The entrepreneur is facing the GOP lightning rod in the increasingly conservative district.
WASHINGTONAs a boy in St. Cloud, Jim Graves remembers arguing with his buddies about candidates in the 1960 presidential race one day as they walked to the movie theater, boys bickering about men they knew little about.
Upset over Graves' support of Democrat John F. Kennedy, the other boys stripped him of his shoes and threw them in the street.
"Looking back, I was probably in the right," Graves recalled. "But what did I know as a 6- or 7-year-old? Back then, the [Republican] party looked a little different than it does today."
Today, the millionaire entrepreneur and political newcomer is the latest challenger to Republican U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, hoping to derail her bid for a fourth term.
The race presents a stark contrast for voters in Minnesota's Sixth Congressional District: A left-leaning businessman with labor support and no political background pitted against a staunch Tea Party conservative who is a household name after her recent failed presidential bid.
As a DFLer facing a Republican incumbent in the state's most conservative congressional district, Graves could face a challenge similar to that day back in 1960.
"He's going to have to win some Republicans over," said Kathryn Pearson, a University of Minnesota associate political science professor who studies congressional elections. "Even some of the swing voters lean Republican there."
Graves said his strengths lie in a lifetime spent in the business sector, creating jobs. The district, he said, "deserves a ... business-savvy congressperson who will fight full time to create livable-wage jobs and strengthen the economy, ensuring a strong middle class."
Bachmann campaign spokesman Chase Kroll said that when voters learn Graves supports abortion rights, gay marriage and President Obama's health care law, they will view him differently.
"Our opponent is totally out of touch with the values and the vision of the people in Minnesota's Sixth District," Kroll said. Bachmann, he said, "is in sync with her constituents and has worked in a bipartisan fashion to deliver on the issues most important to them. People know Michele Bachmann, and they know they can trust her."
Graves said the district needs a full-time representative, not Bachmann, who spent much of 2011 vying for the GOP presidential nomination.
"We're pro-family," Graves said. "We believe in people having good jobs with good benefits and supporting women, letting them make their own decisions."
Bachmann, he said, "has a very specific agenda that revolves around the congresswoman. I'm part of the district. It's in my DNA." Voters in the Sixth District "want representation," he said. "Somebody who's with them and like them."
Graves declined to discuss his stance on the Affordable Care Act's individual mandate, part of the law currently under review by the U.S. Supreme Court that Bachmann has targeted.
Graves grew up the son of lifelong Republicans from a different era, he said, blue-collar Catholics who lived in the city's North End. He married his high school sweetheart, graduated from nearby St. Cloud State and taught sixth grade for two years at a small Catholic school in town.
He quit teaching to earn more money to support his wife and three children.
"Teachers weren't paid that well back then either," he said.
After spending several years working with and learning from a local businessman, Graves founded the budget motel chain AmericInn in the late 1970s. He sold that business in the early 1990s and focused his efforts on building and managing luxury hotels in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, New York and Honduras. The entrepreneur, who now employs between 500 and 600 people, had a labor union leader at his side when he announced his candidacy.
"[Graves] can talk about creating jobs in a way that Bachmann can't," said Ken Martin, Minnesota DFL party chairman.
Graves decided to run against Bachmann after noting that the other candidates for the DFL endorsement had no political experience.
"I saw a real need ... for leadership," he said.
The race to Election Day
Graves has loaned his campaign $100,000 in seed money to start off, but says he won't self-finance his campaign against Bachmann, who already has more than $650,000 banked for her re-election run.
Relying on his own money would send the wrong message, Graves said.
"I want people to come on board," he said.
Though federal rules do not require members of Congress to live in their districts, the race is unusual in that neither candidate calls the Sixth District home.
Graves lived in St. Cloud for nearly 50 years before moving to Minneapolis, where he runs his hotel management company. He plans to find a house in the district soon, he said.
Once-a-decade congressional redistricting booted Bachmann's Stillwater out of the district she's represented since 2007. But the line redrawing also created a district even more conservative than before.
Graves plans to unveil his campaign team in the coming weeks along with more policy positions.
"Our best days are ahead of us," he said. "I'm pretty new to this."
Corey Mitchell is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau. Twitter: @StribMitchell