Ever since former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that he will spend at least $80 million of his vast personal fortune towards flipping control of the House in this fall’s midterm elections, the internet has been set afire by rampant speculation that the multi-billionaire’s generosity has a more practical objective – priming the pump for an eventual 2020 presidential run.
Maybe so. But first-- what about that $80 million? Where will it go and who will it support… or attack?
In some Congressional races – particularly in those taking place in low-cost media markets – an infusion of just a few hundred thousand dollars in a close race could be game-changing. In others, it might take a few million -- plus some pretty attention-getting advertising -- to move the needle.
Bloomberg’s stated objective is to ensure that Democrats take back control of the House in the upcoming elections. “I’ve never thought that the public is well-served when one party is entirely out of power, and I think the past year and half has been evidence of that,” wrote Bloomberg on Bloomberg.com. “Congress has essentially stopped acting as a co-equal branch of government, by failing to engage in the kind of oversight of the law that the Constitution requires and the public expects… And so this fall, I'm going to support Democrats in their efforts to win control of the House.”
"Michael Bloomberg will be shrewd about where he spends his money – investing his largess in innovative ways that will not only support Democratic challengers, but also force Republicans to spend on seats they considered safe."
If Bloomberg wanted to leave all the hard thinking about which races deserve additional TLC to others, he could just cut a fat check to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, letting Nancy Pelosi and Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez go on a nationwide spending spree. But, based upon early results, DCCC-backed candidates aren’t even winning all their own primaries.
With that record of effectiveness, DNC bigwigs shouldn’t expect a check in the mail anytime soon.
No, Michael Bloomberg will be shrewd about where he spends his money – investing his largess in innovative ways that will not only support Democratic challengers, but also force Republicans to spend on seats they considered safe.
Bloomberg’s investment is not just $80 million of new money on top of the nearly $4 billion in expected overall spending on Congressional elections this year. Rather, think of it as $80 million in strategic venture capital – targeted towards identifying weak GOP incumbents or open seats where Democrats can win and earn the 23 seats they need to control the House and then some.
“Expect the unexpected when it comes to Bloomberg’s investments in the 2018 Midterms,” said political consultant Hank Sheinkopf who has advised on multiple high-profile political campaigns, including past Bloomberg races. “He will look to be impactful with where he spends his money, and his investment in key contests will change the playing field. Don't be surprised to see districts the GOP thought were safe suddenly emerge as ‘in play’ once Bloomberg money is activated."
He added that Bloomberg's cash "will likely be deployed in a highly targeted effort concentrating resources in districts that have a majority Democrat registration, but voted for Trump in 2016; districts where Democrats underperformed; districts where Latinos and women turnouts can be increased; and highly marginal districts where targeted efforts can result in victory."
Of course, we are not in Bloomberg's head, but here are a baker’s dozen races where Bloomberg and his top political deputy, Howard Wolfson, might be gunning for victories this fall:
It’s hard to get voters’ attention in California, and it’s a hugely expensive task to try to do so. But it’s also the most fertile ground for Democrats and their candidates. Statewide, California's GOP is collapsing, and today, the Party of Reagan may not even have the wherewithal or the candidates to run competitive races for U.S. Senate and Governor.
If anybody can make a strategic play in California with a high return on investment, it’s Bloomberg. Look for a possible third of Bloomberg’s money to be invested in California races, where all the macro voter tendencies are skewing Democratic.
Moreover, California provides real opportunities to claim some high-profile GOP scalps:
In what has grown into a bedroom community for the pricey Bay area, this suburban district around Modesto went for Hillary Clinton in 2016. It is part of the nation’s 20th most expensive media market, where Bloomberg’s money could be make the difference in a race considered a toss-up by most political oddsmakers. Look for Bloomberg to champion Stanford and Harvard-educated Democratic challenger Josh Harder, whose main challenge is to unite a splintered Democratic primary vote and defeat GOP incumbent Jeff Denham.
California’s 22nd district, held by Trump’s enabler-in-chief in the House, Devin Nunes, could also be a prime target. Although assumed by the Cook Report and others to be a lock for the GOP because President Trump comfortably carried the district , close observers will note that it voted Democrat Kamala Harris into the U.S. Senate that same election year by an equally comfortable margin.
