In a GOP presidential field filled with white men well versed in the ways of the political establishment, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., saw an opening and went for it. In a matter of months, the third-term congresswoman, once dismissed as a tea party conservative with too little experience and too great a resemblance to Sarah Palin to win, has proven that she may be a force to be reckoned with in 2012.
Bustling through the underground tunnels of the Capitol last week, Bachmann briefed National Journal on her pending White House bid.
She acknowledged the obvious disadvantage: In U.S. history, only three sitting House members have ever run for president in the general election, and only one—Republican James A. Garfield in 1880—was successful. The statistical unlikelihood of a Bachmann victory has prompted analysts to wonder if her candidacy is merely the means to another possible end, such as a run for the Senate or even a vice presidential nomination.
Bachmann insists that she’s “not a political game player,” and that “this is all about President Obama and his agenda.”
There is mounting confidence among those close to Bachmann that her political prowess, unique niche, and House district make her positioned to pounce on the 2012 bandwagon early this summer.
When the Americans for Prosperity Foundation sent invitations last month to a forum in the first-in-the-nation primary state of New Hampshire, the tea party-affiliated group didn’t even think to include Bachmann, a movement favorite. “We looked at the criteria of individuals back in December who had at least some media coverage as a potential candidate,” AFPF New Hampshire State Director Corey Lewandowski told National Journal. “It’s fair to say that at that point, Michele Bachmann... hadn’t had any serious press.”
On Monday, Bachmann’s name was among the outstanding invitees. “In the last 90 days [her status] clearly has changed,” Lewandowski said. “Her fundraising prowess has proven her to be a formidable candidate.”
Indeed, Bachmann raked in $2.2 million in the first quarter. Of that amount, $1.7 million could be transferred to a White House run. During the same period, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a perceived front-runner, raised $1.9 million.
Others can’t help but notice the trail of energy Bachmann has left in the critical early voting state of Iowa. While courting the same conservative evangelical base that brought former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee to his unlikely victory in the 2008 caucuses, Bachmann's recent stumps have included a rally at the Iowa Capitol to support a Christian home-schooling network; the Pastors' Policy Briefing in Des Moines; and the Conservative Principles Conference, where she touted her Iowa roots.
Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, who hosted the conference and holds sway in the state, said Bachmann isn’t to be underestimated. “She’s shown a unique ability to take her seat in Congress and take it up to the national level,” he said. “As much as the left would love to attack her and try to diminish her and disparage her, it’s not an accident” that she’s being noticed.
But there is that too-easy association between Bachmann and Palin as outspoken tea party women with penchants for controversy. Bachmann, though, has pointed out that she has a law degree from Coburn School of Law at Oral Roberts University and had a Democratic background. “I’ve always been a very independent person; I was a Democrat growing up,” she said, referring to her work on Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign.
“One of the great advantages I’ve had in life was growing up with three brothers and no sisters, because I had to learn to stand on my own and learn to defend myself,” Bachmann said. “I’ve never felt in any way any inhibition of what I was going to do, or what I was going to say—I was always encouraged to become whatever I wanted to be.”
Bachmann said she doesn’t anticipate the Palin comparison to be an asset or a hindrance, but she noted that she doesn’t “compare myself to anyone, man or woman.” She had nothing but kind words for the former Republican vice presidential nominee, but as for their oft-cited similarities, she shrugged. “People come to the conclusions they want to come to.”
Eric Ostermeier, founder of the political site Smart Politics at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, said the Palin factor still could be a problem. “After the 2008 election, analysts found that Palin actually ended up aiding the McCain ticket in terms of percentage, so she wasn’t as reviled then,” Ostermeier said. “But the country’s sort of been through this Sarah Palin backlash, and because they’re lumped together, that would become [Bachmann’s] starting point.”
In her home state, Minnesota Republican Party Chairman Tony Sutton said she has very little to lose by running for president.
“I suppose from everything I’m hearing, she’s going to explore a run for the presidency, and if that takes off, then that’s what happens, plain and simple,” Sutton said. “But the way the process in Minnesota works is that she could run for president, and if that doesn’t work out, she can run for reelection of her Congress seat.” The candidacy filing deadline in Minnesota is June 5, 2012.
Charlie Cook of the Cook Political Report notes that in the Minnesota redistricting process, Bachmann’s district will need to shed 100,000 residents, and “Democrats would love to eliminate [her seat] altogether, especially if she runs for Senate.” But Sutton points out that Republicans control the legislature, which is in charge of redrawing district boundaries. “That’s not going to be an issue at all for her,” he said. “Even if you slice some of it off, it’ll still be a conservative district.”
But former Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., who will be key in 2012 as the CEO of American Action Network, which according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics spent more than $26 million in the 2010 elections, said his loyalties lie with former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, whose early presence in the presidential ring could pose an initial dilemma for fundraising in the state and competition later.
While he called Bachmann “a very close friend,” and said he’s spoken to her about “what’s in her heart” for the upcoming election, Coleman had this word of advice: A Bachmann presidential run is “certainly not a vehicle for a path” to the Senate or vice presidency.
Bachmann verified the sentiment. “Right now, people... want to know if there’s a solution,” she said of the Obama administration. “That’s why I’m here.”