republicans: He and his PAC spent $5 million more boosting GOP candidates. (Again, as in 2014, his contributions to other groups skewed more to the left, as he handed $2 million over to groups focused on Democratic women.)
The most important thing to note, ultimately, is the success of his PAC. Its three major pushes involved close races and were all significant victories.
The 2018 Election
In June 2018, Bloomberg announced he would spend at least $80 million to help House Democrats flip the chamber. A month before the election, he pledged another $20 million for the same goal in the Senate. “Republicans in Congress have had almost two years to prove they could govern responsibly,” Bloomberg said. “They failed.”
This was a rearrangement of Bloomberg’s identity as a donor. Now, the billionaire sought a total partisan victory, striking at races not so much because of positions on gun control or climate change but more because he had a clear vision of a majority unified against Trump and the party that enabled him—a vision that just needed a few key districts to flip.
A newly aggressive Bloomberg infused the race with big money. He handed over staggering sums to other Democratic groups (in particular, $20 million for the main Senate Democratic super PAC). This time, many of the races he targeted directly involved new figures taking on entrenched incumbents. These were pricier contests, and Bloomberg spent more than $1 million on 13 different candidates, a threshold he crossed only once in 2014 and twice in 2016:
• Katie Hill, D-Cal.: $5.1 million
• Kim Schrier, D-Wash.: $3 million
• Steven Horsford, D-Nev.: $2.8 million
• Haley Stevens, D-Mich.: $2.6 million
• Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich.: $2.4 million
• Mikie Sherrill, D-N.J.: $2.2 million
• Lauren Underwood, D-Ill.: $2.2 million
• Nancy Soderberg, D-Fla.: $1.6 million*
• Elizabeth Fletcher, D-Texas: $1.3 million
• Jennifer Wexton, D-Va.: $1.7 million
• Dean Phillips, D-Minn.: $1.1 million
• Carolyn Long, D-Wash.: $1.3 million*
• Carolyn Bourdeaux, D-Ga.: $1 million*
He also singled out two Republicans for heavy opposition:
• Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif.: $4.5 million
• Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas: $1.5 million
Both of these candidates were defeated. Rohrabacher was the longest-serving incumbent to lose reelection to a House seat that year, having held office since 1988. Sessions had served in the House for 21 years.
The remaining 18 candidates the PAC spent money supporting or opposing also fell along partisan lines. And all went the way he hoped. This included a win by Kendra Horn in Oklahoma, which was considered one of the biggest upsets of the election cycle, and a win by Lucy McBath in Georgia, whose campaign around gun control was centered on her son’s fatal shooting in 2012.
Bloomberg’s spending campaign, it seems, partly worked. The House flipped. The Senate saw some turnover, though Republicans extended their overall advantage by two seats.
Of all the PAC targets, Bloomberg’s preferred candidates won in 21 of 24 races. The 2018 election was an exceptional year, as the electorate was particularly energized, so it’s hard to say Bloomberg’s money was decisive. But we can say he picked Democratic candidates he knew could win.
As a private individual, Bloomberg held onto one bit of independence: He supported his friend Rep. Dan Donovan, New York City’s last congressional Republican. Donovan lost.
The 2020 Election
It was reported in February that Bloomberg was ready to spend “at least” an astonishing $500 million to defeat Donald Trump. Little of that money has been spent yet, which fits with his usual strategy of waiting until closer to the election when he can pack the greatest punch. (Bloomberg has already personally donated to three Democratic campaigns: Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Rep. Joe Kennedy of Massachusetts, and Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts. Strangely, the latter two are running against each other for the Senate seat that Markey currently holds.)
The question for 2020 is how much Bloomberg will feel motivated to spend outside of his own race, and whether he’ll follow through on his promises if he fails to snag the Democratic nomination. If he does support other candidates, that’s bad news for Trump—it’s too early to know if Bloomberg will have any success in the Democratic primary, but he certainly seems good at spending money.