“I don’t know a lot about him,” said McPike, who said he has never spoken to the billionaire and is leaning toward supporting former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg. “He’s spending a lot of money, but that doesn’t make you the best candidate.”
With a history of electing moderate Democrats, Virginia is emblematic of the states that Bloomberg is counting on to bolster his centrist campaign on Tuesday as his name appears for the first time on ballots across the country.
Over the past decade, he has poured more than $10 million into Virginia’s political wars, helping Democrats win a majority last year in both chambers of the state’s General Assembly for the first time in a generation.
“It wouldn’t have happened without his help,” said former governor Terry McAuliffe (D), who received $1.7 million from Bloomberg’s political action committee when he ran for governor in 2013.
Yet it is an open question whether Bloomberg’s investment in Virginia — unparalleled among his Democratic opponents — will translate into votes. After his rivals’ blistering attacks in two recent debates, Bloomberg’s standing in Virginia appeared to erode in a poll released Friday that showed him trailing Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
McAuliffe on Saturday endorsed Biden, a day after Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) also bestowed that establishment blessing.
“If Bloomberg can’t do well in Virginia, he has a very big problem,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington. “Virginia’s Democratic electorate is more Bloomberg-friendly than most.”
With seven field offices, 80 staffers and ubiquitous advertising, Bloomberg’s footprint in Virginia far surpasses that of any other Democrat seeking to face President Trump in November.
On Saturday, he appeared at an event in McLean, his seventh visit to the state since announcing his candidacy in November. If they aren’t familiar with his behind-the-scenes political donations, voters can’t escape his television and digital commercials, which play almost unceasingly across the state.
Shopping for groceries in Dale City on a recent morning, Sylvester Jones, 70, a black building supervisor, said he was impressed with Bloomberg and waved off criticism of his past support for stop-and-frisk, a policing strategy in New York that targeted African Americans and Latinos.
“Have you ever heard of ‘Driving While Black’ — that wasn’t just in New York, that was everywhere, and it wasn’t just Bloomberg,” Jones said. “Bloomberg is strong. He has the credentials. Right now, he’s the one to take out Trump.”
A few aisles over, Nicole Owens, 39, a nurse, scowled as she recalled Bloomberg’s “horrible” performance in his first debate.
“He seemed like he had it all together, and he had Judge Judy,” she said, referring to the endorsement from television jurist Judy Sheindlin. “But during the debate, he didn’t look like he could handle the stress. He was having trouble answering the questions.”
Erika King, 48, a business manager, said Bloomberg, who is 78, seems like “another old white guy” and not the Democrat who has the best chance of defeating Trump. “I would like someone more in tune with the younger generation,” she said as she walked her dog in Old Town. “I don’t think he’s offering anything new or different.”
Bloomberg’s financial support to Virginia Democrats is far better known in political circles than among the public. In the past two years, he and his groups gave more than $500,000 to the state Democratic Party and the Democratic caucuses in Virginia’s House and Senate. In 2019, his gun-control group, Everytown for Gun Safety, spent $2.5 million in 22 state races in Virginia. His environmental group, Beyond Carbon, spent $613,000 on two races.
One beneficiary, Del. Nancy D. Guy (D-Virginia Beach), is among three Virginia state lawmakers who have endorsed Bloomberg. As Guy ran in a close race last year, Beyond Carbon poured $348,000 into advertising on her behalf. She won by 27 votes.
“I was shocked over the amount of money they spent,” said Guy, who said she was initially unaware that Bloomberg was Beyond Carbon’s main funder.
When Bloomberg’s team asked her to introduce him at his campaign launch in Norfolk, Guy agreed. But the delegate did not endorse him until recently and only after overcoming concern that it would make her “look like I’m bought and paid for.”
“It’s important to take a stand,” Guy said. “I want a moderate choice.”
In Newport News, Shelly Simonds was in a tight race this past fall against Del. David E. Yancey (R) when she learned that Everytown for Gun Safety and Beyond Carbon were spending $302,000 promoting her in ads.
“It was a surprise at the end of the campaign,” said Simonds, who went on to win the race. She recalled that when she called to thank the billionaire, she found herself talking to Bloomberg. “I couldn’t believe he took the call. He asked detailed questions about my community. It was a great conversation.”
Yet Simonds, who described herself as “more aligned with the Elizabeth Warren wing of the party,” said she is neutral in the primary. She expressed concern about how her African American constituents feel about stop-and-frisk. Bloomberg has apologized for the policy.
“I was happy he apologized — he needs to keep apologizing,” Simonds said. “I’m just waiting to see who emerges from the field.”
Everytown for Gun Safety contributed $1.4 million to Gov. Ralph Northam’s 2017 gubernatorial campaign. Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) has received nearly $2 million from Bloomberg and his groups in the past decade.
But that financial help is not translating into political support. Northam’s office did not respond to a request for comment. Herring’s spokesman said the attorney general is neutral.
Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-Va.) is also not backing any candidate, even though she benefited in 2018 when Bloomberg’s PAC spent more than $1 million attacking her opponent, then-Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.).
Bloomberg’s PAC also spent $483,000 on behalf of Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.), who defeated incumbent Republican Scott Taylor. But Luria said she committed to Biden before the billionaire entered the race and will “stick by the person I endorsed.”
Bloomberg’s involvement in Virginia politics dates back more than a decade. As mayor, he sued six Virginia gun dealers, and a gun-control group he financed produced TV ads attacking Republican Robert F. McDonnell, who won the 2009 governor’s race.
But the role of campaign contributor is far different from being a candidate, said Robert Holsworth, a Richmond political analyst. “While Bloomberg has supported a number of causes, he hasn’t been an active Democrat in Virginia,” Holsworth said. “And those who participate in primaries are generally more disposed to people they have history with.”
Among liberal Democrats, Bloomberg’s wealth — even if he has used it to advocate for positions they support — is cause for concern in the context of his political campaign.
“Since when do we buy elections?” said Alexandra Duchscher, 41, a massage therapist, as she shopped at a Wegmans in Woodbridge. “It makes me uncomfortable that one guy is putting all this money in and saying, ‘Follow me.’ It’s the entitlement of being able to walk in and change the whole story.”
A few yards away, Jim Bailey, 68, a retired teacher from Manassas, said he’s put off by Bloomberg’s posture, which he described as “arrogant — ‘I’m from New York, I know how to fix your problems.’ ”
But he also said, “It’s going to take someone like Bloomberg to beat Trump. Bloomberg can stand up to him. Anything that Trump says will roll off Bloomberg.”
As she walked her dog in Alexandria, Esther Goldberg, 73, a retired lawyer who described herself as conservative, laughed as she considered whether Bloomberg, even with his billions, could beat the president.
“I hardly see Bloomberg as alive,” she said. “Trump is news. Trump has presence. Bloomberg has no presence.”