How Michael Bloomberg elected (another) Congressman

February 27, 2013

On Tuesday night, state Rep. Robin Kelly swept to a convincing primary victory in the special election to replace Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. in a Chicago-area House seat.  She thanked lots and lots of people in her victory speech but left out the one person most responsible for her win: New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.


New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg

Bloomberg's Independence USA super PAC spent more than $2 million on television ads and direct mail pieces that simultaneously savaged former Rep. Debbie Halvorson while endorsing the candidacy of Kelly. (The New York Times has an AMAZING infographic detailing how Bloomberg spent his money in the race.)

Seconds after the Associated Press called the race for Kelly, Bloomberg released a statement insisting that the result was the "latest sign that voters across the country are demanding change from their representatives in Washington -- not business as usual."  And, the consultants who handled the Independence USA spending in the race (Doug Schoen for polling, Bill Knapp for media) held a briefing in Washington, DC this morning to go through how they did what they did.

And, Kelly pollster Jason McGrath acknowledged in an email to the Fix Tuesday that "Mayor Bloomberg's decision to invest in this cause and this race had a significant impact on last night's results" though he added that his candidate "set the stage for this from the first day of her campaign, passionately talking about the effects of gun violence - even before the events in Newtown."

McGrath is right. It's over-simplifying to say that Bloomberg alone won the race for Kelly -- the Netroots led by Daily Kos insist their role was the crucial one and Halvorson, a pro-gun white woman in a majority-black district, was not even close to an ideal fit for the seat (more on that below).

But, consider the following:

1. Bloomberg's super PAC was BY FAR the biggest spender in the race. As of Feb. 6, Kelly had raised just over $300,000 for the race. Halvorson had brought in less than half that. As of early February, Kelly had $89,000 to spend on the race while Halvorson had $48,000 on hand.  Bloomberg's super PAC spent $2.2 million.  When you are the biggest spender in a race -- by many magnitudes -- it always matters. And, it matters even more when that race is taking place in a congressional district covered by the expensive Chicago media market.

2. One of the keys to Kelly's win was the decision by state Sen. Toi Hutchinson to drop from the race in its final days and throw her support behind Kelly, a move that allowed the soon-to-be-Congresswoman to unite the anti-Halvorson vote behind her. What forced Hutchinson's hand?  The fact that Bloomberg's super PAC had thrown its endorsement (and its money in the form of a TV ad) behind Kelly, a decision that made it impossible for Hutchinson to emerge as the Halverson alternative in the contest.

3. Halvorson was never a great fit for this mainly city of Chicago seat as she had compiled a voting record -- on guns in particular -- that was far more conservative than  the average voter in the special election primary. But, to assume that Halvorson could never have won the race overlooks the fact that in a very low turnout (it was snowing in Chicago yesterday) special election contest, name identification, which Halvorson had from her past runs, matters a ton. (The Bloomberg consultants on Wednesday noted that Halvorson led Kelly 22 percent to 11 percent in their initial polling before the super PAC began spending money against her.) Without someone prosecuting the case against Halvorson -- with real money behind it -- assuming she wouldn't or couldn't have won is wrong-headed.

Given those three facts, it's hard to dispute the roll that Bloomberg played in electing Kelly. "He certainly changed the dynamics of the race but it also should noted that getting Toi out of the race was huge for Kelly and that was driven by Bloomberg as well," said a Democratic consultant who watched the race closely but was not directly involved. "So yes, he made a congresswoman."

This isn't the first time that Bloomberg has used his financial might to pick a member of Congress. He did much the same in a House district in California during the 2012 election, almost single-handedly defeating then Rep. Joe Baca.

Here's a chart detailing where Independence USA has spent heavily and how its spending compares to the spending by the candidate it targeted. (Worth noting: Bloomberg's super PAC has won three out of the six races he has targeted since the fall.)

Like him or hate him, Bloomberg's willingness to spend millions (of his billions) to choose candidates in line with his philosophy -- particularly on gun control -- makes him a major player in Congressional races to come.  Just ask Debbie Halvorson.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Aaron Blake | February 27, 2013