Democrats had a lot going for them in their midterm quest for a House of Representatives majority, including: historical midterm election patterns; the public’s desire to check President Trump and GOP domination of all branches of government; the Republican failure to offer a credible health care reform package; their multi-billion dollar tax give-away to the wealthy; unease about Trump’s reckless trade policy; a bumper crop of really good Democratic candidates and competent campaigns; and additional millions of fed-up women voters.
But for many Democrats who won close races, a leading factor in their success would have to include the generosity of former New York Mayor/publishing tycoon Michael Bloomberg. As Stephanie Saul and Rachel Shorey explain in their NYT article, “How Michael Bloomberg Used His Money to Aid Democratic Victories in the House“:
Big donors like the Adelsons, the Uihleins, the Koch brothers on the Republican side and Tom Steyer and George Soros on the Democratic side have become integral and influential players in every election cycle. But in this year’s midterm elections, Mr. Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York, emerged as a powerful and effective force, as well as the biggest outside spender promoting Democratic House candidates, according to disclosures filed with the Federal Election Commission.
Records filed so far show that organizations controlled and funded by Mr. Bloomberg spent more than $41 million on 24 House races, much of it on eye-catching ads rolled out on social media and broadcast on television in the crucial final days of the campaign.
And while it’s impossible to conclude that any one factor tipped the balance in a race, Mr. Bloomberg appears to have reaped the benefits of his millions in giving. Democrats won 21 of the 24 races he sought to influence. Of those, 12 had been considered either tossups or in Republican districts.
“The mission was to flip the House. Success or failure would be defined by that,” said Howard Wolfson, a senior adviser to Mr. Bloomberg.
…When the final reports are filed next month, Mr. Bloomberg’s organization says they will show that the former mayor and his organizations spent $44 million on television ads and another $12 million on digital advertising in support of House candidates. Overall spending by Mr. Bloomberg and his organizations in the 2018 elections topped $112 million, an amount that also includes donations to help Senate candidates and progressive organizations…That puts him on the same level as Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, longtime Republican megadonors who had given $112 million to Republican Super PACs as of Oct. 17.
No doubt some of the 40 Democratic pick-ups and incumbents who won narrow victories would have won without contributions from Bloomberg and other wealthy donors. However, note Saul and Shorey, “Assessing the election outcome, Kevin McCarthy, the House Republican leader, cited Mr. Bloomberg’s spending as a significant factor. “Michael Bloomberg’s money went a long way. He defeated a lot of people by writing those $5 million checks,” Mr. McCarthy told CNBC. Kyle Kondik of Sabato’s Crystal Ball sees a more moderate Bloomberg effect, adding that “Mr. Bloomberg and his late money may have made a difference in a few of the surprising results that helped pad the size of the Democratic majority.”
And Bloomberg’s investments were smart and strategically-sound, as Storey and Saul explain. His strategy “involved spending on digital advertising beginning in September and spending “big” and “late” on television advertising. Records show that more than $30 million of Mr. Bloomberg’s spending on House races came after Oct. 22…They identified districts previously ignored by national Democrats where there were opportunities to stretch the Democratic map.”
In terms of digital and TV ad strategy, “Digital ads are cheaper and carry metrics showing how many people clicked, how long they watched and how many people shared. Using those metrics, Mr. Bloomberg’s operation was able to identify successful digital ads that they could move to television.” Saul and Storey provide a number of specific examples, including:
Health care and taxes were major themes of the Bloomberg ads. In Illinois’s 14th Congressional District, a suburban Chicago area, one Bloomberg-funded ad emphasized the Democratic challenger Lauren Underwood’s record as a registered nurse who would fight for health care.
A separate ad attacked the four-term incumbent, Randy Hultgren, for his vote in favor of the bill limiting deductions for state and local taxes, which the ad claimed would lead to “higher taxes for many Chicagoland families.”
…In Houston, a media market saturated with political advertising, one ad stood out for its quirkiness. It featured a cartoonlike depiction of the Republican incumbent, Representative John Culberson, riding a spaceship.
Mr. Culberson had pushed millions of dollars in funding for a NASA mission to find signs of life on Jupiter’s moon Europa.
“John Culberson: Out of this World,” the ad trumpeted.
“It was definitely the most-talked-about ad in the Houston area,” said Tony Essalih, a former aide to Mr. Culberson and now a principal with Cornerstone Government Affairs, a lobbying firm. “In terms of driving up his negatives, I think it had an impact.”
It’s impossible to pinpoint the overall effectiveness of Bloomberg’s contributions with any precision. But it’s clear his support had a significant impact in a number of races. It looks like Democrats owe him a debt of gratitude. Meanwhile, Bloomberg is behaving like a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, and he has an upcoming speaking engagement in Iowa. If he runs, former Republican Bloomberg will likely be cast as a centrist, business-friendly Democrat, even though he is now the NRA’s top boogeyman.
Bloomberg will undoubtedly make some Democrats nervous, especially those who could use his support, but don’t want to get locked into an endorsement trajectory. Bloomberg may end up more a king-maker than a King. But either way, his influence in Democratic Party politics is on the upswing — and so far, for progressives, as well as moderates, that’s been a good thing.