Abortion, taxes and transportation have dominated recent campaigns for Congress in the suburbs, small towns and farms north of the Twin Cities.
But the political landscape changed in Minnesota's Sixth District when the financial crisis hit Wall Street and Washington. More than any other congressional race in the state, the showdown in the Sixth is offering voters stark choices on whom to blame for the crisis and what to do about it.
Rep. Michele Bachmann, a Republican, is telling voters that "hyper-regulation" by the federal government created a chain of events that caused bank failures and credit freezes. Bachmann voted against the massive rescue package that cleared Congress last week, slamming it as unfair to taxpayers.
Her Democratic challenger, Elwyn Tinklenberg, tells voters that lack of government regulation encouraged bankers to make reckless bets that brought on the crisis. He favored the bailout as a way to avert a more serious slowdown in middle America.
As the financial squeeze makes itself felt on Main Street, the candidates' contrasting positions on the bailout could determine the outcome of the race.
"People are very responsive to what the headlines are about," said Steven Smith, a professor of political science and expert on Congress at Washington University in St. Louis.
The Sixth sprawls across Washington, Anoka, Wright, Benton, Sherburne and Stearns counties. It has been reliably Republican in recent years but is expected to be competitive for Democrats in a year when Republicans around the nation are struggling.
Bachmann, who won the seat in 2006, had a voting record more conservative on economic, social and foreign policy issues than 89 percent of her colleagues last year, according to the National Journal's ideological scorecard of congressional members. She gets more money from abortion-opposition and gun-rights groups than all but nine other members of the House.
Democrats argue that Bachmann is too conservative even for this conservative district. That line didn't work in 2006 for Democrat Patty Wetterling, a child-welfare advocate whom Republicans labeled too liberal.
But Tinklenberg calls himself a moderate Democrat and touts endorsements from police and fire groups and good grades from the National Rifle Association, which nonetheless endorsed Bachmann. He considers himself a Blue Dog Democrat, a group of fiscally conservative Democrats in Congress that has endorsed him.
Another candidate, Bob Anderson of the Independence Party, entered the race to bring mental health insurance on par with other health coverage. Because the rescue bill includes such a provision, he is now focusing on prohibiting insurance companies from denying coverage for applicants with pre-existing conditions. He also stands apart from the others by his refusal to accept campaign contributions and his attack on Congress as a tool of special interests.
Still, the Independence Party endorsed Tinklenberg in the district, which voted heavily for Jesse Ventura when he ran under the party's banner for governor in 1998. Tinklenberg reminds people that he promoted the Hiawatha light-rail line and the future North Star commuter line while he was Ventura's transportation commissioner.
Transportation and oil
Transportation issues still loom large in the district, where traffic snarls and long commutes are common.
"If I had something to do downtown, I'd take the line," Patti Trott said of the North Star rail line after talking with Tinklenberg in a restaurant in Elk River, which will have a commuter station. But her husband, Karl, wanted more money spent on roads, explaining, "our priorities are out of whack."
While Bachmann has denounced the use of federal earmarks for funding local projects, Elk River city administrator Lori Johnson told her during a recent visit that the city needs all the help it can get to fix roads to ease congestion.
"We don't want to be left behind if there are earmarks, and that's the way the game is played," Johnson said.
As gasoline prices spiked this summer, both Bachmann and Tinklenberg advocated more off-shore drilling and alternative sources of energy. But they differ sharply on emphasis.
Bachmann stresses lifting federal restrictions on oil drilling. "We sit on the answer to our own problem," she said at a recent debate. "We have more oil in the United States than all of Saudi Arabia, and that's just in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming in the form of shale oil."
Tinklenberg replied, "We need to be exploring more domestically ... but we also need to move aggressively in both the areas of conservation and the areas of alternatives."
He favors increasing automobile fuel efficiency standards, while Bachmann voted last year against a measure that raised them.
On another key issue, health care, Bachmann wants to make insurance premiums and other medical expenses tax-deductible for individuals to make it easier for consumers to buy health insurance. Tinklenberg favors offering the option of government-sponsored health insurance as a competitively priced alternative to private insurance plans to achieve universal health coverage.
During her freshman term, Bachmann sometimes made news with remarks that raised eyebrows.
This summer she said expanded oil drilling and other measures would bring "immediate and lasting relief" and cut gas prices to $2 a gallon. The U.S. Energy Information Administration said it's unlikely those steps would significantly reduce gas prices any time soon.
Shortly after taking office in 2007, Bachmann told the St. Cloud Times that Iran planned to partition Iraq and turn part of it into a terrorist training ground. Her office later said her remarks were "misconstrued."
"The only reason this district would ever be in play is Michele Bachmann herself," said David Wasserman, the editor in charge of assessing House races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington. "She's a lightning rod in Minnesota politics. To the extent that Elwyn Tinklenberg is competitive, he's attracting some moderate Republican votes that's necessary to win this district."
Through mid-August Bachmann had $1.4 million in campaign contributions on hand. Tinklenberg had $200,000. Wetterling had four times as much cash at this point in her losing 2006 race.
Unless the party, union allies or others pump money into the race in the final weeks, Tinklenberg won't be able to afford many, if any, TV ads to counter a likely Bachmann ad blitz. She also has frequently appeared on "Larry King Live" to discuss national issues such as drilling or the financial rescue package.
About the bailout
Bachmann says the $700 billion bailout was unnecessary. She blames federal regulations for making it easier for people to obtain loans they couldn't repay, and she says the crisis could be overcome in part by changing accounting rules.
Tinklenberg labels her remedy "pretend accounting" and defends the package as needed to prevent credit from drying up in communities throughout the nation. He said significant oversight and curbs on executive compensation made the final package more palatable than its earlier version.
In talking with voters, he has been pointing out that Bachmann sits on the House Financial Services Committee that oversees the financial industry. She received more contributions from finance, insurance and real estate interests than any Congress member from Minnesota.
Wasserman said Bachmann needed "to be careful to ... avoid being seen as too corporate."
Smith said Bachmann's no vote on the bailout can be easily justified to constituents.
"The conservatives don't like big government and the liberals don't like bailing out fat cats," he said. "People in the middle just don't like the idea of giving away money."
But Tinklenberg can use his support of the package to define himself.
"There are signs that working-class individuals are finding their credit options disappearing," Smith said. "He's trying to show that he's a middle of the road politician who takes a pragmatic view of the problems facing the country."
Pat Doyle • 651-222-1210