Four years ago it was her interview on Hardball with msnbc’s Chris Matthews that catapulted Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) from relative obscurity to Tea Party firebrand. Bachmann told Matthews that she wished “the American media would take a great look at the views of the people in Congress and find out, are they pro-America or anti-America?”
Controversy over her comments erupted and Bachmann became an overnight political sensation. Suddenly she was in the crosshairs of Democrats and her cakewalk for re-election became complicated by a flood of national media attention; an influx of money injected into her once-nominal opposition. The threat was real, but Bachmann eeked out a victory in a big Democratic year.
Four years later, some say Bachmann is again in danger of losing her safe seat in Minnesota’s 6th district. Coming off the heels of a failed presidential campaign that elevated her national profile while riding a wave of Tea Party support, she has proven herself a prolific fundraiser and a determined campaigner. Bachmann has raised just over $4.5 million in the third quarter alone for the battle to win re-election.
This time around, Bachmann’s challenger is Jim Graves, a hotel executive who has kept the race surprisingly competitive.
In mid-October, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee stepped in to the race by officially endorsing Graves’ candidacy adding him to their crucial “Red to Blue” program and injecting more financial support, signaling that national Democrats think the race is winnable.
“Jim has proven his commitment to standing up for the middle class and creating good-paying jobs for Minnesotans,” said DCCC Chairman Steve Israel. “Jim is a successful businessman, builder and problem-solver who will focus on creating jobs, growing the economy and protecting Medicare – not on partisanship, political games or pandering to the Tea Party.”
“Minnesotans have never been particularly impressed with celebrity types,” added the candidate’s campaign manager (and son), Adam Graves. “In fact, we tend to be a bit suspicious of those who seek out the limelight – and I think Rep. Bachmann’s desire to make herself into a national figure has damaged her standing in the eyes of many of her former supporters.”
But not so fast says the National Republican Campaign Committee, the DCCC’s recruiting rival. NRCC Communications Director Paul Lindsay was quick to pour cold water on the Democrats’ enthusiasm.
“This is another example of Democrats letting emotion cloud their judgment and lead to completely irrational decisions,” Lindsay said.
“Despite the attention that national Democrats are desperately trying to draw to this race, this is a strong Republican seat represented by a strong Republican advocate who will still be a Member of Congress next year,” he continued.
A recent Minneapolis Star Tribune poll showed Bachmann with a six-point lead, but Graves’ campaign insists the race remains much tighter.
“We’ve seen huge gains among women and especially among independent voters,” Adam Graves said.
Candidate Jim Graves stressed Michelle Bachmann’s plan to “take women back 50 years, back to the male dominant society,” during a Sunday appearance on Melissa Harris-Perry, saying that “Michelle Bachmann epitomizes everything that’s wrong about the women’s issues.”
“Look at her voting record,” Graves said. “She voted against equal pay for equal work for women, she votes against reproductive rights, she votes against even women to have access to birth control. … She’s endorsed Akin.”
Graves also emphasized his experience in creating jobs, referring to himself as “business guy” who has “come out of [his] comfort zone” to help his constituents get back on their feet: “People are worried about their jobs. They’re worried about making their house payments,” he said. “They’re worried about access to health care. I know what it takes to get people back to work.”
Cook Political Report’s House Editor Dave Wasserman, an expert analyst of House races across the country, added that Bachmann is “very politically savvy and not to be underestimated.”
Having President Obama at the top of the ticket is a perfect foil for Bachmann, he says. Wasserman estimates that Mitt Romney will win the district by 57% or 58% which would require Graves to convince 7% or 8% of 6th district voters to split their tickets.
Bachmann’s message to constituents is “that Jim Graves is way too liberal and he’ll vote in lockstep with Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama seems to be working,” Wasserman said.
One factor that could make a difference this cycle is the absence of an independent candidate, which Bachmann faced in all three of her previous campaigns for Congress and which the Graves campaign believes siphoned votes away from the Democratic challengers.
“Our district has an unusually high percentage of independent voters and this is the first time there’s no an independent on the ballot,” said Adam Graves.
The chief obstacles to Graves’ viability, Wasserman said, is the Minnesota redistricting map which has made this congressional district safer for Bachmann – in addition to the $13 million war chest she has amassed.
“This would have been a toss-up had it been the old district,” he said. “It’s a safer Republican district by a point and that has made it tougher for Graves.”
Still, he agrees with the point made by the Graves campaign about the lack of a third-party candidate this time around. “This is one factor that could offset the redrawn district and her money,” Wasserman said.
Wasserman believes Bachmann will ultimately prevail even though she alone is the only Republican capable of making this race competitive in the first place.
“Her antics and aversion to facts have made this a close race,” he said. “If any other Republican was running in this district they would receive anywhere from 65% to 70% of the vote, but Bachmann will be lucky to get 52%.”
Former congressman and a former chairman of the NRCC Tom Davis (R-VA) shares Wasserman’s assessment.
“She tends to run behind the top of the ticket and other Republicans but she has a strong enough bedrock of support that it’s unlikely she gets beat,” Davis said.
“My gut tells me she will win. It would have to be a very big wave for her to go under, but I just don’t see that.”
Unlike in the past, Bachmann’s ambitions have played a significant role in this campaign. Graves is trying to convince voters that Bachmann is an extreme and largely absentee congresswoman.
“Her polarizing form of politics has made her an irrelevant player in Washington,” Adam Graves said. ”She lacks the respect and the discipline to have an impact on actual legislation and in her six years in congress, she hasn’t sponsored a single passing bill for crying out loud.”
FreedomWorks, an influential conservative grassroots organization chaired by former House Majority Leader Dick Army, supports Bachmann and her leadership on the core issues and values that have sought to rally the Tea Party from its earliest stages.
“Rep. Bachmann is a trusted vote in Congress to advance pro-growth economic policy, repeal the president’s health care law, and to remove the government-imposed barriers that currently block small businesses from creating jobs,” FreedomWorks President Matt Kibbe said.
The Graves campaign believes a Bachmann defeat will have national implications and could be the end of the Tea Party movement but Kibbe cautions against such predictions.
“I would encourage congressional reporters to hold off on writing the obituary for the freedom movement just yet,” Kibbe said. “I am very optimistic that Republicans will not only keep the majority in the House, but strengthen the coalition of fiscal conservatives like Rep. Bachmann within it.”