Suddenly you will be seeing El Tinklenberg ads on prime-time television and hearing his voice across the radio dial. With two weeks to go in his congressional campaign, Tinklenberg may become one of the best-known political figures in Minnesota.
“I’m reminded of the old line: It took me 20 years to be an overnight success,” said Tinklenberg, the Democratic candidate in Minnesota’s 6th Congressional District.
All of of his newfound fame and fortune has come thanks to a national television appearance by Tinklenberg’s opponent, Republican incumbent Rep. Michele Bachmann.
Following her stunning performance on television Friday night, the 6th District, once a safe seat for Bachmann, was suddenly filled with questions.
Was her performance a sequel to the infamous “Jewish Letter” of the 1990 Rudy Boschwitz-Paul Wellstone Senate campaign? Will Joe the Plumber bail Bachmann out? Were her words that hundreds of thousands of people now have heard on such sites as YouTube been “misread”? Is this all the liberal media’s fault? Will moderate Republicans and independents — the Independence Party already had endorsed Tinklenberg — rally around her challenger? Did anyone ever suspect that this race would attract the attention of a former secretary of state?
Start with this: On Friday’s MSNBC program “Hardball,” host Chris Matthews tossed bait in front of Bachmann, and she grabbed it.
When he asked her if she believes that Barack Obama has anti-American views, Bachmann said, “Absolutely. I’m very concerned that he may have anti-American views.”
Matthews kept tossing out more bait, asking Bachmann whether members of Congress, too, are anti-American.
She responded, “The news media should do a penetrating expose and take a look. I wish the American media would take a great look at the view of the people in Congress and find out: Are they pro-America or anti-America?”
Bachmann comments unleash flood of donations to her foe
The words were no sooner out of her mouth than the financial pledges of support from across the country started pouring into Tinklenberg’s campaign headquarters.
Only a few days ago, Tinklenberg had proudly announced that his campaign had raised $470,000 in the third quarter of his campaign.
“We worked like crazy for that,” said Tinklenberg Sunday afternoon. “Then, in 48 hours we raised $438,000. … The one advantage she had in this campaign was all the money. She gave up that advantage in a matter of a few minutes.”
A few hours after that comment, the Tinklenberg campaign was announcing that $600,000 in pledges had poured in from more than 12,000 people across the country.
Bachmann’s comments weren’t just creating a feeding frenzy among bloggers. For example, just after his Sunday morning appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” endorsing Obama, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, a Republican, lashed out against Bachmann.
Said Powell, “We’ve got a congressman from Minnesota who’s going around saying, ‘Let’s examine all congressmen to see who is pro-America and who is not pro-America.’ We’ve got to stop this kind of nonsense and pull ourselves together and remember that our great strength is in our unity and our diversity.”
Bachmann tried to back off her statements Sunday. During an interview on WCCO-TV’s “Sunday Morning,” for example, she said her statements had been “misread.”
“I’m not saying his views are anti-American,” she told program host Esme Murphy. “… That’s a misreading of what I said. … It’s the associations that Barack Obama has. … The national media has had an incredible lack of curiosity about Sen. Obama’s views, about his relationships, his associations and what real change will mean for America.”
It’s hard to get a read on just whether Bachmann understands the passions she’s aroused.
Bachmann campaign weighs fallout from comments
Michelle Marston, who is on leave as her chief of staff and now is acting as her spokeswoman during the campaign, said that Bachmann and her campaign staff did have phone discussions about the fallout of the “Hardball” interview. Apparently, the strategy from those conversations is to counter critics with claims that Bachmann’s words were being taken out of context and that she’s merely being targeted by “liberal bloggers” who have been attacking Bachmann for years.
The Bachmann campaign even was invoking “Joe the Plumber” to get out of the soup.
“This is no return to McCarthyism,” said Marston. “She’s not calling for anyone to form a House Un-American Activities Committee. She just finds it interesting that the media spends so much time checking to see if Joe the Plumber has the right kind of license but doesn’t look closely at the formative relationships he [Obama] had in building his political career.”
Questions about Bachmann’s comments about the “Americanism” of her congressional colleagues were dodged by Marston, a Washington veteran.
Of course, the big question is how her comments will affect the outcome of the 6th District race, which has become tighter in recent weeks. (A Democratic Party poll showed Tinklenberg within 4 points before Bachmann’s “Hardball” appearance. Republicans say their internal polls show Bachmann with an 11-point lead.)
