Republican State Sen. Michele Bachmann won the open U.S. House seat in the Sixth District, defeating child-safety advocate Patty Wetterling in a race that drew national attention, set a Minnesota record for spending on a House race, and generated a double barrage of nasty TV ads and fliers.

Bachmann slowly but steadily built a significant lead all Tuesday evening, and shortly after 11 p.m., Wetterling called her to concede.

Bachmann then went to the podium at GOP election night headquarters in Bloomington to claim victory and thank her family and supporters and list her top priorities: "We want to secure our nation's borders, protect our country, and can anyone say, 'Cut taxes?' We also want to protect our great Minnesota family values, life, marriage and family life."

Wetterling simultaneously thanked her team at a smaller gathering in St. Cloud, acknowledging that her second race for the seat had fallen short. "Because we stood up for what we believed in, we did win," Wetterling said.

The last published polls before Tuesday had shown Bachmann with a lead, but going into Election Day the national pundits mostly rated the race a tossup.

Independence Party candidate John Binkowski ran a distant third.

In the final hours, both campaigns complained about automatically dialed phone calls that allegedly harrassed or misled Sixth District voters.

The district

The Sixth Congressional District drapes across the top of the Twin Cities metro, stretching from the Wisconsin border to St. Cloud and including suburbs, exurbs, farmland and St. Cloud.

The district includes most or all of Anoka, Washington, Stearns, Wright, Sherburne and Benton counties.

Bachmann built an insurmountable lead in Anoka County, where she had spent part of her childhood. Wetterling appeared to be carrying Washington County, which is Bachmann's current home base.

The Sixth has a conservative lean, which has translated into Republican domination since the district was created after the 2000 census.

In 2004, President Bush whomped Democrat John Kerry in the Sixth 57-42 percent, making it Bush's strongest district in Minnesota. Republican state legislators from the district outnumber DFLers about 2-1.

Since the Sixth was reconfigured, it has twice elected Republican Mark Kennedy. He won there in 2002, by 57-35 over Democrat Janet Robert, and by 54-46 in 2004 over Wetterling in her first campaign.

Democratic hopes this year were pinned on three factors:

The seat was open because of Kennedy's decision to run for the Senate;

Wetterling brought significant name recognition and a reservoir of public sympathy from the 1989 kidnapping of her son, Jacob;

The national political climate gave Democrats hopes in districts normally considered safe for the GOP.

Bachmann, a state senator since 2001, won the Republican endorsement in a crowded field, based partly on her appeal to evangelical Christians, many of whom were first-time political activists brought into the process by their devotion to her.

Bachmann is best known for her social conservatism, especially her opposition to gay marriage and abortion, which are popular stances in the district.

But she campaigned mostly on more secular issues of tax cuts, border control, national security and road-building.

Binkowski, 27, a political newcomer who dropped out of college to run, has charmed debate audiences with his boyish looks and candor.

National spotlight

Both national parties targeted the race from the beginning. A remarkable line-up of Republican big names -- including President and Laura Bush, Dick Cheney, Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert and White House political guru Karl Rove -- have come to Minnesota to testify and fund-raise, for Bachmann.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee designated Wetterling's campaign part of its "red to blue project," seeking to steer national donor dollars to Democrats with chances to convert GOP-held districts.

The two women raised $4.65 million -- making this the most expensive House campaign in Minnesota history -- and that figure was reached about three weeks ago.

The DCCC booked more than $1 million of TV ad time to spend on Wetterling's behalf and the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee reserved a roughly equal amount to help Bachmann. The ads were overwhelmingly negative.

The race will likely contribute to a historic outcome for women candidates in Minnesota. The state has elected only two women to Congress in history, and never more than one at time. The Sixth District winner will presumably join U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, creating an all-time high for women in the Minnesota delegation.

Eric Black • 612-673-7294 •