Rep. Michele Bachmann is vulnerable, but it isn’t because of controversies that have surrounded her since she entered politics in 2000. Let us recall: hiding in the bushes to spy on a rally by gays and lesbians, playing Paris Hilton for God on the pulpit with Mac Hammond and kissing a President Bush in a very uncomfortable manner after a State of the Union speech in 2007.
She’s vulnerable because in her first term she has relatively few congressional accomplishments and because she is on the wrong side of key issues likely to be on the minds of Sixth District voters.
Republican Bachmann’s district is an indicator of the mood of the country. When you consider the state of the economy, high energy costs and the lack of enthusiasm for John McCain among evangelical voters, Bachmann’s district could prove to tell us a lot about this fall’s national election.
On the surface her eight-point 2006 victory over Patty Wetterling suggests that the Sixth District isn’t winnable by a Democrat. But that’s not the case. In the 2006 U.S. Senate race, Democrat Amy Klobuchar won the district 55 percent to 45 percent over Republican Mark Kennedy, who at the time was representing the district in the U.S. House. In addition, the Sixth District gave the Independence Party candidate, Peter Fitzgerald, his biggest percentage of any congressional district, at five points.
Bachmann beat Wetterling by 7.8 percentage points. But if you add up Independence Party candidate John Binkowski’s numbers with Wetterling’s, Bachmann won by fewer than 500 votes. That doesn’t mean Wetterling would have received all of Binkowsi’s votes if he hadn’t been in the race. But it demonstrates the significance of independent voters in the Sixth District, and their ability to swing the race.
There is no third party candidate this year who can take that many votes, and Bachmann’s opponent, Democrat El Tinklenberg, has the Independence Party endorsement. And you can count on Senate candidate Dean Barkley to inspire an anti-incumbent mood in the Sixth if he is the Independence Party nominee. Much of the district includes areas Barkley and Jesse Ventura did well in during previous elections.
Key issues: energy and economy
In addition to the district’s independent streak, this year’s key issues — the economy and energy — will make the Sixth a bellwether district for Minnesota and possibly the nation.
In the recent Quinnipiac University poll, 52 percent of people in union households cited the economy as their No. 1 concern — 30 percentage points higher than a 2006 Rasmussen Reports poll. That’s a huge jump, and the issue is likely to be on the minds of independent voters in the Sixth District.
Another major factor is that in nearly every poll this year, the war and national security have fallen behind the economy and energy as top issues. Energy was not an issue that registered in polls in 2006. Bachmann has taken the president’s position on energy, including taking a recent trip to Alaska to research drilling in ANWR, while dissing energy-saving initiatives.
Other demographic indicators in the Sixth District set it up to be the volatile, on the economy and energy:
• At $56,000 per year, the district’s median income is the lowest of the suburban districts. Among suburban-swing voters, those in the Sixth are likely struggling more than their suburban counterparts.
• From 2000-2005, the district experienced the greatest population growth in the state, with nearly 100,000 new residents, giving it a huge benefit during the housing boom. But that could mean a bigger impact during the housing downturn.
• The district has a large number of commuters, and they’ve been hit hard by high gas prices.
• The district has been hit more than others by layoffs at medical device companies, such as Boston Scientific and Medtronic.
• The district includes a lot of farmland and a number of agricultural business. Farmers and ag firms are feeling the costs of not just expensive fuel but other energy issues.
• Tinklenberg is the only Democrat in a Minnesota congressional race to receive the support of the police and peace officers.
• The percentage of Republican voters in congressional elections has steadily declined in the last three elections — from 57 percent in 2002, to 54 in 2004 and 50 in 2006.
Ultimately, if energy and the economy remain the top issues and Democrats win on them, then Bachmann could become the victim of a Democratic surge.
Bachmann’s proclamation that we could see $2-a-gallon gas if there’s more domestic drilling is probably not believable to voters. And her opposition to simple energy-saving ideas like using more fluorescent light bulbs puts her at odds with members of her own party, including U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman and Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
All of this sets up for Bachmann to be subject to the political realities of 2008, since her congressional accomplishments have been more style than substance.