Marston said there are two sides to the “Hardball” coin.
“We’re hearing from Republicans from all over the country,” Marston said. “We’re receiving contributions [she didn’t say how many]. We’re getting tons of calls. There was a woman who called from Boca Raton and all she said was, ‘You go, girl!’ ”
Beyond that, Marston said she believes this controversy comes too late to have an impact on the race.
“I was at lunch today at Applebee’s, and the waitress was talking to me about the campaign,” Marston said. “She was saying, ‘I’m so sick of these negative ads I just can’t stand it anymore.’ If he [Tinklenberg] wants to throw out a bunch of negative ads, let him do it.”
Tinklenberg says his campaign won’t go negative
But Tinklenberg and his campaign staff decided in a Sunday afternoon meeting that his campaign will NOT invest any of the newfound riches on negative advertising. Other organizations — such as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — almost surely will play some political advertising hardball with Bachmann’s “Hardball” appearance, but not Tinklenberg.
“This [the Bachmann interview] has a life of its own,” said Tinklenberg. “We’ll use this opportunity to talk about my values, what I believe. We’re going to get across the message that in my public life [he was mayor of Blaine and, later, transportation commissioner under Jesse Ventura], I’ve never held a partisan position. Our message will be that you build strength with addition, not division.”
He does, however, think that many in the district will be either outraged or, at least, embarrassed by the Bachmann performance.
“We’re getting contributions from people who identify themselves as Republicans,” said Tinklenberg.
Bachmann was already on shaky ground with at least some moderate Republicans in the district, and the independent vote has always been up for grabs. (The Independence Party attracted 8 percent of the vote there two years ago.)
The IPs already had endorsed Tinklenberg in the district, although also on the ballot is IP nominee Bob Anderson, who won the party’s primary.
Craig Swaggert, who heads the Independence Party, said most IP members will be “disgusted” by Bachmann’s interview.
“I think this will incite them to get even more involved,” Swaggert said. “America is about the freedom to speak your mind and to have tolerance for those who disagree with you. You don’t label someone as un-American because they have a different point of view than you do.”
Marston doesn’t think Tinklenberg has the campaign structure or the name recognition in the district to take advantage of his new bounty under any circumstance.
Tinklenberg counters that his campaign was closing in on Bachmann before her TV appearance.
“We’ve worked hard, we’ve had a great campaign structure in place,” he said. “This just bumps us ahead further. We’re going to be able to do far more than we’d planned.”
Last-minute letter affected 1990 Senate race
All of this is a reminder of the “Jewish letter,” that, in a few hours, changed the course of the 1990 Senate race.
Recall that Wellstone was the Democratic underdog, an underfinanced candidate running against Boschwitz, the Republican incumbent and a fabulous fundraiser. Four days before the election, 70 of Boschwitz’s Jewish supporters sent out a letter, on his campaign stationery, to the Jewish community, questioning the depth of Wellstone’s “Jewishness.”
In part, the letter read: “Wellstone has no connection with the Jewish community or our communal life. His children were brought up as non-Jews.”
John Blackshaw was Wellstone’s campaign manager in 1990. To this day, he can’t say for sure if it was the letter that pushed Wellstone over the top.
“Our [poll] numbers had been swinging up,” Blackshaw recalled, “but in the last week, the Boschwitz money was hitting us hard. They had advertising going everywhere, and we were very concerned. Then the letter hit. We got it on Saturday and knew we had something, but we weren’t sure what. That night Bill Hillsman (the advertising man behind the Wellstone campaign) put together an ad quickly, that showed the letter with a Mr. Yuk [poison symbol] on it. [The Mr. Yuk symbol was hot in 1990.]
“I tell you what I think helped most of all. On Sunday, Walter Mondale came out and said, ‘This is unacceptable.’ Up until then, he hadn’t been very involved. I think that’s what made the biggest difference.”
Are there parallels between the letter and the “Hardball” interview?
“I do think this hangs over her,” said Blackshaw. “I think what’s good for Tinklenberg is that McCain and the Republicans have been so nasty — the focus of their campaign has been so nasty and people have rejected that. This is one more nasty thing.”
Marston knows the history of the letter, but she doesn’t think it applies to this race.
“Every race is so different,” she said. “He [Wellstone] had put together a great foundation. It was an incredibly close race. Our polls show that this race isn’t that close. He’s still introducing himself.”
But suddenly Tinklenberg has a lot of money to make those introductions.
Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.