Bloomberg Pumps Millions Into Virginia Senate Races

Steve Maskell of McLean, Va., right, votes on election day in McLean, Va., Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013. ()
Jacquelyn Martin/AP

Virginia voters are deciding which party will control the state Senate, the upper chamber of the commonwealth’s legislature. Republicans currently have a two-seat majority in the Senate.

If Democrats flip just one seat, however, they will take control of the chamber with the deciding vote from Democrat Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam.

Virginia Democrat Gov. Terry McAuliffe is campaigning furiously across the commonwealth to win the Senate and try to rescue his policy agenda. Republicans have overwhelming control of the state’s House of Delegates and aren’t at risk of losing control of the chamber on Tuesday. McAuliffe has a powerful ally in this election; New York billionaire Mike Bloomberg.

Bloomberg has pumped more than $2.2 million into Senate races in Northern Virginia, where the balance of power will be determined. Bloomberg’s cash infusion is driven by one issue — gun control. The unprecedented spending has been delivered through Bloomberg’s Super pac, Everytown for Gun Safety.

Bloomberg’s group is capitalizing on a recent tragedy in Virginia, where a disgruntled former newsman shot and killed two TV reporters this Summer. McAuliffe seized on the crime to push new gun restrictions in the swing state, measures that won’t pass the legislature. Winning the Senate, however, could give McAuliffe’s proposal new life.

It would also provide Bloomberg with a key talking point that gun restrictions can be politically popular in swing states ahead of the pivotal 2016 elections.

The Virginia Senate elections are simply the highest profile of a number of proxy battles being fought this year in down-ballot races. In Colorado, millions have been spent on a school board election in Jefferson County, home to Golden, CO. Teachers’ unions are aggressively challenging conservative board members in a recall election to punish their support of teacher merit pay and increased funding for charter schools.

Conservative groups have tried to counter the union spending, but will likely be vastly outspent. The fight is widely seen by many as a proxy for the fight over education reform. The measures supported by the conservatives are modest and generally popular with voters. The unions understand, however, that if the conservatives lose, other supporters of education reform will be reluctant to push policy proposals.

The proposals themselves aren’t on the ballot, of course, which makes these races inviting targets for interest groups. In Louisiana, out-of-state supporters of Common Core educational standards poured millions into races for the state’s Board of Education. These races rarely attract a lot of political attention. Just a few years ago, only $250,000 was spent for all races to the Board. This year, Common Core supported injected close to $4 million into the campaigns. They won 6 of the 8 seats up for election.

Another proxy fight is on the ballot in San Francisco. Activists, funded by unions, are pushing a ballot initiative to impose new regulations on “sharing” companies like Airbnb, which allows consumers to rent their homes to travelers. Successful ballot initiatives in cities like San Fran often become templates for new laws and regulations in other states.

Although it isn’t a clear proxy fight between right and left, a ballot initiative in Ohio to legalize recreational marijuana use could impact next year’s Presidential contest. Voters in the critical swing state will decide Tuesday between two measures that would legalize pot in the Buckeye State. Given some confusion over ballot language, it isn’t clear if legalization will pass, but even the question is a dramatic development in the War on Drugs.

Ohio would be the most populous state to legalize pot. It is also a major midwestern state, far from the Mountain and Pacific West that is already moving towards legalization. Culturally, it would be a watershed moment and possibly force Presidential candidates to take a position on the issue. If the measure fails on Tuesday, it could return to the ballot next November, in time to boost turnout among younger voters.

These proxy fights are healthy in our federalist system. Most decisions concerning laws and regulations ought to be decided at the state and local level. Conservatives in the 1980s and 1990s used local fights like these to frame the political landscape for larger battles. With Republicans in solid control of Congress, the left now has rediscovered state and local elections as a way to push their policies.

While conservatives devote their energies to affecting change in Washington, large segments of the left are returning to local elections. Bloomberg’s investment in races in Virginia has very little to do with the Commonwealth, after all. If Democrats are able to win the state Senate, even partially on the back of the gun control issue, it will embolden gun control supporters in other states.

Other segments of the left aren’t as much contesting the elections in Virginia, but using the state as a laboratory to test campaign tactics ahead of the Presidential contest next year. New Virginia Majority, a new voter group, is testing get-out-the-vote efforts with non-English speakers. Emily’s List is experimenting with mobilizing women voters around specific issues.

National conservatives, however, who rhetorically embrace the principle of federalism are largely absent from these contests. The old adage says you win baseball games with singles and doubles, not home runs. Bloomberg, and much of the left, is putting that old wisdom to use.