Monday, December 25, 2006

Bachmann is the Chosen One Part I

About a month before the November election, the City Pages ran a long and insightful piece on Michele Bachmann. I have broken it up into 4 installments...

On the August day when George W. Bush came to town to keynote her congressional fundraiser, Michele Bachmann showed up in a prim, conservative-correct, proud-to-be-a-lady pink suit with matching gloves and pearl accessories. She had her Dorian Gray thing going on, big time: The preternaturally youthful Bachmann, who is 50, could have passed for 35, maybe even 30, from more than a few yards away. She looked as radiant as a schoolgirl prepping for her confirmation—or a princess awaiting coronation.

And why not? Bachmann's joint appearance with the president represented her coming-out party on the national stage, the brightest moment yet in a whirlwind seven-year electoral career that has made her Minnesota's most famous Christian conservative, and perhaps the most polarizing figure in state politics.

"I couldn't be more thrilled," she beamed to reporters outside a hotel ballroom where Bush appeared that afternoon. "If I can take the endorsement of the leader of the Republican Party and the leader of this nation, I will welcome it gladly," she said. (Through campaign aides, Bachmann declined to be interviewed for this story.)

The Bush visit, which followed local appearances by Karl Rove and Dick Cheney on Bachmann's behalf, reportedly raised $500,000 for her Sixth District campaign. It underscored how badly the Iraq-torn, defector-ridden Bush GOP wants to put more lockstep soldiers like Bachmann in Congress. It also said something about the composition of Bachmann's district: In a campaign season when many Republican candidates are discreetly avoiding any association with Bush—or, like onetime White House marionette Mark Kennedy, running full-tilt away from him—most pundits concur that the Sixth is one of those rare blue-state districts where his blessing may still be an asset. Small wonder the Bush administration reportedly counts it among the five most important House races in the country.

So far, however, Bachmann has apparently failed to build a secure lead in her race against DFLer Patty Wetterling and little-known Independent John Binkowski. Political tip sheets are mixed in their assessments: The Rothenberg Political Report lists the district as "toss-up, tilt Republican," while the Cook Political Report has it "leaning Republican." But Congressional Quarterly has the race listed with "no clear favorite," and declares the Sixth a "weak GOP hold." The first publicly released poll, conducted by SurveyUSA for KSTP-TV, showed Bachmann holding a 50-41 lead over Wetterling in mid-September, with Binkowski taking 5 percent. But considering the poll's 3.9 percent margin of error, that could spell a relatively comfortable lead or a perilously thin one.

In either case, the GOP is taking nothing for granted: A week later, the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call reported that the National Republican Congressional Committee had injected $500,000 into the race since mid-August, all for electronic and direct-mail ads designed to attack Wetterling. And the candidate is sure to do her part as well. "Michele is a fascinating combination of charm and sheer grit," says longtime Republican pundit Sarah Janecek. "She's one of the toughest campaigners I've seen in a long time, especially if there's a tight race. I know that right now she's hitting the phones harder than ever, and she's hauling herself to events across the district that are 45 minutes apart. What I'm hearing is that Michele is everywhere and that Patty isn't out there as much.

"Even when she was just running for state races, she was notorious for having teams of people at every parade. It was like she was running for Congress even when she was just running for a state office. Her determination is galling to anyone who opposes her."

Technically, Bachmann's political odyssey began in 1999, when she was part of a controversial slate of GOP-endorsed candidates for the traditionally nonpartisan Stillwater School Board. She and her compatriots lost that battle, collectively finishing at the bottom of the heap on Election Day. To date, it's the only election Bachmann has lost. She came back the very next year, mounting a stealthy and deadly-effective campaign to unseat incumbent GOP State Senator Gary Laidig, a Vietnam veteran and old-school Republican moderate who had represented the area in a state House or Senate seat since 1972.

But in a broader sense Bachmann had been honing her political chops and pursuing the role of uber-Christian public activist for years by that time. Back in 1993, she helped to start a Stillwater charter school that ran afoul of many parents and the local school board when it became apparent that the school—which received public money and therefore was bound to observe the legal separation of church and state—was injecting Christain elements into the curriculum. After Bachmann and company were driven out of that venture, she became a prolific speaker and writer on the evils of public education in the years leading up to her failed school board run.

By all accounts, she made herself into a formidable presence. "She's articulate, attractive, and speaks passionately," says Mary Cecconi, who spent eight years on the Stillwater School Board. "Actually, she is ferocious."

On the stump in 2006, Bachmann still calls education reform one of her "number one priority" issues, along with tax reform and homeland security. Her critics, in turn—who include a number of non-evangelical Republicans—point a wary finger at her ties to a religious conservative think tank called EdWatch, and contend that none of her five children has attended public school.
The most surprising omission from Bachmann's campaign, meanwhile, is any talk of the proposed gay marriage ban that made her a household name. Though one page on the Bachmann for Congress website does note that she was the "chief author of a constitutional amendment in the Minnesota Senate defining marriage as between one man and one woman," she has mostly stayed mum about religious themes and the pet social issues of evangelicals.
"She's not afraid to wear her social issues on her sleeve, and that's what most people in the district relate to," claims Bill Pulkrabek, a Washington County commissioner who was instrumental in Bachmann's 1999 school board run. He rationalizes her relative silence this way: "The media has branded her as a social conservative, so she doesn't need to go out there and be rah-rah on social causes."

Or maybe she and her strategists think that advertising the extent of her Christian political vision would prove divisive even in the conservative Sixth. "She is absolutely a cold, calculating person," says Gary Laidig, the Republican she unseated en route to the state Senate in 2000. "It's always the same with her on campaigns: Nobody really knows who she is, and she just comes across as this petite, attractive soccer mom. And that's it. But the fact is, she's part of a group that is absolutely determined to take over the Republican Party. It's that wing of the party that's very much in step with people like Norm Coleman and the Taxpayers League. And the fact is that they know how to run races. Good races, too. From getting delegates to hitting phone banks, they cover it, and Michele's part of that.

"At the end of the day, her politics are like this: Everyone will have a gun, nobody will have an abortion, no one will pay taxes, everyone will go to church, and there won't be any more pinko liberal teachers in school."

To be continued

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