Challenger Andrew Janz is a criminal prosecutor who has raised four times more than every previous Nunes challenger – combined. If Bloomberg put a few million bucks into tearing down an easy target like Nunes in this suburban Fresno district, he could not only flip the seat, but remove one of the most despised GOP members of Congress. Merely forcing Republicans to divert resources to defend Nunes would be a victory in itself.
In a district that went for Hillary Clinton in 2016 by a solid margin, look for Bloomberg’s dollars to take on GOP incumbent Mimi Walters, who is a climate change denier (a cardinal sin in Bloomberg World) and unabashed Trump apologist who is defending her seat against Katie Porter, a Yale and Harvard-educated law professor.
If Democrats in Long Beach can make nice after a bruising primary between real estate investor Harley Rouda and stem cell researcher Hans Keirstead – a race in which Rouda eked out a victory over Keirstead by just 70 votes - they will have a very good shot at taking down thirty-year incumbent Dana Rohrabacher, who has come under increased scrutiny by Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. Creative minds in the employ of Bloomberg and Wolfson would have a field day writing TV ads tearing down a figure like Rohrabacher, who The New York Times has suggested has his very own Russian KGB codename.
In this cycle, Minnesota is the New Ohio – a key battleground state with as many as five of its eight congressional seats in play. Look for Bloomberg to come in and get heavily involved in both MN-02 and MN-03 – Twin Cities suburban areas where polished challengers are taking on vulnerable Republican incumbents Jason Lewis and Erik Paulsen. With two Senate races and a governor’s race to boot, airtime in the nation’s 15th biggest media market will go at a premium, and Bloomberg’s cash infusion could make the difference for Democratic challengers Angie Craig in the 2nd and Dean Phillips in the 3rd, not to mention the other tight Congressional elections in the state.
Other North Star races that might make it on to the Bloomberg Hit List include three other currently Democrat-held seats that might be in peril— the “swingy” and open MN-01; long-time Blue Dog Democrat Collin Peterson’s seat, MN-07; and the open former Democratic redoubt in the Duluth area, MN-08, where Donald Trump did very well, but could send another Democrat to Congress with some targeted media.
The Sunshine State presents some balmy opportunities to pick up a handful of traditional GOP seats – many of which were recently redrawn - such as FL-27, a Miami-area seat which is now open after longtime Republican Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen announced her retirement.
South Florida – oftentimes referred to as New York City’s sixth borough - has a special place in Bloomberg’s heart and he will be eyeing a few valuable pick-ups in the Greater Miami area. Look for Bloomberg to direct resources to FL-26, considered a toss-up by most national oddsmakers, as well as FL-18 and FL-25, which will force the GOP to play defense in seats they felt Democrats wouldn’t aggressively go after.
In addition to these lucky 13 seats, look for Bloomberg money to appear in contests where self-identified Independent voters play an outsized role in elections – places such as Colorado, Maine, Washington state, and Oregon.
But don’t be surprised if close to half of Bloomberg’s money stays close to home, to lock down seats in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and upstate New York. Overall, we expect Bloomberg to invest in over 40 races nationally, to try to ensure that Democrats don’t once again botch winnable elections, and to put the House firmly in Democratic hands.
One interesting wrinkle in this story is whether all the candidates who stand to benefit from Bloomberg’s munificence will embrace it with open arms.
Dean Phillips, the Democratic challenger who is vying to remove five-term incumbent Eric Paulsen in Minnesota’s 3rd congressional district has made campaign finance reform a hallmark theme in his race.
“Getting big money out of politics has been among my top priorities, and in fact, I’ve challenged my opponent to join me in signing a mutual pledge to prevent outside spending in this race,” said Phillips. But how much the Phillips campaign will protest if Bloomberg’s money ends up excoriating his opponent in the final months of the campaign remains to be seen.
Arick Wierson is a six-time Emmy Award-winning television executive and former deputy commissioner under New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Currently, Wierson works as a political and branding consultant to clients in the United States, Africa and Latin America. You can follow him on twitter @ArickWierson .
Bill Hillsman is an author, an expert on Independent voters, and a 30-year veteran corporate and political adman who has engineered some of the biggest upsets in American political history including electing Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura (I) and US Senator Paul Wellstone (D). He is the president and chief creative officer of North Woods Advertising. You can follow him on twitter @BillHillsman .