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Rep. Michele Bachmann could enter the presidential race with considerable buzz, but it’s unclear whether the Minnesota Republican can assemble a stable campaign team capable of guiding her to victory in the crucial primary battlegrounds.
Bachmann has had difficulty holding on to senior Congressional and campaign staff during her four and a half years on Capitol Hill, a problem that could easily persist in the pressure cooker of a White House bid. However, Bachmann’s inner circle of political advisers has remained constant — a fact often overshadowed by her Congressional staff turnover — and she does boast close relationships with Republican operatives who have presidential campaign experience.
Bachmann’s most trusted advisers include media strategist Ed Brookover; Chief of Staff Andy Parrish, a former campaign aide; fundraising consultant Guy Short; and her husband, Marcus Bachmann, a marriage and family therapist. None are heavy on national experience or deeply connected in Iowa, where the Congresswoman is viewed as potentially strong. A top finish in the caucuses would presumably catapult her into contention in the states that follow. But Bachmann’s extended core of advisers are more seasoned.
They include Internet consultant Becki Donatelli, who advised Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) two presidential bids and did work for President George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign; political consultant Bob Heckman, a McCain campaign veteran who advised four previous GOP presidential candidates; and Tom McGill, who handles major donor fundraising for Bachmann. McGill previously assisted in the presidential bids of Bush and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, as well as campaigns for former Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.).
“When she has quality help, they stick around,” a Bachmann senior adviser said. The adviser added that the issue of staff turnover was “never felt as bad as it sounded.”
Now in her third term, Bachmann has gone though five chiefs of staff, about five press secretaries, two district directors and five legislative assistants since entering Congress, in addition to hiring and then losing other staff on both the official and campaign sides of her operation. Some senior staff members lasted only days before departing; others lasted for a year or more.
Sources familiar with the working environment in Bachmann’s Congressional and campaign operations said she treats staff members well and is pleasant to work for but that her sometimes unpredictable behavior and unwillingness — or inability — to stick to an agreed-upon plan or strategy leaves senior staff frustrated and feeling as though their counsel isn’t trusted.
Bachmann’s Congressional office did not comment by press time.
The influence of Bachmann’s husband on the Congresswoman has at times left staff feeling undermined and is another reason cited for the turnover. “She displays erratic behavior, and her staff bears the brunt,” a Republican source said. “It’s important to remember that her husband plays a big role.”
Bachmann could enter the race for the Republican presidential nomination and the right to face President Barack Obama in 2012 in a matter of days, having previously set the month of June as a deadline for her decision. She speaks Thursday to a dinner in Polk County, Iowa, and local Republicans believe Bachmann may formally declare her candidacy then.
The vocal social and fiscal conservative, a darling of many in the tea party movement, is viewed as appealing to voters in the Iowa caucuses, particularly in the current field of candidates.
Bachmann, 55, has personal roots in Iowa, which is considered an asset in the Hawkeye State should she join the race. She was born in Waterloo and often tells voters on the trail, “I’m a seventh-generation Iowan.” She’s also close with Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa).
But still to be determined is whether a Congresswoman who has thus far only campaigned for legislative races and her House seat can assemble the kind of statewide organization required to compete in the caucuses. Also unknown is Bachmann’s ability to build a national operation capable of propelling her beyond Iowa.
She has proved an ability to raise enormous sums of cash and had $2.9 million in cash on hand as of March 31.
Whom beyond Bachmann’s inner circle and kitchen cabinet of advisers would the Congresswoman hire? These are all of the questions her team is attempting to answer as she nears a presidential bid. “We’re talking to people in Iowa and the other early states,” said a Republican familiar with Bachmann’s planning.
Thus far, Bachmann’s Iowa campaign team-in-waiting consists of state Sen. Kent Sorenson, a tea party favorite with a constituency that extends well beyond his legislative district, and Wes Enos, a top Iowa hand to Mike Huckabee who helped the former Arkansas governor win the 2008 caucuses. A Republican operative based in Iowa said their support offers Bachmann a solid foundation, but her operation would need to grow extensively.
“Organization can’t be overvalued in a caucus cycle,” this operative said.
Whatever course Bachmann takes, she will lean the most on Brookover, who has been with her since day one. She’ll also look to Parrish, who has been with the Congresswoman on and off since before her first campaign for Minnesota’s suburban Twin Cities 6th district; Short, who came on board about 18 months ago and runs her political action committee, MichelePAC; and her husband.
Others Bachmann relies upon include Congressional office Communications Director Doug Sachtleben and general counsel Bill McGinley, an attorney with Patton Boggs in Washington, D.C.
Republican operatives who have followed Bachmann’s Congressional career alternately describe Brookover, Parrish or Short as the political adviser the Congresswoman trusts the most. Brookover is the first media consultant Bachmann hired when she initially ran for Congress, and Parrish started with her when she served in the Minnesota Senate. Short is based in Colorado and previously served as former Rep. Marilyn Musgrave’s (R-Colo.) chief of staff.
Despite a propensity to burn through senior-level staff and the criticism her personal style has garnered on Capitol Hill, even Bachmann skeptics concede that the Congresswoman possesses considerable political skills. They point out she has been generous with the millions of dollars in campaign cash she has raised as a result of the national grass-roots following she has built.
Last cycle, Bachmann donated tens of thousands of dollars to GOP Congressional candidates through her PAC and personal campaign account.
The Republican source who said she displays “erratic behavior” nonetheless complimented Bachmann for her fundraising prowess, smooth interaction with the press and ability to forge connections with voters. A second Republican source who did not hesitate to criticize Bachmann nevertheless noted that she was more willing than most to support Republican candidates who fit her conservative model.
“She’s willing to cut a lot of checks,” this source said. “Just not to RINOs or moderates.”