Fifteen months after winning the Iowa Straw Poll in August 2011, Minnesota US Representative Michele Bachmann may be on the ropes in the Sixth District. A recent poll from the Minneapolis Star Tribune shows Bachmann leading her Democratic opponent, hotel executive Jim Graves, by a margin of 51-45. Not an insignificant lead, but for an incumbent with national name recognition in a solidly Republican district, Bachmann's lead is tenuous.
Bachmann, first elected to the US Congress in 2006 with 50.1 percent, 46.4 percent in 2008 in a three-way race, and 52.5 percent in 2010, has been a bete noir of Democrats for much of her tenure. Denying man-made global warming, suggesting in a TV interview that investigations of congressmen for "anti-American" views might be warranted, referring to the Obama administration as a "gangster government," reiterating Sarah Palin's "death panel" phraseology, and dubious historical claims have all marked Bachmann's tenure. Some of these are merely standard conservative statements, such as questioning the constitutionality of federally-subsidized school lunches, but complementing her statements is the public image she has crafted.
Although in Congress for only six years, Bachmann has been a visible figure during the Obama era. Bachmann was one of the public faces of the Republican opposition against raising the debt limit in 2011, saying that the only way for her to support raising the debt limit had to include defunding "Obamacare."
Jim Graves, a multimillionaire who founded the AmericInn hotel chain, is largely self-funding his campaign, but has low name recognition. Despite an approximately $2 million war chest, she is struggling in a year that began with her presidential campaign ending after a sixth place finish in the Iowa Caucuses, the worst finish for a straw poll winner. She is also beginning to downplay some of her harder conservative edges.
As some Republican office-seekers have hobbled their campaigns this year with indelicate statements on disallowing exceptions to abortions in cases of rape, Bachmann has avoided falling into the same trap. In her first debate with Graves, the representative answered the question on exceptions by seemingly not answering it:
Bachmann: My position is in line with the Catholic Church, that's been my position for 40 years, it hasn't changed. Moderator: Representative, just at the end there though, there, you heard what Richard Mourdock said and you know that has been controversial: 'God intended this to happen' if a fetus results as a consequence of that rape. And I want to know if you agree with that. Bachmann: Well what I agree with is that I'm 100 percent pro-life and I agree with the Catholic Church on that issue.
Also at the debate, Bachmann tried to demonstrate that she is not merely a partisan Republican. She touted her support for facilitating passage of a bill to pay for construction of a bridge over the St. Croix River that borders Wisconsin by working with both Nancy Pelosi and Minnesota's Democratic governor, Mark Dayton.
Despite gestures like these to show that she is not always a conservative firebrand, a Public Policy Poll from October 8 showed that Bachmann's unfavorability in the state was at 55 percent. In 2009, PPP surveyed Bachmann's constituents and found that she had over 50 percent approval despite the perception that the congresswoman was more interested in her stature in the conservative movement than serving the Sixth District. The laughter she elicited at the debate when Bachmann responded that "one thing that I do not do is 'political speech'" may be a peek into what her constituents think about her career choices in 2012.
The odds still favor Bachmann to hold on to a six-point poll lead with just a few days until Election Day. However, the message from voters of the Sixth District seems to say that they do not appreciate the brand Bachmann has shaped for herself. Chasing after celebrity and running a fruitless, and often embarrassing presidential campaign undoubtedly harmed Bachmann with her own constituents.
The irony may be that after spending three terms trying to position herself as one of the more visible and outspoken conservatives in Congress, it may be the independents in her district who determine her political future. If she loses, it may serve as a warning to similarly ambitious politicians who think they can ascend in politics by making outlandish statements only aimed at the national party base. It would also give the last word to independents, a group Bachmann consciously chose to ignore in the way she marketed herself.