Once one of the tea party’s loudest voices on Capitol Hill, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann now shuns the national spotlight for Saturday morning coffees in St. Cloud.
These are the political consequences when a former presidential candidate wins re-election by a single point.
Fourteen months after dropping out of the White House race, Bachmann is attempting to recast her national profile into a local one. After a humbling year, the former state senator appears to be fortifying the roots that helped launch her quick ascent into the national consciousness and ultimately made her a contender for the GOP’s presidential nomination.
“What Michele found is that running for president does not help you in your congressional district,” said former Rep. Vin Weber, R-Minn. “The message that it sends is that you have higher ambitions and we are not your top priority. I don’t think she wanted to send that message, but she did, and I think she’s back now reassuring people that being a member of Congress is her priority.”
Even Bachmann’s appearance last week at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, held just outside the nation’s capital, was relatively understated. She spoke off-camera on March 15 to a small room packed with GOP activists, and on the next morning, she delivered her main address when the media filing center was half-empty.
Once happy to engage reporters in the speaker’s lobby, Bachmann recently declined interview requests from multiple Capitol Hill publications, including CQ Roll Call, and she slipped out of view of reporters after both of her CPAC speeches. Instead, Bachmann participated in a lengthy profile that ran last week in the Minneapolis Star Tribune and focused on her work in Congress.
To be sure, the content of Bachmann’s message hasn’t changed much. Her CPAC speeches, especially on March 16, were laced with the red-meat rhetoric that’s made her a controversial figure in national politics. She also sat down with conservative media that lined radio row at a National Harbor hotel, with young conservatives crowding her every step through the corridors.
But Bachmann doesn’t necessarily need to moderate her positions to win. President Barack Obama lost the 6th District last year by a wider margin than in 2008. Still, Bachmann appears to have made the calculation that continued success in her district requires a revamped focus and rebranding.
Fresh off her CPAC appearance, Bachmann returned home to join a bipartisan mix of elected officials and business representatives at the state Capitol on Monday in support of about $400 million in highway improvements, the Star Tribune reported. The infrastructure funding would include Interstate 94 and Highway 10, which cut right through the middle of Bachmann’s district.
St. Paul-based GOP consultant Ben Golnik said Bachmann has “certainly been more visible” in her district lately and participated in “lower profile events” that she wasn’t able to do while running for president.
“She was a state senator before, so she’s always prided herself on running a grass-roots campaign,” Golnik said. “That’s who she is at her core. The presidential obviously took her out of Minnesota for huge chunks of time.”
The rehabilitation process kicked off quickly after Bachmann’s surprisingly small victory. Her 2012 opponent, hotelier Jim Graves, is likely to announce in the first week of April whether he will challenge Bachmann again, according to his son and campaign manager, Adam Graves.
Bachmann could also face competition for the state GOP endorsement and in the primary, according to Marianne Stebbins, a supporter of former Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, and chairwoman of the Minnesota delegation to the Republican National Convention last year.
Assuming she wins the GOP primary, Bachmann’s spending advantage is unlikely to be as great as in 2012. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee recruited Graves to run again after making almost no investment in the district last cycle. In a meeting with reporters last week, DCCC Chairman Steve Israel of New York highlighted the race and said he thinks Graves will run again.
Minnesota Democrats are also planning to target the race and have taken notice of Bachmann’s new media approach.
“Since her election, she has kept her head down,” said Corey Day, executive director of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, the state affiliation of the national party. “I think she saw the results from her district and hasn’t put her head out of the peep hole too much lately.”
Bachmann’s new low profile is also an indication to Minnesota Republicans that she has no interest in challenging Democratic Sen. Al Franken, who kicks off his re-election campaign without a major opponent. Still, Bachmann’s name graces the list of potential House GOP members who have yet to rule out a run for the seat, which was held by a Republican just five years ago.
Golnik said that attending Saturday morning coffees in her district with small groups of people “is not a sign” of someone preparing a bid for statewide office and that he’d be “surprised” if she did run. Weber concurred, saying he’d be “stunned if she considered running for the Senate.”
Bachmann dropped her presidential bid on Jan. 4, 2012, after placing sixth in the Iowa caucuses. As part of her effort in the state that abuts Minnesota to the south, Bachmann made hay out of the fact that she had been born in Waterloo, Iowa. She also uttered things such as “Everything I need to know, I learned in Iowa” — comments that could have turned off voters in her district.
“There’s a lot of people throughout political history who you can point to who have seen national leadership backfire on them in their home state or district,” said Weber, citing his friend, former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, who lost re-election in 2004.
“Most places in the country just want their member of Congress or their senator to pay attention to local concerns.”