Less than a year after leaving office, billionaire former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is using his vast wealth to be a player in national politics. While he had a few noteworthy stumbles, his push to back "centrist" candidates and those favoring gun control fared well in Tuesday's midterm elections where conservatives otherwise largely won the day.
Bloomberg's political power play came as he stepped up his plans to reassert leadership of his financial services company, Bloomberg LP. The former 3-term mayor of the nation's largest city, who has toyed with running for president in the past, was growing increasingly disenchanted with the gridlock in Washington, and also saw the possibility for innovation and leadership at the local level, his political adviser Howard Wolfson, told msnbc.
Bloomberg, elected as a Republican in 2001 but who later switched to become an independent, has been a lightning rod for some conservatives for his outspoken advocacy for gun control, immigration reform and public health measures like banning smoking in public places and posting calorie counts at restaurants.
In the 2014 midterms, Bloomberg spent more than $20 million of his own money backing pro-gun safety ballot measures and candidates from both parties he believed will take a bipartisan approach to governing in polarized times, Wolfson said. He was one of the top individual contributors during this election cycle.
Among those Bloomberg backed were Democratic Govs. Dannel Malloy in Connecticut and John Hickenlooper in Colorado, both of whom passed comprehensive gun-safety measures following the December 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Both men were narrowly re-elected despite being among the National Rifle Association's top targets for defeat. Their victories, Wolfson said, show "that governors can pass gun safety legislation and continue to succeed."
Following the Newtown tragedy, where a gunman shot and killed 26 people including 20 first-graders, Bloomberg and others urged President Obama to enact stricter laws on firearms. That advocacy made Bloomberg a target, and he and the director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a group Bloomberg founded, both received ricin-laced letters sent anonymously proclaiming advocacy for the Second Amendment, according to reports.
Undeterred, Bloomberg last April created Everytown for Gun Safety, a $50-million grassroots gun-control group aimed at rivaling the NRA.
This year alone, Everytown endorsed 115 candidates in both federal and state elections who support "commonsense" gun laws. The group's record is strong so far, with an 86.5% success rate in races that have been called. The group scored a key victory this week in Washington state with Initiative 594, which will require criminal background checks on all firearms sales and transfers in the state, including at gun shows and on the Internet. Everytown spent more than $4 million on the proposal, which passed with 60% of voter support. Everytown is now gathering signatures for a similar measure in Nevada, and hopes to push for others in Arizona, Maine, and Oregon.
Bloomberg fell short in Maryland, where he tried to derail Republican gubernatorial candidate Larry Hogan by making a last-minute push to highlight his A- rating from the NRA. Hogan won anyway.
Many of the Democratic senators Bloomberg backed didn't fare well, including Mark Udall of Colorado and Kay Hagan of North Carolina, both of whom had voted for a measure that would have enhanced background checks on guns. Bloomberg also supported Louisiana's Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu, who faces long odds in a run-off election set for December.
Bloomberg scored wins in other races unrelated to gun control. He helped push a successful ballot measure in Berkeley, California, taxing sugary drinks, which many nutritionists say are helping to drive the nation's obesity crisis. Bloomberg as mayor pushed for a ban on super-sized sugary drinks in New York City, an idea a court later defeated.
Bloomberg's cash helped elect and re-elect House and Senate candidates of both parties who had "demonstrated willingness to work across party lines," Wolfson wrote in a memo. They included Republican House candidate Bob Dold of Illinois, and Sens. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, Susan Collins of Maine, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Al Franken of Minnesota and Ed Markey of Massachusetts.
Through his Independence USA PAC, Bloomberg spent millions on TV ads that helped elect Republican Charlie Backer to be Massachusetts governor and re-elected GOP Gov. Rick Snyder in Michigan.
"Voters have seen enough," the former mayor wrote in an op-ed published Thursday on his company's site, BloombergView. "I share their frustration, and as a strong believer in the idea that cities and states are the laboratories of democracy, I share their determination to act."