GOP firebrand Rep. Michele Bachmann and DFL businessman Jim Graves were headed for a potential recount early Wednesday in what could be the nation's most expensive and high-profile U.S. House race.
With less than 1,000 votes separating them shortly after midnight, a trailing Graves told supporters in St. Cloud, “It looks very much like it'll be a recount.”
But as votes were tallied later in the night and early morning, Bachmann appeared to opening a wider lead that could prove insurmountable even with a recount.
With nearly 98 percent of precincts reporting, Bachmann had a nearly 4,000 vote lead, enough to avoid an automatic recount under Minnesota law. But a losing candidate in a tight race can still seek and pay for a recount.
While the Associated Press called the race for Bachmann, both campaigns planned to monitor continuing election results through the early morning hours and make public statements later in the day.
Regardless of the outcome, few expected the race to be this close.
Graves, a longtime Democratic fundraiser but first-time candidate, got a late boost from former President Bill Clinton, who headlined a rally with him in St. Cloud on Sunday.
But the DFLer still faced an uphill challenge overcoming Bachmann's record $23 million war chest in an outer suburban district that skewed even more Republican after redistricting last year.
Despite Bachmann's overwhelming cash advantage and national reputation, some recent polls showed Graves in a surprisingly competitive contest that is being followed intently by partisans on both sides. While Bachmann was favored, nobody was predicting such a small gap.
"To me, the toughness makes a candidate sharper," said Bachmann supporter Suzi Blumberg, who gathered with friends at a state GOP election night party at the Hilton Minneapolis Bloomington. "If you always win by a landslide, you might get lazy."
After watching close Bach-mann re-election races in years past, St. Cloud State University Prof. Julie Andrzejewski and her husband attended the Graves election night party at a hotel in St. Cloud, hoping to see a Bachmann upset. They said many of their Republican friends voted for Graves this year.
"They're really embarrassed and tired of being represented by someone like Michele Bachmann," said Andrzejewski.
Democrats were banking on a significant number of voters, particularly independents, who might have misgivings about Bachmann's history of provocative and factually contested statements, a number of which got attention last year during her short-lived bid for the presidency.
With no independent candidate on the ballot, unlike in Bachmann's previous congressional races, Democrats were hoping to make the election a hard referendum on Bachmann's image as a national Tea Party leader.
Graves, a millionaire hotelier running as a fiscally conservative Democrat, largely avoided engaging Bachmann on social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage, issues that propelled her into politics and made her a hero among Christian conservatives.
Instead, he tried to focus on her celebrity and national political aspirations, calling into question her focus on the district, which has been hard-hit by the recession and the accompanying wave of housing foreclosures.
Bachmann used Graves' wealth and his ability to partially finance his own campaign as a regular feature of fundraising pitches that were e-mailed daily to a national network of Tea Party and religious conservatives, supporters who reliably respond in large numbers of small-dollar donations.
Bachmann also campaigned as a leading critic of President Obama's health care overhaul, which she made her signature issue in Congress as she founded the House Tea Party Caucus.
Late in the campaign, she also made a virtue of her outspoken opposition to the Bush era Wall Street bailout and Obama's 2011 debt ceiling compromise, both of which averted fiscal crises and passed with bipartisan majorities in Congress. Her television ads described her as an "independent voice."
While Graves attacked Bachmann as "the most polarizing, most partisan person in Congress," she sought to cultivate a nonpartisan image with voters by pointing to the singular achievement of her three terms in the U.S. House: spearheading legislation to approve a new freeway-style bridge over the St. Croix River near Stillwater.
Graves opposed the project, which divided labor and environment-focused Democrats even as it was championed by U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Gov. Mark Dayton and other prominent DFLers.
One rare area of agreement between Bachmann and Graves was on the Obama administration's 2009 stimulus package, which Democrats in Washington credit with averting an economic depression and creating millions of new jobs. Graves argued that it was excessively "politicized" in Congress, devoted too little to infrastructure projects and would not have gotten his vote.
Bachmann said "the only thing that got stimulated were more government jobs."
Fending off criticism that her presidential campaign caused her to miss months of votes and cut into her district work, Bachmann has been running ads highlighting her efforts to win funding for a veterans facility and to expand the St. Cloud airport.
Graves was able to raise some $2 million, which would be a respectable showing in most other congressional races. But he has not been able to keep up with Bachmann's heavy barrage of radio and television ads portraying him as "Big Spending Jim," a politician who would vote for Democratic spending priorities in Washington.
At the DFL rally in St. Cloud, Clinton thanked Graves for taking on the "heavy, important battle" of challenging Bachmann.
It was sometimes a testy battle.
In the last of their three debates, a faceoff Sunday on KSTP-TV, Channel 5, the station's commercial breaks afforded Bachmann a chance to amplify on her debate points with paid advertisements Graves could not match.
But as the Democrats' latest hope of unseating Bachmann, Graves also enjoyed a national network of support, particularly among Bachmann critics -- some of them Republicans -- who recoiled at her recent allegations of Muslim Brotherhood "influence operations" inside the U.S. government.
During their last debate, Graves called the charges "inflammatory." Bachmann said she made no accusations, but merely "asked questions."
Staff writers Kelly Smith and Jenna Ross contributed to this report. Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.