By the time the 325 delegates to the state GOP's 6th Congressional District nominating convention at Monticello High School took their lunch break last Saturday, Susie Dunn had recognized the writing on the wall. Michele Bachmann, the controversial state senator from Stillwater, would be endorsed by the party to run for the U.S. House of Representatives in what some observers are calling one of the top 20 up-for-grabs congressional races in the country.
Dunn, the former mayor of Lake Elmo and an old-guard Republican who has been active in state politics for years, was supporting State Rep. Phil Krinkie for the endorsement. But Bachmann had gotten 56 percent of the votes on the first ballot, and it was clear there would be no stopping her. In Dunn's view, her party was making a big mistake.
"This is just more of an emotional appeal," said Dunn, 64, an engineer at Kodak, referring to Bachmann's "bubbly enthusiasm." "She's just focused on two issues. It's too myopic of a vision. We're picking a show horse instead of a workhorse."
Dunn's assessment seemed more discouraged than bitter. She had reason to be personally disappointed—her man Krinkie, the no-taxes grouch who has earned the nickname "Dr. No" at the Capitol, came in last on the first ballot. But Dunn also touched on what appears to be a change in the base of the state GOP. All four of the top GOP contenders—Bachmann, Krinkie, State Rep. Jim Knoblach, and political novice Jay Esmay—positioned themselves as fiscal conservatives. But everyone knows that Bachmann has gained notoriety on social issues, mainly for her pro-life stance and her repeated efforts to get a gay-marriage ban added to the state constitution.
Though the 6th District, stretching north of the cities past St. Cloud and east to the Wisconsin border, features some of the most conservative enclaves in the state, plenty of delegates had reservations about sending forth such a polarizing figure as Bachmann. But Bachmann, in turn, brought a host of new faces to the convention. Dan Nygaard, the district's GOP chair, says that upward of 50 percent of the delegates were first-timers, and that many had come along with Bachmann. "She found people committed to what they want," Nygaard says. "She nailed her support in the precinct caucuses."
Though Bachmann stressed that her supporters came from "a huge cross section of the district, every economic strata, and different communities," nearly everyone at the convention agreed that what Bachmann had done especially well was to recruit in the churches, tapping into the evangelical constituency that is her base. The strategy has worked well for Republicans across the country and in national politics, but until now, most Minnesota Republicans have been reluctant to tack right on social issues. The question is, can Bachmann parlay a mixture of church and state into a general-election win in November?
Most of Bachmann's supporters sidestepped the religion question on Saturday, preferring instead to play up Bachmann's obvious charisma and her "integrity" and "passion." Karen Morehead, a 60-ish retired day-care worker from Forest Lake, says that Bachmann's hard line on taxes is what drew her to the candidate. "But of course the gay marriage is an important issue," Morehead admitted. "And this has been the pro-life party for 20 years."
With such a huge phalanx of attendees in her corner, Bachmann didn't have to address most issues in any great detail. Krinkie, Esmay, and Knoblach all made nominal gestures toward the pro-lifers and Christians at the convention, but Bachmann already had those votes sewn up. "Krinkie is the most established fiscal conservative in the Legislature," offered delegate Darren Knight, a 41-year-old attorney from Delano. "But the decisions in these conventions are not always rational."
After the lunch break, there were two more ballots, with Bachmann creeping ever closer to and eventually securing the 60 percent required for the endorsement. By three o'clock, the other three candidates were ready to concede. Though Esmay made a motion, heartily if not happily seconded by Knoblauch and Krinkie, for unanimous endorsement of Bachmann, some were left wondering if the 6th District GOPers had just shot themselves in the foot. The two DFLers vying for their party's endorsement this weekend, Patty Wetterling and Elwyn Tinklenberg, pose potential problems for the Republicans in the 6th.
Tinklenberg, a former mayor of Blaine, held the post of transportation commissioner under Gov. Jesse Ventura. Parts of the 6th played a huge role in electing Ventura governor in 1998, and for all the talk of conservatism in the district, Ventura's libertarian leanings seemed very much in synch with the area's voting public. And while Bachmann banks much of her appeal on family, education, and children's issues, it would be hard for her to outflank Patty Wetterling on child advocacy. (There is also an Independence Party candidate, John Binkowski.)
The main question, though, is whether Bachmann can claim the loyalty of disparate elements in her own party. Susie Dunn, for one, isn't exactly hopping on the bandwagon. "All of these people are mindless zombies or something," Dunn said of Bachmann's supporters. Could she vote for Bachmann? "No," Dunn concluded. "She's too superficial for me. She's not what the Republican Party is supposed to be about."