When Reince Priebus, the chairman of the National Republican Committee, spoke to the Elephant Club Monday at the Minneapolis Hilton, he had to sidestep the debris left by the 110-pound elephant in the room.
Congresswoman Michele Bachmann has pushed Minnesota Republicans and operatives like Priebus either off message or into a cone of silence after her remarks accusing Congressman Keith Ellison and a top State Department aide of ties to anti-American Muslim organizations.
Priebus and Congressman Erik Paulsen on Monday were notable examples.
The RNC chairman could have had a strong message to deliver to the Twin Cities media. He had some positive talking points — a new poll showing Mitt Romney within 6 points of Barack Obama in Minnesota; a state party that’s survived a financial crisis and is attempting a turnaround; and a capacity crowd that proved the chairman of the party is an excellent recruitment tool.
However, Priebus refused any media availability, despite the Minnesota GOP’s best efforts to offer him up to the press. And when one reporter — me — showed up at the Elephant Club, Priebus was hustled into a private dining room under what constituted heavy guard to protect him against a single member of the press corps. The reason, spoken only off the record, was to avoid comment on Bachmann.
Paulsen, however, couldn’t avoid comment.
Reporters at the Capitol in St. Paul swarmed him during his appearance at a legislative committee to talk about reducing taxes on medical devices. It’s an important issue in his 3rd Congressional District and one on which he has bipartisan support from the Minnesota delegation. But Paulsen’s precious time in the media spotlight had to be focused on Bachmann, whose remarks on the Muslim Brotherhood he called “not appropriate” and not true.
Republican communications consultants, who also deem it necessary to stay off the record, say that Bachmann’s comments per se are only part of the problem. Frankly, they say, people have come to expect outrageousness from her. She does inflame liberals and alienate moderates, but her voter base, nationally and in her congressional district, never seems to flag in its support.
At the moment, the Bachmann problem for Republicans is that she’s driving the conversation — and not in the direction they want to go. “Just because it’s good for her doesn’t mean its good for everyone,” said one consultant. “Everyone wants to talk about the economy. Instead, politicians are talking about the infiltration of the State Department.”
Ultimately, most Republicans don’t see Bachmann’s current round of flame throwing as permanently damaging. She is too unique a political figure to spawn look-alikes. And politicians have refrained from wrapping themselves around her particular brand of politics. Some, including Paulsen, John McCain and John Boehner have been forced to be critical.
Still, there was a moment in Minnesota on Monday when Republicans could have been talking about lowering taxes, the direction of the economy and the strength of their presidential candidate. Instead, they were talking about the issues that Michele Bachmann wants to talk about, or they weren’t talking at all