WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann did something unusual in a Tuesday op-ed in the Star Tribune: she complimented President Obama.
The topic was a fleeting line in the State of the Union a week earlier, in which Obama called for more scientific research and said, “Our scientists are mapping the human brain to unlock the answers to Alzheimer’s.”
In the Strib, Bachmann said, “The president is right.” The op-ed followed a round of post-State of the Union interviews in which Bachmann gushed about Obama’s focus on increased transportation funding and said her top legislative priority this session was an expansion of Interstate-94 in her district. She did not slam Obamacare; she kept the focus on areas of common ground and ways to help Minnesota’s 6th District.
It’s all part of a trend that’s been evident to Minnesota political observers since last fall’s elections. Bachmann has grown quieter, cautious and in some respects, more conciliatory since eking out a victory in November, adopting a strategy not unlike Sen. Al Franken’s — focus on your constituents and try not to ruffle many feathers with loud public statements.
To be sure, Bachmann still swings to the right legislatively; of the six bills she’s introduced this session, two try repealing Obama’s health care law and Dodd-Frank financial reform. And her political apparatus still sends out fundraising requests meant to fire up her base. But where she was once, Michele Bachmann: Conservative Firebrand, perhaps she’s now, Michele Bachmann: Conservative, thanks, most likely, to her close shave in November.
“A generic Republican would have no problem holding that district as long as he or she wanted it,” said Kyle Kondik, a political analyst for the University of Virginia’s Crystal Ball. “To the extent that she can become a generic Republican is probably good for her.”
Media shy, but making the rounds in the 6th
Bachmann advisers won’t say whether she’s changed her media strategy, but the evidence is there. Since November, she hasn’t been on national television; she’s appeared on the radio once, for a Christian news broadcast; and she’s declined most interviews with even Twin Cities press, up until last week’s State of the Union.
When she has spoken, she’s used a different tone than that in the past. After the State of the Union, her focus was on infrastructure spending and expanding American-made energy. When she criticized Obama, she did so lightly, worrying about his support for clean-energy initiatives and federal government overreach in the realm of education.
Last year, she gave her State of the Union reaction to Greta VanSusteren on Fox News.
Even if her interest in making national headlines has waned, supporters say her focus is still firmly on her district. Her office sends out news clips highlighting events with constituent groups and said she’s held about 250 such meetings so far this year.
“Rep. Bachmann has been actively crisscrossing Central Minnesota holding listening sessions with community leaders in every county in the 6th District,” communications director Dan Kotman said in a statement. “She’s listening to their thoughts and looking for ways to work together to create a better future for every Minnesotan.”
Local GOP activists say she’s also engaged in 6th District politics, especially during convention season this spring. Media strategy aside, 6th District GOP Chairwoman Jen Niska said she doesn’t think November’s elections changed the way Bachmann approaches the district.
“It was a close race, and every time it’s a close race, you have to look and evaluate things,” she said. “I don’t know if that changed her strategy or not, because I still see the same congresswoman.”
Bachmann’s 2012 campaign manager, Chase Kroll, now works for a federal relations firm in D.C. He said his Minnesota clients are quick to compliment the work Bachmann has done on legislative matters ranging from transportation to international human rights, though he acknowledges she’s not making the rounds in the national media the way she was even a year ago.
“I have seen a tremendous effort from her and her office to really focus on legislation, constituent services and case work,” Kroll said. “I think the 113th Congress is going to be a banner year for the Bachmann office.”
Media strategy changed after November
Still, Bachmann’s uncharacteristic media shyness can be traced back to her narrow 1.2 percent victory last November.
Bachmann spent the year before the election in the spotlight, often for controversial reasons: her presidential campaign sputtered, but not before she made much-panned statements regarding vaccinations and mental retardation. She drew headlines and derision over the summer when she called for an investigation into Muslim Brotherhood infiltration in the U.S. (before Tuesday, her last Strib op-ed was in August defending those claims). At one point, she was even the subject of a quirky story about her dual Swiss citizenship, which she quickly withdrew.
In November, even as Mitt Romney won the deep-red 6th District with 56 percent of the vote, Bachmann slipped by with just a 4,300-vote win over Jim Graves. Since then, she’s been on message and out of the spotlight.
(Graves, though, isn’t trying to take too much credit for the newer, quieter Bachmann. “I think that would be hubris on my part,” he said in an interview. “I suspect any kind of election, whatever the results are, would have an impact on how you govern.” Graves said he’ll decide this spring if he wants to challenge Bachman again next year.)
Kondik compared Bachmann, unfavorably, to fellow outspoken Florida conservative Allen West, who lost his U.S. House seat after a term marked by loud rhetoric. Bachmann is safer than West because of her district, but prognosticators say her propensity toward the controversial means she’s never a lock for re-election.
“The best challenger in the world probably can’t beat her because of the district,” Kondik said. “It’s a matter of if she lets that person contend with her, and I think that’s what happened last time.”
Devin Henry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry