In an unlikely end to a political career that thrived on high-profile events and controversy, U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann on Wednesday announced her decision to leave Congress in a video released just after 2 a.m. as she was heading out of the country.

Her announcement, which came as she embarked on a congressional tour to Russia, surprised friends and detractors alike. It capped a tumultuous two-year period in which Bachmann went from leading Republican presidential contender to barely hanging on to her congressional seat while coming under investigation for campaign spending that occurred during her short White House run.

Starting as a grass-roots activist who knocked out a veteran incumbent in her first legislative race, Bachmann quickly emerged as a national conservative icon. She commanded a loyal following even after her 2012 presidential ambitions died quickly when she went all-out to win the Iowa caucuses and came up well short. Along the way, she became one of the country’s most prolific political fundraisers, with a vast network of small donors.

She inflamed conservative passions by seizing on President Obama’s health care plan and displayed a talent for identifying issues that stoked Republican outrage. She also stumbled any number of times over the years, making factual gaffes that were easily disproved, damaging her credibility and halting her momentum in trying to build a wider audience.

After failing in Iowa, Bachmann, 57, narrowly won her congressional seat last November and now finds herself embroiled in a thicket of investigations into that presidential campaign, including inquiries from the FBI.

But by all appearances, Bachmann was planning to run again. She recently unleashed campaign ads against her DFL opponent.

Few could have foreseen Wednesday’s bombshell.

“I was stunned,” said Tom Emmer, a former Republican gubernatorial candidate who quickly began considering a run to replace her.

Voters divided on Bachmann

Back in the Sixth Congressional District, voters had mixed reactions to Bachmann’s departure at the end of this term.

Like much of her district, the American Legion Post 225 in Forest Lake stands divided on their controversial congresswoman.

Some, she charmed. Others, she infuriated.

When Lorry Houle, a member of the post auxiliary, learned of Bachmann’s impending departure, she pumped her fists in the air.

She and others recalled when Bachmann wanted to appear in their Legion parade but did not send in the fee. They were aghast when she asked to appear at the front of the parade, a spot reserved for war veterans. Instead, organizers put her behind the horses.

Lee Goodyear wasn’t celebrating. Instead, he brought out the chef’s jacket he saves for special occasions, the one with Bachmann’s autograph on the lapel.

Bachmann has been a frequent visitor to the post. She came down for fishing contests, barbecues, breakfasts and for the Fall Festival and Booya. It made Goodyear, a Vietnam veteran from Scandia, feel like she understood veterans’ issues.

“I was a little disappointed,” Goodyear said. “I don’t have any problem with her at all.”

‘Rest assured’

In her video message, Bachmann told supporters they could “rest assured” that neither the challenge of re-election nor the multiple investigations into her presidential campaign factored into her decision.

Others said both issues must have weighed heavily on Bachmann.

“The mounting pressure and the strain of the investigations, the interviews with investigators, the lawyers, the lawyer fees, settlement talks, it is quite a burden for any person to carry,” said Peter Waldron, a former Bachmann adviser who touched off the campaign finance investigations now dogging her. “Mrs. Bachmann is placed in a position where retirement seems to be the only way to escape,” he said.

Waldron said her departure will leave a hole in the political scene.

“Her testimony as an advocate for pro-life, pro-family and traditional American values is without peer today,” he said. “To soften her voice in the public square is sad.”

Democrat Jim Graves, who came close to unseating Bachmann last year, said his former foe’s decision makes clear that she “recognized that it would be an uphill battle for her going forward.”

Graves announced his candidacy last month and says he will battle whoever replaces her on the Republican ticket.

Without Bachmann in the race, a host of Republicans began salivating at the chance to run in a rare open seat in the state’s most conservative congressional district. As of late Wednesday, no GOP candidate had officially stepped up to run, but many were publicly assessing the possibilities.

Brand Bachmann

Even before she burst onto the national scene, Bachmann made her mark in the Minnesota Senate as an ardent opponent of the state’s education standards — which later were dropped, and of gay marriage, as that issue came to the fore.

In her first race she snatched the Republican nomination from eight-year incumbent Gary Laidig and went on to win the general election. By 2006 she had set her sights on Congress and became the first Republican woman elected from Minnesota.

Once there, she fended off all challengers, hammered the Obama administration over health care, foreign policy and the federal debt. When the Tea Party emerged after the 2008 election, she became its champion and founded a congressional Tea Party caucus.

In 2009, she brought thousands of protesters to the steps of the U.S. Capitol. Just this month, she led the U.S. House in voting against President Obama’s health care overhaul, for the 37th time.

“She doesn’t hop on the bandwagon, she leads on issues. People follow her,” said Andy Parrish, a former longtime Bachmann aide.

Her style has often irritated mainstream Republican leaders, who consistently denied her a committee chair or formal leadership position. She tangled with fact-checkers more than nearly any other member of Congress and made accusations that sometimes left fellow Republicans cringing.

From once suggesting Obama was anti-American to alleging that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s aide might have ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, Bachmann regularly found a way into the spotlight.

Upon her retirement announcement, National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Greg Walden offered an evenhanded assessment of Bachmann: “Michele has been a tireless advocate and dedicated representative for the people of Minnesota’s Sixth District,” he said.

For Democrats, Bachmann’s departure from the political scene represents an opportunity and a bit of a loss.

“Michele Bachmann was the best fundraiser the DFL ever had,” said Ken Martin, Minnesota DFL Party chair. On Wednesday the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee sent out repeated please for money off the Bachmann news.

Glory days

Bachmann’s political career reached its zenith in mid-2011, when she won the Ames, Iowa,  presidential straw poll and effectively ended the candidacy of a fellow Minnesotan, former Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

For a brief time, she was considered the race’s front-runner. But her momentum stalled after multiple gaffes and strong showings by others. Within six months, she dropped out after placing a disappointing sixth in the Iowa caucuses.

The presidential campaign saddled her with more than a $1 million in debt, much of which has since been repaid through her congressional campaign. To hold on to her Sixth District seat, Bachmann spent nearly $15 million on the 2012 race, one of the most expensive congressional contests in the country.

She continues to deal with fallout from her ill-fated presidential run.

The FBI recently contacted two former staffers of that campaign. The Federal Election Commission and the Office of Congressional Ethics are also looking into her campaign’s activities and the Iowa Senate Ethics Committee has investigated payments to her 2012 Iowa campaign chairman.

What next for Bachmann?

Fans insist Bachmann’s future remains bright.

“I would imagine if you’re not having to focus on a congressional race, you would have more time to go around the country and help build the movement up,” said Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of the national Tea Party Patriots.

“If you watch her video, in my opinion, she opens the door wide open for a Senate run,” St. Cloud radio host Dan Ochsner said. “Michele Bachmann has been pretty much the perfect candidate.”

Bachmann is not saying what’s next.

“Looking forward ... my future is full, it is limitless and my passions for America will remain,” Bachmann said in her video. She said she would consider any path, “if it can help save and protect our great nation for future generations.”

Staff writers Corey Mitchell, Baird Helgeson and Jim Spencer contributed to this report.

Rachel E. Stassen-Berger
Twitter: @rachelsb