WASHINGTON — Michael Bloomberg is about to find out if money really can buy you love.
The billionaire former New York City mayor officially entered the presidential race Sunday, pitching himself as the wealthy white knight for a Democratic Party deeply anxious about its other candidates' ability to defeat President Donald Trump.
“I know what it takes to beat Trump, because I already have. And I will do it again,” Bloomberg said in his launch email.
Were it not for his immense wealth, estimated at $55 billion, Bloomberg’s late entry would likely be dismissed as of little significance.
Democratic voters say they already have plenty of options in 2020 and Former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, who jumped in the race two weeks ago, had to cancel a recent event at Morehouse College in Atlanta after no one showed up.
But rival campaigns are reacting differently to Bloomberg’s entry as they did to Patrick’s or that of billionaire Tom Steyer, who has struggled for relevance despite spending tens of millions of dollars on TV ads in recent months. There's a hint of fear in some of their voices when they privately discuss Bloomberg, even as they argue he has no shot.
If Steyer, financially, was a battleship compared to other candidates’ fishing boats, Bloomberg is an aircraft carrier.
The media mogul and former mayor, who has already made the single largest political advertising purchase in history, is worth some fifty times as much as Steyer.
Bloomberg spent more than $250 million combined on his three mayoral campaigns in New York City and has doled hundreds of millions more on charitable and political causes. Aides say he’ll spend whatever it takes on his latest project, the presidential run.
Some welcome the development as a needed shakeup to the messy status quo of the 2020 primary.
“I’m all for it. I think he will be good for the Democratic field,” Mark Cuban, the billionaire owner of the Dallas Mavericks, who considered running for president in 2020 himself, said in an email to NBC News.
“He is now the only candidate that has actually done something to impact gun violence. He is the only candidate that has done something to deal with reducing health care costs by helping to keep people healthy via sugar associated taxes,” Cuban said, stopping short of an endorsement. “Adding the substance he brings on these issues is a net positive in my opinion.”
Others noted that Bloomberg’s vast wealth would be a potent weapon against Trump, who is building an unprecedented war chest for next year’s election.
“He’s got what it takes and he’s got the resources to take it to Trump,” Steve Benjamin, the popular mayor of Columbia, South Carolina told the AP. “I believe firmly that Mike Bloomberg can win. I think resources are going to matter.”
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But others, including several candidates who have been on the stump for months, accused Bloomberg of trying “buy our elections,” as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders put it.
“This election should not be for sale,” Warren told reporters in New Hampshire on Saturday. “We need to build a grassroots movement, that's how democracy is supposed to work.”
Bloomberg has flirted with running for president for years on various party lines.
But his decision to do so now underscores the concerns about Joe Biden — allies said months ago Bloomberg was staying out of the race because he didn’t see a way to beat the former vice president — as well concerns among moderates about Sanders or Warren becoming their standard-bearer against Trump.
But Bloomberg lacks an obvious component of Biden’s biggest political strength: The support of African American voters. Bloomberg, 77, also lacks the generational appeal of Biden’s leading contender in the moderate lane, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana.
Bloomberg has no chance of getting on a debate stage under current Democratic National Committee rules, since he’s said he’ll refuse all donations and the party requires candidates to show broad support from hundreds of thousands of grassroots donors.
The DNC could change its debate qualification rules in the future to accommodate Bloomberg, but Bloomberg allies say he doesn’t need the stage because his resources allow him to reach voters directly.
The businessman has also taken the unusual strategy of skipping the early states, like Iowa and New Hampshire, to run a national campaign focused on winning delegates to next year’s Democratic National Convention. That has some wondering if he’s hoping to win at a potential contested convention when superdelegates — insiders presumably more amenable to his message — would get to vote.
Some on the left argue Bloomberg will actually help Sanders or Warren by serving as a foil and by splitting the votes of moderates.
“The line on the centrist side, with Biden, Buttigieg, Bloomberg, Patrick is a lot longer than the line on the progressive side,” Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., a co-chair of Sanders’ campaign, said in an email. “Show me the field, and I’ll show you who wins. The chances of a progressive nominee are looking good.”
Bloomberg has used his vast wealth to nearly single-handedly revitalize the gun control movement, pumping money into groups like Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action, which have helped turn the tide on gun politics after decades of dominance by the National Rifle Association.
He has also funded major efforts to fight climate change and has been a fixture at United Nations climate talks, organizing a coalition of mayors of the world’s largest cities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
He’s also funded campaigns to get cities to hike taxes on sugary drinks, cigarettes and trans fats — efforts that have earned him praise from public health advocates, but also scorn and mockery from others as a “stereotypically laughable example of a liberal nanny state,” as Time magazine once put it.
That largesse has earned him plenty of goodwill among liberals. But many say Bloomberg is out-of-step with today’s Democratic Party even beyond its smash-the-billionaires left flank.
Bloomberg’s past comments about women, for instance, may be viewed less favorably in the wake of the #MeToo movement. And his former embrace of Stop and Frisk policing, for which he recently apologized, is sure to haunt him in the Black Lives Matter era.
Then there’s questions about his partisanship, or lack thereof. While Bloomberg has been a Democrat for most of his life, he first for mayor ran as a Republican with the critical backing of Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York who is now Trump’s personal lawyer at the center of the Ukraine scandal.
In fact, Bloomberg has never won an election as a Democrat, and only re-registered with the party last year when he gave $100 million to help Democrats flip the House.
When asked in 2011 about Trump’s leadership of the birther movement against then-President Barack Obama, Bloomberg defended Obama but added that, “I’m a friend of Donald Trump’s, he’s a New York icon.”
Simon Rosenberg, the founder of the centrist New Democrat Network and New Policy Institute, said it’s “way too early to write off” Bloomberg at a time when voters are scared and looking for someone serious and competent to lead them.
Bloomberg is a capable politician, Rosenberg noted, beating both parties to win the mayoralty of the country’s largest city and remaining popular throughout his 12 years in office. But Bloomberg's reputation in the Big Apple hasn't translated to the national stage. In a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll, less than half of respondents said they were familiar with him.
But his successor and longtime critic, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who waged his own ill-fated presidential campaign earlier this year, said Bloomberg’s image as a data-driven management wiz will not hold up to scrutiny.
“I think he's going to have a whole lot of explaining to do. He is claiming to be a great unifier and great builder, but I can tell you, I have spent six years trying to fix what he broke,” de Blasio said in a phone interview.
He noted Bloomberg opposed raising the minimum wage and vetoed a paid sick leave bill, and said Bloomberg’s response to the Great Recession was to give Goldman Sachs a pep talk, instead of holding them accountable.
“The mythology will not last long,” de Blasio said.