CHICAGO – In the race to replace former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s super PAC followed a simple strategy: Choose a strong anti-gun candidate, attack rivals supported by the National Rifle Association and add in $2.2 million in resources.
It worked. Bloomberg’s candidate, former Illinois lawmaker Robin Kelly, sailed past more than a dozen rivals to win the Democratic primary in this Chicago-area district where guns became the main issue. Bloomberg’s super PAC, Independence USA, boasted Wednesday that the race would be its template for future elections. But political experts and public officials were skeptical if the effort can be replicated elsewhere.
“That is a harbinger of what is to come,” said Bloomberg pollster Doug Schoen, who worked previously for President Bill Clinton. “While Chicago may not be the rest of the country, I have been at this 35 years, and I’ve yet to find an elected official who does not look at an election like this and sit up and take notice.”
Because the district is overwhelmingly Democratic, Kelly is widely expected to win the April 9 special election. Her victory generated buzz far beyond the city. Bloomberg said her win showed the public had spoken. Vice President Joe Biden said the victory sent an anti-gun message, and congressmen worried about the repercussions.
Bloomberg is perhaps the single most influential figure in the national gun debate, beyond even President Barack Obama and Biden, because of his deep pockets. The NRA’s political action committee raised $1.1 million last month, a trivial amount compared with the billions that Bloomberg has at his disposal.
“The voters of this congressional district understood that they and their children and grandchildren are at risk with guns on the streets,” Bloomberg said Wednesday in Washington after meeting with the vice president to discuss efforts to curb gun violence.
But political experts have doubts. They point to the unusual circumstances that shaped the race: It was the first wide-open primary since 1995, with a truncated campaign season of just three months. It was an off-cycle contest that drew only 14 percent voter turnout. And Chicago – where all the top city leaders are already advocates of an assault-weapons ban – has seen a spike in street violence. More than 40 people were killed in Chicago last month, the deadliest January in a decade.
“He pummeled the race in one direction, and (most) of the people didn’t participate,” said Thom Serafin, a longtime Chicago political consultant. “If they’re going to take that model around the country, good luck.”
Bloomberg’s foray into congressional contests has been inconsistent so far.
He formed his super PAC weeks before the November election and has spent more than $12 million to back roughly half a dozen candidates nationwide. Guns weren’t an issue in all of the races, and when they were, he didn’t always support the strongest anti-gun advocate.
In another Chicago-area district, he backed Republican incumbent Rep. Bob Dold over newcomer Democrat Brad Schneider, even when Schneider had a stronger anti-gun stance. Dold lost.
Bloomberg has also supported candidates outside of major urban centers. He backed newly elected Rep. Gloria Negrete McLeod, a California Democrat who ousted an incumbent, in a district east of Lost Angeles that’s a mix of industrial and farming communities hit hard by the economic downturn.
The NRA said Kelly’s victory doesn’t prove anything about Bloomberg’s influence, particularly since the gun-rights group didn’t spend anything on the race. A better example, the group said, would be last year’s campaign in central Florida, where NRA-backed Rep. Dan Webster defeated a Democratic challenger backed by Bloomberg.
“He just spent over $2 million to hold arguably the deepest blue seat in the U.S. House, in a race where the NRA spent zero and had no involvement,” NRA chief lobbyist Chris Cox said.
In the Chicago area, the super PAC’s negative ads blanketed the airways for weeks. They targeted former Rep. Debbie Halvorson, who opposes an assault-weapons ban, and pointed out her previous high ratings from the NRA. Even though Halvorson opposed a ban, she supports gun registration and universal background checks. She accused Bloomberg of trying to buy an election, something other candidates echoed.
Kelly, who has been a longtime anti-gun candidate, said she has never been in touch with Bloomberg. Such contact is forbidden by election law. She said her message had been the same since she ramped up campaigning in early December.
“We didn’t veer from that strategy,” she said. “The voters put me in.”
Still, some Democratic candidates in politically mixed, rural districts would probably prefer not to have Bloomberg’s help.
Democrat Rep. Rick Nolan represents an economically challenged, mostly rural stretch of rural northern Minnesota, a popular hunting destination. He won re-election by more than 10 percentage points last year after NRA leaders campaigned heavily against him in the closing days of the campaign. Nolan is a lifelong hunter but has supported gun control and has said he would back an assault-weapons ban in light of last year’s mass shootings.
If Bloomberg’s group were to draw even more attention to Nolan’s position on guns, the effort could hurt him politically, said Steve Johnson, a senior Nolan aide.
“In districts where the gun issue cuts across people with deeply held views,” Johnson said, “it becomes more difficult to talk about jobs and the economy when that debate competes for center stage.”