Bloomberg Super PAC Gun-Control Push Off to Strong Start

It is never too soon to talk about politics –- specifically gun-control politics -- when 26 people, including 20 young children, have been murdered in a school shooting rampage. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been trying to launch that debate, and he’s off to a good start.

While Bloomberg’s Mayors Against Illegal Guns initiative focuses on state and federal gun laws, his new Independence USA super PAC is all about electing or defeating those who make the laws. He injected less than $9 million in super PAC money into the political bloodstream, a pittance in the post-Citizens United world. But his record – three wins, three losses, and a bonus win for an independent Senate candidate he supported through another super PAC – is impressive.

The context here must be Karl Rove’s Crossroads empire, created in 2010, which spent $300 million this year to little effect. Contrast that with Bloomberg. He started spending barely a month before the election and he didn’t sink money into the presidential race. Instead he homed in on down-ballot candidates who agreed with him about the need for “sensible” gun control.

Mayors Against Illegal Guns offers examples of what that means. The mayors want to fix holes in the national system of background checks for gun buyers, such as requiring the checks at gun shows. They also want to ban gun sales to people on the terrorist watch list, ban sales of high capacity ammunition magazines, and repeal a law that makes it harder for authorities to track guns and criminals.

Bloomberg and his PAC sought out like-minded candidates and pursued their goals in the most practical way possible. “Going in late certainly didn’t hurt us,” New York deputy mayor Howard Wolfson said. “We were able to identify races that had not otherwise attracted a lot of attention from other outside groups, and that proved to be helpful.”

The PAC devoted special attention to independents (Bloomberg funneled $500,000 to Maine independent and Sen.-elect Angus King through the super PAC Americans Elect) and two members of that increasingly rare species, moderate Republicans. He invested $1 million in GOP Rep. Bob Dold of Illinois and $1.1 million in Andrew Roraback’s bid for an open seat in Connecticut. They both lost.

For Bloomberg, a Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-independent, the defeats were setbacks in his quest to elect candidates from both parties who care about gun control and his other priorities. Yet the mayor didn’t really lose from a policy standpoint. As Wolfson acknowledged, “the Democrats in those races also had good records on a lot of the issues he cares about,” topped by guns, gay marriage, and school reform.

The race that has drawn the most attention is the upset of southern California Rep. Joe Baca by fellow Democrat Gloria Negrete McLeod. Independence USA poured $3.3 million into that contest, its highest concentration of resources, hoping to defeat Baca – a National Rifle Association favorite mildly described by Wolfson as “an opponent of sensible gun measures.” Negrete McLeod, a state senator, has won favorable NRA ratings for a Democrat. But Wolfson said her record has been evolving and “most of her recent votes were good” from the standpoint of gun control.

One of the most interesting aspects of that race was the single TV ad Independence USA ran in the expensive district. It portrayed Baca as siding with water polluters and Negrete McLeod as “taking on polluters to protect drinking water.” Guns were not mentioned. Wolfson said the super PAC sent out a mailing about guns. As for the TV ad, “You have twin goals. One is to focus on and elevate the gun issue. The other is to win the race.” He added: “Clean water is a very big issue in this district. You want to focus on top of mind issues.”

Wolfson said both candidates were in the low 30s when Independence USA first polled the district. Then came the super PAC’s massive cash infusion. Negrete McLeod ended up winning easily, 56 percent to 44 percent. The PAC also appeared to make a difference in GOP Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle’s upstate New York district. She lost a rematch with former congressman Dan Maffei, a Democrat supported by Bloomberg. Bloomberg notched another win in Pennsylvania with the easy election of Democrat Kathleen Kane as attorney general.

The most notable loss on Bloomberg’s list this year was Democrat Val Demings’ failure to oust conservative Rep. Daniel Webster in central Florida. The PAC invested $2.4 million in the race and Bloomberg personally contributed $2,500 to Demings, a former police chief who carries a concealed weapon. Demings’ support for background checks for all gun purchases is among the positions that earned her an F rating from the NRA.

Wolfson describes Bloomberg as pleased and encouraged by his test drive and still passionately committed to gun control and his other priorities. Those signs, his need for a niche when he leaves office next year, and his reaction to the horror in Connecticut, all point to an expanded role for Bloomberg and his super PAC in coming elections. "My determination to stop this madness is stronger than ever," he said in a statement after the latest shootings.

There’s one potential opportunity already in sight: the 2013 gubernatorial race in Virginia. In his former role as Democratic Party chairman, likely Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe viewed gun control as a third rail and urged candidates to avoid it. It remains to be seen if he will follow that advice himself. Likely Republican nominee Ken Cuccinelli, meanwhile, is an aggressive champion of gun rights and has an A+ rating from the NRA.

So far, bolstered by his wealth and prominence, Bloomberg has been trying to take on the gun issue – and the NRA – nearly singlehandedly. President Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney gave non-committal answers even when asked about it directly in the Oct. 16 presidential debate.

But Friday’s horrific shooting prompted a tearful Obama to say that the country is going to have to take meaningful action to prevent future tragedies, “regardless of the politics.” Bloomberg could find himself with more company the next time he tries to shape national gun policy at the ballot box.

Correction: An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect location for Rep. Joe Baca's district. It is in southern California.