Michele Bachmann: Crazy like a fox

The Minnesota congresswoman gives Sarah Palin a run for her money

"In both a literal and figurative sense, she's become the face of the far-right movement," says Democratic strategist Donald MacFarland. "She's practically a regular contributor to some of these shows. If nothing else, she's a fantastic self-promoter."

Where Democrats see naked publicity-mongering, Republicans see a rhetorical brawler capable of raising awareness and eyebrows—not to mention cash.

"I don't think she has any weaknesses," says Bill Pulkrabek, Bachmann's former campaign manager, now a Washington County commissioner. "DFL activists are blinded by their hatred for this woman. That's because she's not afraid to throw gas on the fire. She's not afraid to whip up our side."

In doing so, Bachmann has resorted, at times, to misinformation. In June, she told the conservative Washington Times that embroiled community group ACORN would receive federal money to help perform the next Census count, which was untrue. In April, Bachmann all but blamed President Obama for personally dosing the American public with the H1N1 virus, telling an interviewer that she found it interesting that "it was back in the 1970s that the swine flu broke out then under another Democrat president, Jimmy Carter." In fact, the scare came about during the Ford administration. More recently, she worried aloud on the House floor that health-care reform would allow 13-year-olds to be "taken away to the local Planned Parenthood abortion clinic, have their abortion, be back and go home on the school bus that night." Again, not true.

But there's a market for her brand of rhetoric—she's regarded in some Sixth District circles as something of a folk hero, a status that ensured her survival through two of the most GOP-antagonistic election cycles in American history.

"Though demonized by some on the left, my ideas are good, old-fashioned Minnesota common sense," Bachmann told City Pages in response to a written questionnaire, the only way she would agree to answer questions. "Every day I hear from constituents letting me know that I have their support, while my office gets calls from across the nation urging me to keep up the fight."

Those who've worked with the congresswoman over the years laugh off the caricature of her as crazy. They describe a savvy politician in full control of her faculties.

"If you look at it from a purely political standpoint, would you say she's been successful?" says State Sen. Sean Nienow (R-Cambridge), who served as Bachmann's campaign director during the '08 election. "The answer is obviously yes. It works."

BACHMANN'S WILLINGNESS TO stake out the fringe might be electorally counterproductive if were it not for her unique constituency.

Minnesota's oblong Sixth District is shaped somewhat like a giant slug devouring—or excreting, depending on where your sympathies lie—the Twin Cities metro. The gerrymandered perimeter encircles a population that is 96 percent white with a high rate of church attendance. With a median income of around $57,000, the district is fairly wealthy, yet modest enough to retain an anti-"elitist" streak. In short, it's exactly the kind of place Sarah Palin might call the "real America." Property that just a decade ago consisted of endless farmland is now dotted with strip malls and mega churches. It's precisely this exurban growth that renders the district more right-leaning than even the most rural of areas outstate.

"That's because people in the exurbs tend to be tax-stressed," says Steve Schier, a professor of political science at Carleton College. "The cost of commuting, the cost of housing, and so forth make them very tax-sensitive, and that tends to drive voters in the direction of anti-tax candidates."

Minnesota's Sixth, in other words, is reliable GOP territory. That grants Bachmann a long leash when it comes to her rhetoric. Like a queen on a chessboard, she's able take her argument in pretty much any direction, no matter how absurd.

"I think she's good for the GOP on a national level in that Republican activists relate to her," says Scott Cottington, a Minnesota-based Republican political consultant. "And while they might wince now and again at what she says, she does so forcefully and articulately."

Bachmann, in other words, is a fundraiser's wet dream. The process works like this: 1) Bachmann spouts something spectacularly insane on national television, which reverberates inside the mass media's echo chamber; 2) a simple fact-check by someone with access to Google reveals her to be completely full of it, thus intensifying the backlash; 3) the GOP's fundraising apparatus disseminates mass emails framing the Bachmann-directed hostility as yet another example of the leftist media trying to destroy what remains of the Real America, and how will you explain that to your grandchildren when they're in the internment camps?; 4) conservatives' wallets open.

This is precisely what happened a year ago after Bachmann suggested on Hardball that then-presidential candidate Obama and other Democrats might hold "anti-American views." The National Republican Congressional Committee rallied the far-right base, sending emails to core constituents accusing the "mainstream media" of "attacking" Bachmann.

Of course, there's a downside to all this rabble-rousing. First, and most obviously, Bachmann's challenger, Tinklenberg, got a late fundraising push of his own. The $500,000 that flooded his coffers in the ensuing five days trumped the $313,000 he had raised in the prior five weeks.

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