As independent Michael Bloomberg nears his final year as New York City mayor, the billionaire is laying the groundwork to become a one-man counterweight to one of the nation's most powerful lobbies: the National Rifle Association.
In recent days, Bloomberg has used his massive wealth to wade into five House races in five different states, on behalf of candidates on both sides of the aisle. The common thread: Bloomberg is either backing candidates how are supportive of gun control measures, or trying to oust those who aren't, in his view. The late injection of millions in television ads and mailers has dramatically reshaped some of the contests, including one in California where Bloomberg's last-minute spending spree amounts to more than double what both candidates themselves have spent -- combined.
The message the independent mayor wants to send is simple: There is a new, anti-gun-lobby sheriff in town.
"There has never really been an effective counterweight to the NRA -- at least in terms of dollars, cents and the ability to get a message out," said Stefan Friedman, a spokesman for Bloomberg's new super PAC, Independence USA. "I think the mayor's been clear this is an issue he cares very passionately about and this could very well be a curtain-raiser to the future."
Bloomberg formed his super PAC in mid-October and announced it had a budget of up to $15 million devoted to the 2012 elections. He described three criteria for potential beneficiaries, starting with candidates who "will help protect Americans from the scourge of gun violence." (The others were support for education reform and gay marriage.) So far, he's helping least five House candidates as well as Democratic Pennsylvania attorney general hopeful Kathleen Kane.
In Florida, Bloomberg has spent more than $2 million for Democrat Val Demings, a former police chief in Orlando, whose biography says "thousands of guns were removed from Orlando's streets" during her tenure. In Illinois, Bloomberg has spent about $1 million backing Rep. Robert Dold, a moderate Republican, who has supported Bloomberg's mayoral initiative to curb illegal guns. And in California, Bloomberg has poured nearly $3.3 million into an effort to oust Democratic Rep. Joe Baca, with Bloomberg-funded mailers accusing Baca of voting "to allow sex offenders and suspected terrorists to bring concealed weapons into California."
Bloomberg also has spent $440,000 in a New York House race to oppose Republican Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle and more than $1 million in neighboring Connecticut to support Republican House candidate Andrew Roraback. Bloomberg doesn't necessarily even know personally the candidates he is investing in so heavily. Roraback has never met or spoken with Bloomberg, his spokesman Chris Cooper said.
The National Rifle Association is watching the mayor's moves closely. The 4-million-member group is widely viewed as one of the most potent and effective advocacy groups in the country. Still, "we have billions of reasons to take Michael Bloomberg seriously," said Andrew Arulanandam, director of public affairs for the gun lobby group. It was a reference to the mayor’s personal fortune, pegged by Forbes at $25 billion.
Arulanandam questioned the timing of Bloomberg's spending deluge in the wake of the recent mega-storm that knocked power out for millions of New Yorkers. "The message that he's sending is he's so obsessed with banning guns that he's trying to influence federal and state races from Pennsylvania to Florida to California instead of helping the victims of Hurricane Sandy," Arulanandam said.
Baca, the congressman who has seen the most Bloomberg money spent against him, held a press conference Friday to call the spending "disgusting" and said the money would be better spent on the hurricane victims. "Mayor Michael Bloomberg should be ashamed of himself," Baca said.
Bloomberg has been much in the news this week, both because his city was hit so hard by superstorm Sandy and because the storm prompted him to reflect on climate change and suddenly endorse President Obama for reelection.
Gun control, however, is a longstanding cause for him. In 2006, he formed a coalition, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, to combat gun violence across the country. In 2011, the group fought a measure in Congress that would have required states that allow concealed gun permits to recognize other states’ permits.
In July, Bloomberg wrote an op-ed for Bloomberg View (a branch of the media empire he still owns) that offers a window into his thinking. It was entitled, "How to Break NRA’s Grip on Politics." In it, Bloomberg wrote: "More than anything, the NRA is a marketing organization, and its flagship product is fear...There is one particular fear the NRA manufactures with great success: fear of electoral defeat."
Friedman said Bloomberg's new super PAC could change that equation -- at least in the races he's involved in this year. "If the mayor can provide that [counterweight] and help some of the candidates, he's eager to do that," Friedman said. "This is the first time the NRA has faced a significant, equally funded foe in these districts."
In addition to his super PAC activity, Bloomberg recently got involved in the Maine Senate race of former governor and fellow independent Angus King. He donated $500,000 to an outside group that bought ads for King and hosted an October fundraiser for King at his Manhattan home.
In a sign of how heated the rivalry between Bloomberg and the NRA has already become, the same week King was in New York for the fundraiser hosted by Bloomberg, the president of the NRA, David Keene, traveled to Maine to endorse King's Republican rival, Charlie Summers.