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Political foes take on suburban populist Michele Bachmann

By Doug Grow | Wednesday, Oct. 15, 2008
Don’t underestimate the rookie Republican incumbent congresswoman. Observers see a sharply focused suburban populist with a strong base in the sprawling district’s three-way race.

Rep. Michele Bachmann
Rep. Michele Bachmann

Rep. Michele Bachmann‘s political foes should never underestimate her.

She is more than the congresswoman of social conservatives. More than a friend of the NRA. More than the woman who fawned, with a school-girl grin on her face, over a now-unpopular president shortly after she arrived in Washington as the rookie Republican representative from Minnesota’s 6th Congressional District.

She can be a sharply focused, money-raising suburban populist, as she’s been this year in campaigning throughout the sprawling district. She faces El Tinklenberg, a moderate DFLer, and Bob Anderson, the Independence Party primary winner even though Tinklenberg earlier won the party’s endorsement.

“She can make your head spin,” said Tinklenberg in talking about the difficulty of first pinning down and then debating Bachmann. 

Suddenly, Democrats taking Tinklenberg seriously
But Tinklenberg has a few heads spinning, too. In recent months, the former Methodist minister, former mayor of Blaine and former transportation commissioner under Gov. Jesse Ventura suddenly is being taken seriously by his own party, which until recently had all but conceded the 6th to Bachmann.

When Tinklenberg announced that his campaign had raised $469,000 in the past three months  — almost double what it had raised in the first two quarters combined — the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee finally took notice. It announced  Tuesday that it was adding Tinklenberg  to its Red to Blue program, a move that means  the national party will come to Tinklenberg’s aid with money and other resources.

“He has a chance to win,” the DCCC said in announcing the party’s support.

A chance to win. That’s a substantial upgrade from what most thought up until only a few weeks ago.

He has a chance because the economy’s in a mess, and though Bachman still has a loyal base of support among fundamentalist Christians and pro-lifers, she has managed to create hard feelings among many, including moderate Republicans in a district that runs from Stillwater to St. Cloud.

Bachmann’s earmarks opposition hits home
Consider, for example, how Bachmann’s opposition to congressional earmarks has played out in the 6th District.

In March, MnDOT closed the Highway 23 Desoto Bridge that crosses the Mississippi River in the heart of St. Cloud. Most members of Congress would have tried to bring federal money  — via an earmark — to the rescue.

El Tinklenberg
El Tinklenberg

Bachmann is not like most members. As a matter of principle, she refused to reach for the earmark money, adding that Minnesotans could build the bridge.

In fact, in part because of the gas-tax increase, state money for the bridge is being used, without delaying other state highway projects.

But remember, that state money is available only because six Republicans in the Minnesota House last session supported a DFL override of Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s veto of the gas-tax increase. Bachmann roasted those six Republicans, including  six-term state Rep. Kathy Tingelstad, who is from Andover, a 6th District community.

Following her vote to override, Tingelstad attended her endorsing convention. She figured there’d be some anger, but she didn’t think it would be stoked by a congresswoman.

“She (Bachmann) spoke for more than a half hour at that convention,” recalled Tingelstad. “She never used my name, but it was clear who she was talking about. She was personally recruiting conservatives to replace people she considered too moderate. It’s very unusual for a member of the Congress to get involved in a state legislative race. It showed a lack of maturity on her part.”

Those at the convention delayed endorsing anyone. Tingelstad decided that she wasn’t interested in begging for endorsement and announced that she would not seek a seventh term.

Tingelstad does not come right out and say she supports Tinklenberg in this race. But it’s clear she has little regard for Bachmann.

Things such as Bachmann’s refusal to seek earmark funding for worthy projects, such as the St. Cloud bridge, baffle Tingelstad.

“It used to be that policymakers, in part, were judged by what they could do for their district,” said Tingelstad. “Part of that was making sure that some of those dollars we send from Minnesota to Washington come back to Minnesota, instead of going to some other state.”

Her North Star opposition irks moderate public officials
The bridge isn’t the only transportation issue where Bachmann and more moderate public officials differ.

The North Star commuter line, for example, may be one of the few unifying elements in a sprawling, traffic-congested district.

Bachmann opposed the projected as a state senator and has never help bring federal dollars into the project as a member of Congress.

“I think most people in the district are excited about the North Star Corridor,” said St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis, who is quick to add, “I don’t get involved in congressional races.” Kleis hasn’t been so reticient to speak up on presidential politics. He’s a longtime, public supporter of Sen. John McCain.

Bob Anderson
Bob Anderson

Independents, often a strong force in the 6th, also have problems with Bachmann, according to IP nominee Bob Anderson.

Anderson, whose single issue is health care, says the reason he didn’t get the endorsement of the Independence Party turns out to be Bachmann.

