Michael Bloomberg’s past efforts to support gun control by endorsing Republicans are already backfiring on his presidential bid in Pennsylvania, highlighting how the party-switching former New York City mayor and multibillionaire media mogul could struggle to win over his new party’s partisans.
Bloomberg spent millions supporting two Republicans who support some gun control measures in the 2016 and 2018 elections, infuriating Democrats in the nation’s fifth-largest state and potentially hampering his ability to collect the state’s 153 delegates to the Democratic National Convention.
In 2016, Bloomberg spent $6 million supporting GOP Sen. Pat Toomey. In 2018, his gun control group ― Everytown for Gun Safety ― endorsed incumbent Republican Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, leading local activists to quit the group en masse.
“In my opinion, it disqualifies Bloomberg as a Democratic presidential candidate,” said Mike Mikus, a Democratic strategist who helped lead Katie McGinty’s U.S. Senate campaign against Toomey in 2016. “He basically invested heavily in making sure Mitch McConnell stayed Senate Majority Leader.”
The resistance to Bloomberg in Pennsylvania exemplifies the broader struggle the Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-Independent-turned-Democrat might face as he campaigns for his new party’s nomination. Bloomberg has a long history of backing and funding candidates in both parties, including supporting politicians whom the Democratic base views as out-and-out villains.
He spoke at the 2004 Republican National Convention, enthusiastically endorsing George W. Bush for reelection. As recently as 2014, he donated $250,000 to a super PAC supporting South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a top Trump defender, after Graham supported a bipartisan immigration reform bill. He also donated $500,000 to super PACs that supported the late GOP Sen. Thad Cochran as the Mississippian worked to hold off an arch-conservative primary challenger. (Both Graham and Cochran have “A” ratings from the National Rifle Association.)
In the 2018 election cycle, he backed Rep. Peter King, a Long Island Republican infamous in Democratic circles for his anti-Muslim views and record. King has supported some gun control measures, including his introduction of a 2011 bill, following the shooting of then-Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-Ariz.), that would have barred people from bringing a gun within 1,000 feet of a government official.
But King’s decadeslong career in Congress includes its fair share of votes against tougher gun rules, such as a 1999 effort to close a loophole exempting gun shows from background checks.
And in 2018, when King was facing his first serious Democratic challenge in years, Republican control of the House and Senate, not the views of a single member, was the principal obstacle to greater regulation of guns. The party’s leaders were blocking even the mildest of gun safety bills, such as those closing various background check loopholes, from coming to a vote on the floor.
Liuba Grechen Shirley, a paid family leave advocate challenging King, sought Bloomberg’s support for her campaign, but says that he told her that he would be backing King, who was a friend. He ended up hosting a lucrative fundraiser for King who went on to beat Grechen Shirley by 6 percentage points in a contentious race. (Perhaps fearing a rematch, King announced earlier this month that he was retiring; Grechen Shirley, who now runs a PAC that supports progressive mothers running for office, has decided not to run, citing a decision to have a third child.)
Grechen Shirley considers Bloomberg’s decision unprincipled, both because of King’s various votes against greater gun regulation and because of his opposition to abortion rights and Planned Parenthood funding. Bloomberg, who is pro-choice, has been a major donor to Planned Parenthood.
“I would like to see somebody running who is going to prioritize the policy over personal friendship,” said Grechen Shirley, who endorsed Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) in July.
Stu Loeser, a spokesman for Bloomberg, noted that Bloomberg spent a total of $80 million to help Democrats flip the House in the 2018 election cycle. In the past, Bloomberg and his allies have defended his work to back Republicans as necessary to build bipartisan coalitions around important issues.
“As mayor and as the country’s leading gun safety champion, Mike has supported Republicans in the past, including Republicans who helped deliver aid to NY after 9/11 or who crossed the aisle to vote for gun safety in Congress,” Loeser said in a statement.
It was the suburbs that did us in, and Democrats have Michael Bloomberg to thank for that. Mike Mikus, Pennsylvania Democratic strategist
But his work in Pennsylvania ― a perennial presidential and congressional battleground ― was his most glaring break with Democratic interests, and the most jarring to the local party faithful. In McGinty’s race, Bloomberg funded a super PAC that spent nearly $6 million on ads in the expensive Philadelphia television market highlighting Toomey’s support for a universal background checks measure.
“When it came time to vote on background checks, Pat Toomey crossed party lines to do the right thing,” said Erica Smegielski, the daughter of the school principal who died in the Sandy Hook massacre, in one of the Bloomberg-funded ads. The ads ran even as Toomey worked to highlight his opposition to other gun control measures in areas outside of Philadelphia.
Mikus said the ads, which were extensive enough that Toomey was able to temporarily stop airing ads in the Philadelphia market, were critical to Toomey’s ability to outrun President Donald Trump in the state’s southeastern suburbs ― he won two counties won by Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. (It’s unlikely Bloomberg’s spending directly flipped the result of the race, though McGinty did outperform Clinton in the Pittsburgh area and in some rural markets.)
“Those ads, that spending, was what made Toomey appear as a moderate,” Mikus said. “It was the suburbs that did us in, and Democrats have Michael Bloomberg to thank for that.”
Two years later, gun control activists in the Philadelphia suburb of Bucks County lobbied Everytown for Gun Safety not to endorse Fitzpatrick over Democrat Scott Wallace. They sent letters signed by more than 50 members of Moms Demand Action, a branch of the gun control group, noting Fitzpatrick didn’t support many of the group’s policy priorities and questioning his opposition to concealed carry reciprocity ― the stated reason for a potential Everytown endorsement. Everytown endorsed him anyway, leading Moms Demand Action volunteers to quit the group en masse, form their own organization ― Orange Wave ― and back Wallace instead.
“The group disbanded because we were left in the dark and expected to fall in line,” said Allison Glickman, one of the co-founders of Orange Wave. “It was upsetting, because Scott Wallace was clearly stronger on this issue.”
Glickman said Moms Demand Action volunteers felt “betrayed” by Bloomberg, and added she was peeved the billionaire was using the group’s email list for his presidential campaign.
“It’s frustrating that I recruited all these moms to fight gun violence, and now he’s using it to help his presidential campaign,” she said. “And he’s using it to help candidates who are horrible on this issue.”
Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who competed against McGinty unsuccessfully in the Democratic Senate primary in 2016, was more subtle.
“As a Democratic candidate for president, Mr. Bloomberg makes an excellent Republican donor,” he said.
Fetterman would not say whether he plans to endorse anyone in the Democratic presidential primary.
“I am not aware of any other Democratic statewide Pennsylvania Democrats considering” supporting Bloomberg, he said, before clarifying that he would work tirelessly on behalf of Bloomberg if he were to win the Democratic presidential nomination.