Rep. Michele Bachmann, the tea party darling and potential 2012 presidential candidate, spent more than $20,000 on beer and baseball jerseys to woo supporters at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, according to federal records filed earlier this month.
Her political action committee, Michele PAC, paid a consulting firm to throw a party complete with a bar, a photographer who took more than 600 photographs of supporters posing with the Minnesota Republican and jerseys stamped with the number 12 — for 2012.
The conference, hosted annually by the American Conservative Union, is a crucial testing ground for potential Republican presidential candidates in large part because of its straw poll, seen as a key indicator of who has the support of the conservative grass roots. From Feb. 2 to Feb. 17, Bachmann made three separate payments totaling $20,810 to a consulting firm that she hired to handle CPAC logistics, including the party.
The investment may have earned Bachmann a reputation as the conference’s best party host, but another big spender, Rep. Ron Paul, the quirky anti-Fed Republican from Texas, won the poll, while Bachmann tied former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) for sixth behind former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R), former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and others.
In the past two years the meeting has been a boon for Paul, who has cultivated a large libertarian following since his unsuccessful bid for president in 2008. Some activists have even criticized him for stuffing the conference full of his supporters.
Paul, who is likely to make another run for president in 2012, reported spending at least $18,000 on registration fees for the conference and $21,000 on lodging at or near the meeting’s venue in Washington. Tickets for the three-day February conference ranged from $75 to $800.
Paul’s office did not return calls or emails asking for comment.
Grover Norquist, a longtime member of the ACU board, dismissed the notion that speakers whose fans dominate the conference crowd fracture the conservative movement. Rather, he said, sponsoring supporters at CPAC just raises the stakes.
“It is a good thing to have competition,” he said. “It drives traffic.”
Paul and Bachmann are the only potential candidates whose campaign filings show significant investments in CPAC or events surrounding it, though several of the candidates, including Romney and Pawlenty, have yet to report expenditures for 2011. In addition, reports to the Federal Election Commission may not specify that expenditures were made for CPAC.
Romney’s PAC reported spending just $2,500 on CPAC registration fees in late 2010. Neither Gingrich nor Pawlenty reported any CPAC-related expenses during that time. Gary Johnson, the former governor of New Mexico, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, both of whom performed better than Bachmann in the straw poll, do not have political action committees and are not required to report their expenditures to the FEC.