“I was told (by IP officials) that they were endorsing El because they wanted to do anything possible to beat her,” said Anderson.  “I understand that. She’s got divisive stands on so many issues, and she’s done embarrassing things.”

Anderson became the IP candidate by running in the primary. He was unopposed and, therefore, will be on the ballot as the Independence candidate even though the party endorsed Tinklenberg.

Anderson running to build Independence Party
Anderson is running a zero-budget campaign. (“No financial influence from anyone,” is the positive spin he puts on his budget.) He has sat in on the handful of debates among the three candidates and he says that at least some Independents have said they’ll support him because the “only way to build up the party is to have candidates.”

The independent vote could matter in a close race. From the beginning of his underdog campaign, Tinklenberg has noted that in the 2006 race, the vote totals gathered by DFLer Patty Wetterling (42 percent) and IPer John Binkowski (7.8 percent) nearly matched Bachmann’s.

Tinklenberg’s big problem — besides Bachmann’s solid conservative base — is getting his message out.

It’s hugely expensive to purchase ads on Twin Cities television stations — and much of any metro-wide television advertising expenditure is wasted on people who can’t vote in the 6th.  To date, Bachmann has run only a few TV ads, although more are expected as the election nears. Tinklenberg has run none so far, although that might change with the late-inning help he’s receiving from the national party.

“I’ve seen more ads on the Paulsen-Madia race than I’ve seen on this race,” said St. Cloud’s Kleis of this below-the-radar race.

What does that low ad count mean? As recently as August, Tinklenberg had only 50 percent name recognition in the district, while Bachmann’s stands at 95 percent.

But, if he ever can get the message out, Tinklenberg is convinced he’s a better fit for the profile of the district than Bachmann.

“It’s a conservative district, but it’s not necessarily Republican,” said Tinklenberg, who is pro-life and gets an “A” rating for his stands on gun issues from the National Rifle Association, even though the NRA has endorsed Bachmann.

“I’ll tell you this,” Tinklenberg continued, “I’m from a small town, and people in small towns don’t like to be embarrassed. I think a lot of people in this district find some of the things she’s done embarrassing, extreme and out of the mainstream.”

The two have major policy differences.  On energy, for example, Bachmann is from the “drill, baby, drill” school of thought. Early in the campaign, she predicted that if bans were lifted on Alaska and off-shore sites, gasoline would quickly drop to $2 a gallon.

Tinklenberg is frustrated by such talk. Drill yes, he says, “but we can not drill our way out of our energy problems.”

On health care, Bachmann wants to keep government out. Tinklenberg believe there’s a role for the feds to play. On the state of the economy, Bachmann has raised hackles by saying that federal regulations forced banks to give loans to those who couldn’t afford them. (“She blames the poor for bringing down the Lords of Wall Street,” says 5th District Congressman Keith Ellison, contemptuously.) Tinklenberg says lack of regulation led to recklessness that caused the crisis.

Bachmann stands drawing support, too
But understand, in most campaign environments, Bachmann does NOT sound like an extremist.

On Tuesday, for example, she met in Monticello with four small-businessmen, all of whom are tied to real estate or financial management.

They clearly approved of her views on keeping government out of health care.

“Minnesota’s health insurance is so expensive because there are so many mandates,” she told the men. “There should be more competition. Health insurance should be like car insurance.”

If there were more competition, she said, there’d be “companies like Geico” involved in health insurance.

She also had little problem justifying her no votes on the bailout package.

“I asked (Treasury Ssecretary Henry) Paulsen, ‘What’s going to happen if what you’re proposing doesn’t work?’ ” she told the men. “I didn’t like his answer, and I don’t like what’s happening. And do you know who’s going to end up paying?”

She paused, then, pointed to each man.

“It’s you, it’s you, it’s you, it’s you,” she said.

They nodded somberly and thank her for stopping by.

One other thing about Bachmann: She may seem inflexible on many of her positions, but, as Tinklenberg said, “she can make your head spin.”

Example: Her relationship with President Bush.

There is, of course, the famous footage of the congresswoman grasping onto President Bush following his 2007 State of the Union address.

Not surprisingly, video of those 30 squirm-inducing seconds of Bachmann fawning over the president has made it into this year’s campaign. An organization called the Alliance for Better Minnesota, has purchased anti-Bachmann television ad time in the Twin Cities market, featuring those Bachmann-Bush moments.

“We work with progressive organizations,” said Denise Cardinal, executive director of the Alliance, “and those organizations are outraged by her record in Washington. What better way to show her record?”

But these days, Bachmann no longer embraces the president, who helped raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for her. She not only voted against the $700 billion bailout but taken to calling the bailout “the Democrat-Bush bailout plan.” 

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.