Rep. Michele Bachmann's decision to retire from Congress next year in the face of investigations by at least five different government agencies will bring to a close a political career full of sound and fury, signifying -- well, not much.
Bachmann was first elected to the House of Representatives in 2006, as a member of the smallest Republican freshman class to serve in a Congress since the House expanded to 435 seats in 1911. Several of her classmates have risen through the ranks of House leadership, like House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy and chief deputy whip Peter Roskam. Rep. Jim Jordan has carved out his own niche as a leader of conservatives within the Republican conference. And two others -- Nevada Sen. Dean Heller and Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin -- have moved on to higher office.
Bachmann tried to attain higher office with what began as a quixotic bid for president in 2012. Her roots as an Iowa native, and her connection to a community of families that home-schooled their children in eastern Iowa, helped her run up a surprise win in the state Republican Party's famed straw poll, but her support crumbled over the fall, after a series of controversial positions and statements, and she finished last in the field of six viable candidates, with just 5 percent of the vote.
She was among the first Republicans to openly embrace the growing power of the Tea Party. A political outsider during her career, Bachmann embraced the challenge Tea Partiers represented to Republican leadership along with its opposition to most of President Obama's agenda.
But Bachmann's bombastic personality led to almost constant controversy. Her staff turned over constantly; almost monthly, it seemed, she had a new person speaking on her behalf. The pollster she first hired to conduct surveys for her presidential campaign, Ed Goeas, left little more than a month after her Iowa straw poll victory; at least two of her former Congressional chiefs of staff now openly ridicule her in the media.
One of those former chiefs, Andy Parrish, is at the heart of the investigations stemming from Bachmann's 2012 presidential bid. Parrish said in sworn affidavit last month that Bachmann had been aware of payments made to an Iowa state senator who initially backed her campaign, payments that allegedly ran afoul of Iowa law. Bachmann and the senator, Kent Sorenson, were also accused of taking proprietary information from a private computer, reportedly contact information for the group of home-schoolers who supported Bachmann; settlement talks are ongoing in that suit.
The FBI, the Federal Election Commission, the Office of Congressional Ethics, the Iowa Senate Ethics Committee and the Urbandale, Iowa, police department are all investigating various aspects of Bachmann's campaign, according to published reports in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and the Des Moines Register.
Bachmann's political career trumped her legislative career. While she became a heroine to many Tea Party activists, raising more money than almost any other member of the House of Representatives during her last election cycle, she held little sway in Washington beyond a tiny cohort of friends and allies and she passed no significant legislation during her time in Washington. Most Tea Party conservatives are closer to Jordan, or the leadership structure of the Republican Study Committee.
And while Bachmann remained the poster child for the Tea Party label, especially to liberal media outlets in search of a boogeyman, other more conservative members have risen to greater prominence, in both the House and Senate.
Her political troubles made her one of the few members of Congress who would be more difficult for her party to defend than an open seat would be. That is, Republicans would rather run a fresh candidate without Bachmann's baggage than try to defend her suburban Twin Cities district. In 2012, Mitt Romney took 56.5 percent of the vote in Bachmann's district; Bachmann eked out a win over Democrat Jim Graves by just 1.2 percentage points, or about 4,300 votes.
Bachmann may have been the loudest member of the class of 2006, the one who inspired the most heated arguments. But she will hardly be the most consequential; her enduring legacy may be the lessons she taught in how to lose friends and become completely uninfluential.
With her exit, Democrats lose a potent fundraising tool. Republicans lose a headache they would just as soon do without.
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