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Did Mike Bloomberg almost say he bought members of Congress?

Democratic presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg on Feb. 25 appeared to almost say he "bought" members of Congress in the 2018 mid-term elections. (Video: The Washington Post)

Did former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg almost say he bought the Democratic majority in Congress? That’s kind of what it sounded like for a moment in Tuesday’s Democratic presidential debate as the billionaire was boasting about his investment in Democrats’ success in the 2018 congressional elections. But we’ll never know for sure — he caught and quickly corrected himself.

Below is the transcript, and you can watch the moment for yourself in the video above.

Let’s just go on the record. They talk about 40 Democrats. Twenty one of those are people that I spent a hundred million dollars to help elect. All of the new Democrats that came in and put Nancy Pelosi in charge and gave the Congress the ability to control this president, I bough — I, I got them.

Bloomberg didn’t say what he “got” these new Democratic members of Congress who helped flip the House of Representatives in the midterm elections. He moved on to his next point about the federal deficit.

The moment made a splash on social media but otherwise passed quickly. But it risks sticking around for Bloomberg, who is doing well in national polls even though he hasn’t been on a single ballot yet.

His apparent slip of the tongue dug at what may be a bigger problem for him with Democratic voters: Can he be trusted to be sufficiently Democratic? Bloomberg was a Republican, then an independent and only recently re-registered as a Democrat. Many liberals are particularly uncomfortable with money in politics, and in the case of Bloomberg, it’s a rich former Republican who is cutting the checks.

His past affiliations and wealth mean he’s on the record supporting people whom the Democratic base loathes. He’s donated to Republicans for Congress, including someone who ran against Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), something she made sure to point out in Tuesday’s debate. “He scooped in and to tried to defend another Republican senator against a woman challenger. That was me. It didn’t work,” she said to applause.

(Quick Bloomberg electoral history: He made his money building up a real-time financial information company. He was a Democrat before he was elected as a Republican mayor of New York after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He also served as an independent before switching back to the Democratic Party in 2018 and promising to give $100 million to help flip the House to Democrats. Now, obviously, he’s running for president as a Democrat.)

Why people are taking Mike Bloomberg seriously

At the debate, Warren ticked off a number of Bloomberg donations that could be politically problematic now. In 2014, he gave $250,000 to a super PAC allied with Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) during Graham’s reelection campaign. The PAC director said it was because of Graham’s strong support for Israel.

Bloomberg’s gun-control group spent money to reelect Republican Patrick J. Toomey in a 2016 U.S. Senate race in Pennsylvania. Toomey is one of a few Republicans in Congress today who are open to measures to limit guns, having co-written a background-check bill that nearly passed the Senate.

Bloomberg and another gun-control group endorsed Toomey over the Democrat in the race with the aim of winning more Republicans to their cause, even if it hurt Democrats’ chances to win back the Senate. “The message is clear,” I wrote at the time. “The gun control movement has the back of Republicans who cross party lines for their cause.”

In 2012, Bloomberg also donated to try to reelect Scott Brown over Warren for similar reasons. Bloomberg said he was supporting Brown for supporting him on a specific piece of gun legislation. “He is much more an advocate of the NRA than I am. … [But] Scott Brown did what we needed him to do, and for that reason I said I would support him,” he said.

For Bloomberg, political donations seem particularly transactional; He has described them as a means to a policy end, or a reward for one, rather than boosting a particular party. As The Washington Post reported at the time, he was also one of the biggest donors to New York Republicans’ caucus, contributions he credited with helping push some of them to support legalizing same-sex marriage.

But even now that he’s fully a Democrat, Bloomberg has faced accusations that he’s wielding his money in an undemocratic way. Several prominent black members of Congress and mayors endorsed his run for president and stood by him as he faced controversy about his support for New York’s stop-and-frisk policy. All had received financial help from Bloomberg in recent years.

“I don’t care how much money Mayor Bloomberg has,” Warren said Tuesday, “the core of the Democratic Party will never trust him.”

When Bloomberg mentioned how much he had invested in flipping the House, he was trying to make the case that he has invested in the party’s health beyond the White House. (In comparison with, say, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who has been accused of running a campaign that could hurt Democrats in Congress.)

But Bloomberg’s stumble over his words risked highlighting what many liberals and his critics don’t like about him: the perception that he views politicians through the lens of ownership.