WASHINGTON – Rep. Michele Bachmann is seriously weighing a White House bid, several top aides to the congresswoman confirmed Wednesday.
But her deliberations are far more advanced than had been previously guessed when word of her interest was first reported early Wednesday by ABC News, which broke the news that she’d start testing the waters with a Jan. 21 trip to Des Moines, Iowa.
In fact, MinnPost has learned that Bachmann loyalists have already begun holding conversations with activists and officials in key early caucus and primary states and will begin travelling to those states in the coming weeks and months. Internal conversations have already begun about who might leave her Washington and district offices to staff a potential bid. And Bachmann told reporters she will likely visit additional early voting states in the upcoming months.
Bachmann did not say directly that she was or wasn’t running, but multiple staffers, including Chief of Staff Andy Parrish and spokesman Doug Sachtleben, confirmed Wednesday morning that she’s interested, saying “nothing’s off the table.”
Asked what was prompting her interest, Bachmann replied: “What’s prompting this is the committment that I’ve had to make sure that America moves forward, and we repeal a lot of the agenda that between both Barack Obama and [former] Speaker Pelosi that they have put into place, and that’s what I want to repeal.
“We’re going to have a deep bench for 2012, I have no doubt, and I think what people are asking for is a bold, strong, constitutional conservative,” Bachmann told MinnPost Wednesday in her first interview since news of her interest was revealed. “And I think that we’re going to find out who that person is, but the main focus right now needs to be on the fact that we cannot afford a second term of Barack Obama and that’s what I’m going to focus on.”
Staffers made clear Bachmann’s decision, if and when it eventually comes, will be not be contingent on decisions from other candidates – including Sarah Palin or Tim Pawlenty.
Is she serious?
With more than a year until the first caucus ballots are cast in Iowa, now is the season for all sorts of random politicians on the right to put their names in the presidential hopper. Some, like Mitt Romney and Pawlenty, are serious candidates who have hired staffers already and are basically running already (even though they both take great pains to not say that out loud).
Others, like Mike Huckabee, Palin and Newt Gingrich, could make serious waves if they entered but are thinking it over before getting in. Then you’ve got folks like real estate magnate Donald Trump or former UN Ambassador John Bolton, neither of whom stand a snowball’s chance in Hades of winning anything but like to see their names in print in connection with a big-deal job.
Several national commentators derided Bachmann’s interest as a political stunt, intent on driving up her name ID in connection with a possible 2012 bid… but for Amy Klobuchar’s Senate seat. Remember that speculation from December? And what was the answer then? As with this, “nothing’s off the table.”
Yet while Bachmann vs. Klobuchar could be the eventual outcome, I don’t get the sense that that’s the motivation here. Those earlier questions were prompted by a poll, which Bachmann’s office didn’t ask for, that showed her as the top choice of the GOP base. Her office was coy about it, sure, but the poll prompting the questions wasn’t their idea. And when asked about future plans, they’re always coy. I jokingly suggested to Sachtleben that she might put herself forward as a Supreme Court justice, he replied that “nothing’s off the table,” then chuckled.
This time, however, the speculation is being driven by a deliberate leak of her interest from high inside Bachmann’s camp to ABC News, and subsequently backed up by multiple on-the-record quotes from senior-level Bachmann staffers. It’s a different animal, which may be why far more media outlets, pundits and activists are taking this idea seriously.
University of Minnesota political science professor Kathryn Pearson said Bachmann has established a highly-visible national profile, which helps her if she begins a bid.
“The timing of today’s speculation reminds her colleagues, Republican activists, and the media that she is a strong force in Republican politics,” Pearson said.
Particularly helpful is that she’s wildly popular among the conservative Tea Party movement, which will comprise a large segment of the GOP primary electorate. Caucuses as done in Iowa, or small-state primaries like in New Hampshire, require massive get-out-the-vote efforts staffed by hyper-motivated volunteers, and motivating the base is Bachmann’s bread and butter. Not to mention the fact that she has the ability to raise millions of dollars to pay for it all quickly via a national donor base that helped her become the top House fundraiser of the 2010 cycle.
Yet her disadvantages are equally plain. Bachmann isn’t well liked among the GOP establishment – she was recently rebuffed (and overwhelmingly so) in her bid for the number four spot in the House Republican Caucus. And while her popularity ratings among self-described conservatives are very high, her ratings among neutral independents and liberals are in the toilet.
