Michele Bachmann’s late-career incarnation as a far-Right superstar has always been a high-wire act.
Bachmann’s signature stunt is her willingness to say — loud and proud — outlandish things that make her sound, to many people, delusional. She has said, for example, that America’s founders “worked tirelessly” to end slavery. In 2009, she swatted away the pesky science of climate change by declaring that “there isn’t even one study that can be produced that shows that carbon dioxide is a harmful gas.” And last summer, she claimed that the Muslim Brotherhood might be infiltrating the U.S. government and shaping our foreign policy through Huma Abedin, an aide to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Abedin, who is of Pakistani descent, was born in the U.S. and is married to Anthony Weiner, the former Congressman from New York.
The danger of the act isn’t that Bachmann, who has been the U.S. representative from Minnesota’s 6th Congressional District since 2007, will say something so off-the-charts nutty that it discredits her with a majority of voters in the district. At this point, that may not be possible.
The danger is that she is so occupied with her crusades that she isn’t bringing home the bacon for the people of her district. Fighting threats from big government and foreign subversives is an excellent way to build your national right-wing reputation. But voters expect their representative to deliver concrete benefits as well.
Which is why a bridge spanning the St. Croix River, and connecting Minnesota to Wisconsin, was a major subject of the first debate between Bachman and her Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party opponent, Jim Graves, this week. (The DFL is the Minnesota affiliate of the Democratic Party, and was formed in 1944 by the merger of the Democratic Party and the Farmer-Labor Party.)
To move forward, the bridge required a legislative exemption from the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. With the help of the Republican leadership, Bachmann was able to obtain the waiver by fast-tracking the legislation through the House early this year. At Tuesday’s debate, she claimed that success as one of the major accomplishment of her three terms in Congress and cited it as proof that she had “delivered” for the people of the 6th CD.
Graves called the design of the bridge extravagant and wasteful — a Rolls-Royce, he said, when a Chevrolet would have served the people just as well. He has also criticized it as a poor use of Minnesota’s money, since it will primarily benefit the rural Wisconsin community on the other side.
Bachmann’s other main contribution to the economic development of the 6th CD, as she explained in the debate, is her fierce opposition to the Affordable Care Act, which she believes will kill jobs and strangle small businesses.
Helping get a bridge built and opposing “Obamacare” are not, by anyone’s standard, an impressive record of delivering for constituents. That likely accounts for the fact that Bachmann is engaged in a surprisingly close re-election race. In 2010, she defeated her DFL Party opponent by more than 12 points. A recent poll of the district shows her leading six points. But that poll, Grave pointed out, was conducted exclusively among people who use landline phones. Since his own base of support skews toward young people, the race is actually be much tighter, he believes.
Graves is an entrepreneur who made a fortune in the hospitality business — he built the AmericInn hotel chain — and decided to get into politics specifically because of Bachman. “I’m running because she’s so bad — bad for the country, bad for the future, bad for the people of the 6th District,” he said. “She epitomizes everything that’s wrong with this government and this culture. It’s not that she doesn’t have some skills. She’s passionate. She believes what she believes. She’s a phenomenal fundraiser. And she creates wonderful headlines for herself. So she should be doing something else. She shouldn’t be in Congress, where you have to find a way to move the process forward and get things done.”
Graves is casting himself as a pro-labor fiscal conservative who will make budget reform along the lines of the Simpson-Bowles plan—that is, a combination of budget cuts and tax increases — his highest priority. He has promised that he would serve no more than three terms. “I’m doing this to get the job done and serve the needs of the people and the country,” he said, “and then get the hell out of there.”
His first experience running for Congress has also led Graves to become a strong advocate of campaign-finance reform. “You read about it,” he said. “But the influence of money is even worse than you think it is. It’s terrible. It sucks. It’s a bad deal — really bad. The influence that’s bought and sold in politics is just sickening. Everyone wants you to pledge this or pledge that, and then they’ll give you money.”
Bachmann’s salvation, if she wins, may be precisely the fact that she’s so successful at the fundraising aspect of the political game. Through September, Bachmann had spent about $8 million on her campaign. Graves had spent about $1 million.
Bachmann’s other key advantage is the makeup of the 6th District, which leaned conservative even before recent redistricting turned it deeper red. The suburban Minneapolis communities that make up the district are over-represented by politically conservative evangelical Christians. For Bachmann, the language and assumptions of that subculture are second nature in a way that they aren’t for Graves, a lifelong Catholic.
In 2006, for example, Bachmann delivered a public prayer in which she said that “the day is at hand, Lord, when your return will come nigh. Nothing is more important than bringing sheep into the fold, than bringing new life into the kingdom….The harvest is at hand.”
That kind of end-times rhetoric resonates with many of Bachmann’s constituents. When you listen to her pray, the ease and power of her delivery are a clue as to why she’s been re-elected twice, despite her record of incendiary and off-the-wall beliefs. But there is, in every high-wire act, the potential for failure. Bachmann has behaved as if “bringing new life into the kingdom” — while rooting out the nation’s enemies, foreign and domestic — are her most important tasks as a politician. She’s done so at the expense of building bridges, literal and metaphorical, in her own district.
So what does it all add up to? Will building just the one bridge, connecting Minnesota to Wisconsin, be enough to save Bachmann? Or are the end times indeed at hand for her political career?
We’ll know soon enough.