ST. CLOUD, Minn. — Tea party favorite Michele Bachmann dropped out of the presidential race after coming in last out of six candidates in Iowa’s Republican first-in-the-nation caucuses in January.
Now the three-term Minnesota congresswoman is battling to hold her congressional seat. Her opponent, Democrat Jim Graves, says Bachmann has been “distracted by her own celebrity” and has forgotten the people of her district, a swath of cornfields and suburbs just north of the Twin Cities.
Bachmann says her fame is a plus with her conservative supporters. “People are extremely proud of the fact that their member of Congress went to the national stage to take their voice to the national level,” she said in a telephone interview.
Minnesota’s 6th Congressional District has always had a GOP tilt, and redistricting this year made it slightly more Republican. Voters backed President George W. Bush in 2004 and John McCain in 2008, and an Oct. 16 poll commissioned by the Star Tribune shows Mitt Romney with a 15-percentage-point lead over President Obama in the district, although Obama leads overall in the state.
That poll found Bachmann leading Graves, 51% to 45%. She also has more money: She spent nearly $8 million through September, records show, compared with $1 million by Graves.
But Democrats see an opening. They say Bachmann’s divisive presidential campaign turned off moderates who backed her in the past. About 45% of likely voters now view her unfavorably, the Star Tribune poll found.
“The majority of voters in this district are never going to say, ‘Woo-hoo, we want a Democrat to represent us in Congress,’” said Kay Wolsborn, a professor of political science at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University in St. Cloud. “But enough might decide that they don’t want her to represent them anymore.”
If not for the cardboard cutout of Obama in the corner of Graves’ campaign office, it would be hard to peg him as a Democrat.
A millionaire who made his fortune in hotel development, Graves has played up his business background.
“Over the years, I’ve worked with hundreds of bankers and business people, and never once did they ever ask, ‘Are you a Republican or a Democrat?’” Graves said in an interview last week.
Unlike Bachmann, Graves supports same-sex marriage and does not oppose abortion rights; he calls himself a fiscal moderate and a social libertarian. He said he has “separated” himself from the presidential race and does not want to be viewed as endorsing Obama’s first term.
“I would never get into this class-warfare thing,” Graves said of Obama’s proposals to raise taxes on the rich. “I really don’t like the way the president framed that.”
Bachmann won a three-person race in 2008 with 46% of the vote, and coasted to an easy reelection during the tea party surge in 2010. Both times, a candidate from the libertarian-minded Independence Party snagged part of the vote — 10% in 2008 and 6% in 2010.
But the party decided not to field a candidate this year, and Graves hopes that support will move his way on Nov. 6.
“That was very, very important to our overall underwriting of the campaign,” said Graves, who has spent at least $500,000 of his own money on the race. “We thought it was important not to have a third party dilute the polls.”
In addition to independent voters, Graves is hoping for high turnout in the St. Cloud area, home to about 30,000 university students. Graves polls well among voters under 30.