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First stop on Bloomberg’s presidential campaign: Virginia, where he spent millions to help Democrats

NORFOLK, VA - NOVEMBER 25: (L-R) Former New York City Mayor and newly announced Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg meets with Virginia House Delegate-Elect Nancy Guy at a coffee shop on November 25, 2019 in Norfolk, Virginia.
NORFOLK, VA - NOVEMBER 25: (L-R) Former New York City Mayor and newly announced Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg meets with Virginia House Delegate-Elect Nancy Guy at a coffee shop on November 25, 2019 in Norfolk, Virginia. (Drew Angerer/AFP/Getty Images)

NORFOLK — Mike Bloomberg made the first stop of his newly declared presidential campaign at a diner here Monday, appearing in a state that he knows well and where his money helped deliver big wins for Democrats earlier this month.

Mike Bloomberg enters Democratic campaign for president

Bloomberg aimed to demonstrate his political strength by showing off one of the candidates he funded this fall, Del.-elect Nancy Guy of Virginia Beach. Either directly or through his organizations, Bloomberg has showered Virginia Democrats with more than $6 million since 2011, most of it aimed at issues of climate policy and gun control.

But how much credit Bloomberg deserves is debatable in a year when President Trump seemed to be the driver of huge voter turnout. In her race, Guy edged Republican incumbent Christopher P. Stolle with a 27-vote margin of victory that has triggered a recount and put the contest in doubt. Three other Democrats who got the greatest financial support from a Bloomberg group lost their bids in the Nov. 5 state election.

Money flowing to Virginia legislative races from both sides of gun issue

In other words, it remains to be seen how far Bloomberg’s riches can go in delivering political results.

“What I care about in America is getting rid of Donald Trump, and I care about gun violence, and I care about the climate, and I care about creating jobs,” Bloomberg said at the Norfolk event.

Democrats flip Virginia Senate and House, take control of legislature for first time in a generation

He said he came to Virginia because both houses of the legislature flipped to Democratic control. “I was lucky enough to be able to help in that process,” he said.

Bloomberg has already drawn criticism from other Democrats for trying to buy his way into the presidential race. He has pledged not to raise donations, instead tapping his estimated $50 billion fortune to fund his campaign. He is skipping the early voting states, such as Iowa, to focus on Super Tuesday states, such as Virginia.

Democrats debate presidential field on news of Bloomberg’s potential candidacy

Bloomberg “is making a bet about democracy in 2020. He doesn’t need people. He only needs bags and bags of money,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said Monday as she campaigned in Iowa. “His view is that he doesn’t need people who knock on doors. He doesn’t need to get out and campaign with people. . . . And if you get out and knock on 1,000 doors, he’ll just spend another $37 million to flood the airways. And that’s how he plans to buy a nomination in the Democratic Party.”

But Bloomberg’s campaign says it has boots as well as dollars, leveraging the grass-roots muscle of his gun-control advocacy groups to get volunteers on the ground. He has a prominent volunteer sign-up tool on his website and said he has hired field organizers, including Mitch Stewart, a top field operative for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign and reelection bid.

“Mike has been at this issue for almost 20 years and he is a hero across the country to activists on this issue,” said John Feinblatt, president of the Bloomberg-founded Everytown for Gun Safety. “They know him. They respect him.”

Everytown and its sister organization, Moms Demand Action, said they made more than 100,000 calls in Virginia in 2019 and knocked on tens of thousands of doors.

“No one has done more to educate and mobilize voters in Virginia than Michael Bloomberg,” former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe said Monday. “I can’t think of another state where he should start because he’s invested here. . . . He’s got all this data. Clearly he knows who all the energized voters are on the issues of gun control and climate change.”

Everytown committed more than $2.5 million to Virginia candidates and campaigns this year. While the campaign finance database at the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project records only $1.5 million in contributions, a spokesman for Everytown said those totals don’t reflect polling and digital advertising that didn’t specify candidates.

The group touted itself as the largest outside contributor to Virginia’s 2019 elections, and noted that it outspent the National Rifle Association — which is based in Virginia — by a factor of 8 to 1. It also was among a handful of outside groups that coordinated closely with the Democratic Party of Virginia, a partnership made possible by the state’s lax campaign finance laws.

“It was the air war backed up by real boots on the ground in volunteers,” longtime Virginia Democratic operative Jared Leopold said.

Of the 22 competitive House and Senate races on which Everytown focused, 15 were wins for Democrats.

The guns issue took on urgency after a May 31 mass shooting at a Virginia Beach municipal building, in which a gunman killed 12 people. Moms Demand Action worked with candidates in Hampton Roads to organize a wave of volunteers who were motivated by the tragedy to canvass for votes.

Gun policy gets its biggest political test in Virginia Beach district that suffered mass shooting

“They were supportive from the beginning,” said Missy Cotter Smasal, a Democratic candidate who unsuccessfully challenged Republican state Sen. William R. DeSteph Jr. in Virginia Beach. “When Everytown came in they gave us a real boost to help us run a professional campaign,” she said.

Cotter Smasal was the top recipient of money from Everytown, which gave her $160,000. But her record fundraising and constant focus on gun control were not enough; she got 48 percent of the vote to DeSteph’s 52 percent in the longtime Republican district.

Despite the huge financial support, Cotter Smasal said she had no direct interaction with Bloomberg during the campaign. She said she favors Warren for the presidential nomination but added, “I just want a strong Democrat to get Donald Trump out of office.”

Guy, the delegate-elect who hobnobbed with Bloomberg on Monday, was the recipient of a last-minute $348,000 television ad from Beyond Carbon, a climate policy group that Bloomberg founded earlier this year. In a recent interview, Guy said she had no prior notice that the ad was coming and hadn’t realized that the group was affiliated with Bloomberg.

‘This is unprecedented:’ Last-minute money floods Virginia legislative races

She said several other Democratic presidential hopefuls had taken a personal role in her campaign this year, with visits, phone calls or staff support from Warren, former vice president Joe Biden, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and others.

On Monday, Guy entered the diner with Bloomberg and introduced him to locals who had been alerted to his visit. Outside, one man honking a kiddie bike horn and waving a Guns Save Lives bumper sticker shouted, “Back to Wall Street, carpetbagger.”

Guy and Bloomberg sat in a booth and shared coffee and small talk, mostly out of the earshot of reporters. In brief remarks, Guy praised Bloomberg for being a leader in fighting climate change and thanked his group for supporting her.

“When you win an election by just 27 votes, you take nothing for granted,” she said. “There is no doubt the investment Beyond Carbon made in TV ads in the last three weeks on behalf of my campaign certainly contributed to my victory. So I’m deeply appreciative.”

Whether Guy’s victory stands will be determined in the next few weeks by the recount.

Christopher Newport University political scientist Quentin Kidd said this year’s Democratic success was more likely powered by events in Washington than by the issues that Bloomberg spent so much money on.

“If Donald Trump weren’t in the White House, the issue of gun control wouldn’t have been enough to drive the electorate like we saw them,” Kidd said.

Bloomberg’s commitment of resources to Virginia gives him deep ties to the Democratic establishment, but “if you move past that very small inner circle of politicos, a lot of people probably don’t even realize he’s behind Everytown,” he said.

So while Bloomberg has been successful at elevating certain issues in Virginia, he may not have elevated himself.

“The real question is, can you translate the grass-roots level of success around an issue into support for a specific candidate?” Leopold said. “And that, I think, is the challenge he faces.”

Amy B Wang and Michael Scherer contributed to this report.

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