Indeed several liberals we talked to actually encouraged her to run.
“I think it would be great for her to run for president,” Rep. Keith Ellison said. “I think she has strongly-held views which she should test on the whole of the United States – see how her views are received across the country, not just in the comfort of the 6th District.”
And what would she find out?
“I think her views would not match up with the mainstream of American society, but I do encourage her to try it, I think it would be a very good thing for her to get out there,” Ellison said – “and maybe she should resign from office now so she can devote all her time to her presidential run.”
In fact, most liberal activists who responded to our earlier articles on Twitter reacted as if their Christmas wishes had just come true, figuring that if Bachmann is the GOP’s nominee it guarantees Barack Obama four more years in the White House.
“Reactions to today’s speculation also demonstrate that Congresswoman Bachmann is a polarizing politician,” Pearson noted. “She is considered a hero among her supporters and a villain by many Democrats, and it would be difficult for her to win over moderate and independent swing voters, whether in Minnesota or nationwide.”
A Waterloo native, but is she Wellington or Napoleon?
Iowa is the traditional starting ground for almost every presidential bid, but it would be an especially key state for her.
For one, Minnesota borders Iowa, and most folks well known in one state have at least a little bleed-over into the other. But there’s more. Bachmann was born in Waterloo, and her closest ally in the House, Steve King, represents the conservative 5th District in the western part of the state.
King was one of the few representatives to back Bachmann’s bid for a House leadership position, is a charter member of her House Tea Party Caucus and at one point last year actually shared a press staffer (Sergio Gor) with Bachmann’s office.
King said he hadn’t talked about the bid in depth with Bachmann, and he hasn’t officially endorsed anyone yet, but he sounded very positive about her possible candidacy.
“She’s a great friend,” King said, “and she’s a very smart, very principled individual who has great instincts, so let’s see what happens.”
Yet while it makes quite a bit of sense for Bachmann to start a possible bid with a stop in the Hawkeye State, experts in the state said it’s a bit too early to gauge Bachmann’s chances there.
“Is she seriously looking at this or just floating trial balloons in order to attract media attention and raise a little money around the country?” asked David Yepsen, the former top political reporter for the Des Moines Register, now director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University and arguably the foremost expert on politics in the Hawkeye State.
“If she comes she’ll get media attention and GOP activists will come listen and cheer but she has a ways to go before people start treating her like a credible presidential candidate,” Yepsen said. “People start treating wannabies seriously after their third or fourth visit and after they’ve touched bases with a lot of operatives, leaders and activists to let them know they are in the race. We’ll have to see if she starts making repeat trips.”
What about Tim?
Of course, Bachmann’s Oval Office interest begs an obvious question: What does Tim Pawlenty think about all this? Pawlenty is widely expected to enter the presidential race in the next few months, and has already begun hiring a national staff (including one staffer in Iowa).
There was a cone of silence from Team Pawlenty Wednesday, as several Pawlenty insiders declined to comment to not just MinnPost, but anyone in the media.
When asked if she’d talked to Pawlenty about her possible bid, Bachmann gave a non-answer, saying she was focused on the House GOP’s new majority. Two senior Bachmann staffers said they didn’t know of a conversation between the two before the news broke.
Bachmann and Pawlenty also come from different wings of the GOP — she from the Tea Party side and he from the more practical, business conservative wing. Those two regions have a lot of overlap, especially with Pawlenty’s tack to the right over the past few years and his concerted effort to reach out to the Tea Party grassroots, but there remains a clear distinction.
Bachmann’s entrance would, however, split Minnesota’s Republican delegation – John Kline and Erik Paulsen were Pawlenty’s first congressional backers and have already begun working on his behalf by quietly introducing him to colleagues on Capitol Hill.
Minnesota’s other Republican representative, Chip Cravaack, is uncommitted. Cravaack said the first he heard about her possible run was when I asked him about it late Wednesday. He hasn’t talked to Bachmann about it yet, he said, and was more focused on his first day in the House.
Yepsen said Bachmann’s entry wouldn’t be a dealbreaker for Pawlenty, necessarily.
“I don’t think it would be a problem for Pawlenty that they come from the same state,” he said. “Both are such unknowns it’s hard to see how one takes from another.”