Michele Bachmann is the Most ____ Woman in Politics
Eight ways to look at the sixth-district congresswoman
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Few Minnesotans have middle-of-the-road opinions about Michele Bachmann, the telegenic 54-year-old Republican congresswoman from Minnesota’s sixth district, who in recent years has gained national celebrity as a standard bearer for the American conservative movement. The embodiment of the Palin-style female politician, Bachmann has proffered views on everything from the U.S. Census and “Obama-care” to gay marriage and “green” light bulbs—energizing conservatives and liberals alike, in very different ways. But does Bachmann mean what she says? And does she practice what she preaches? To fully understand how the woman behind such strong words got to Washington—and to fully gauge whether she can survive the midterm elections—you have to talk to a lot of people, including the congresswoman herself.
Here, a study in perspectives on the state’s most talked-about politician.
PERSPECTIVE 1: BELOVED
It’s 9 a.m. on the first Wednesday in April, and former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin is in the Twin Cities to raise money for Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann’s campaign. According to Bachmann’s office, more than 11,000 free tickets have been distributed for a rally at the Minneapolis Convention Center. The doors won’t open until noon, but a line has already begun to form.
Fatima Franzen, a bright-eyed, immaculately dressed Republican activist from Shakopee, is bubbling with excitement at the prospect of seeing two of her heroes on the same stage. She loves Palin—“Such a beautiful, smart woman. A wonderful role model”—but she’s particularly thrilled with Bachmann.
“Michele’s a go-getter,” Franzen says. “She gets results. She’s not in it just for the politics. She really cares about people. I’d love to have her as president of the United States.” She pauses, and smiles broadly. “Michele makes a great team with Sarah. They see eye to eye in a really exciting way. One of them could be the president and the other could be vice president. It almost doesn’t matter who.”
Heidi Swander, of Maple Grove, is equally excited. She drove to the rally with her friend Barb Cullen, of Champlin, and the two middle-aged women are as animated as a pair of teenagers outside a rock concert. “Who would’ve thought I’d be standing here saying, ‘Yay! Go Sarah and Michele?’” Swander says, and then adds: “I’m not a women’s libber or anything. It’s cool that they’re women, but it’s more important that they’re willing to stand up for what’s right.”
For many, Palin and Bachmann are the kind of champions that conservative female voters have been seeking for decades. Earlier this year, Bachmann appeared alongside such luminaries as Bay Buchanan, Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin, and Carrie Prejean in the fifth annual Great American Conservative Women calendar, published by the Clare Boothe Luce Policy Institute, a Virginia organization that promotes conservative women leaders. The calendar highlights the “brains and the beauty” of the modern conservative movement, including Bachmann—Ms. November. The congresswoman’s ability to successfully juggle her roles as wife, mother, and U.S. representative make her a role model for thousands of young conservative women, says Alyssa Cordova, the institute’s lecture director. Some high-profile Republicans, such as conservative firebrand Phyllis Schlafly, have hinted that Bachmann is qualified to become the first female president of the United States.
Carrie Huffer, an attorney from Nicollet attending the rally in Minneapolis, believes much of Bachmann’s appeal lies in her willingness to speak openly about her religious faith. “Eighty-six percent of this country is Christian—and then there are all the Catholics and Episcopalians,” Huffer says. “So Michele really is just like the majority of Americans. That’s what makes her so popular.”
Others say it’s Bachmann’s voting record that turned them into supporters. Ben and Liz Frank, postal workers from St. Michael, took vacation days from work to attend the rally. They are standing at the front of the line. “We appreciate what Michele’s done,” Liz says enthusiastically. “It would be great to have her for president. She tells the truth.”
“I’ve always voted for her,” Ben nods. “It makes you feel good that there are a lot of people like her who are fighting back against this corrupt administration.”
PERSPECTIVE 2: INVINCIBLE
If anyone knows what it’s like to run against Bachmann, it’s Elwyn Tinklenberg. The one-time Blaine mayor and former Minnesota Transportation Commissioner challenged Bachmann, then a freshman in the U.S. House of Representatives, for her congressional seat in 2008. It proved to be an uphill battle, and Tinklenberg barely made a dent in the incumbent’s lead until mid-October, when Bachmann appeared on MSNBC’s Hardball with Chris Matthews and suggested that presidential candidate Barack Obama may have “anti-American views.”
The comment drew national attention and put a spotlight on the local race that largely benefited Tinklenberg: In 72 hours, his campaign raised $750,000 in individual donations, and, as the election neared, polls showed him closing the gap. Still, Bachmann managed to win reelection, carrying the race by just 3 percentage points.
“The interesting thing was that the famous interview and the national reaction was both a good-news and a bad-news story for us,” Tinklenberg says. “Before then, Michele wasn’t taking us all that seriously. When she said what she did, it activated a lot of support for me from around the country, but it also activated her supporters in some very significant ways. They rallied around her. Michele is tough, and her supporters are very, very loyal.”
Maureen Shaver, a Republican activist, commentator, and advisor to Governor Tim Pawlenty, agrees that Bachmann has a lock on the sixth. “Michele fits her district very well,” Shaver says. “Unless she does something horribly inappropriate, she will always be reelected. This year, I’d say she has a 96 percent chance of winning.”
But others say the idea that Bachmann is invincible is pure myth. “The sixth is a different kind of district,” says Tarryl Clark, a state senator from the area and Bachmann’s Democratic challenger in the upcoming midterm elections. “As someone who’s run in the district and won, I can tell you that people want to see someone who’s fighting for things that affect their everyday lives. Time and time again, Michele’s chosen to be out on the cable TV shows instead of speaking out for the people in the district. We need someone that’s focused on us, not on building her celebrity.”
Maureen Reed, a physician who recently dropped out of the Democratic race against Bachmann, says wooing independents is key to winning the sixth. “In 2008, 10 percent of voters voted independent,” Reed says. “You don’t have to peel a single vote away from Michele Bachmann to defeat her. You have to unite a divided opposition.”
Despite the best efforts of her opponents, however, Bachmann’s momentum continues to build: As of July, Bachmann had raised $4.1 million for this fall’s race, nearly double the amount raised by Clark. Tinklenberg muses that there may be just one person with the power to topple the telegenic congresswoman. “I think Michele has within her the seeds of her own defeat,” he says. “In order to maintain the level of popularity and attention she desires, she needs to be constantly feeding a machine that requires more and more outrageous comments. Someday she is going to say that one thing that is too far over the line. And that will be her own undoing.”