Humbling year ends in silence for Bachmann

  • Article by: KEVIN DIAZ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 13, 2013 - 7:36 AM

Chastened by a slim victory, the conservative firebrand focuses on her district.

WASHINGTON - A little more than a year ago, U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann was barnstorming across Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, carrying the Tea Party banner in the GOP presidential primaries.

Now the Minnesota Republican is hardly heard from anymore, barely uttering a word in public during the simmering build-up to the "fiscal cliff" deal in Congress, which she opposed.

Gone are the boisterous rallies opposing Obamacare, the rousing church testimonials and the controversial TV utterances about Islamist moles in government that raised money even as they rained down critical headlines.

Since her wafer-thin re-election in November in the state's most solidly Republican district, Bachmann has sharply dialed down her national profile, staying off television and remaining in the background of a raging congressional debate over taxes, her signature issue as a former IRS attorney and deficit hawk.

"She's been focused on her district," said Bachmann spokesman Dan Kotman, adding that the silence is deliberate. "She's doing listening sessions and reaching out to business folks and community leaders."

The silence also comes as a weakened Tea Party movement has been fractured by in-fighting and recrimination over reverses at the polls, not the least of which was the reelection of Barack Obama, Bachmann's political nemesis.

"Everyone needs to learn a lesson from this, and maybe that's why you're seeing a much quieter Michele," said conservative blogger Andy Aplikowski, Sixth District Republican vice chairman in Anoka County. "This was probably the most grueling race she's had."

Her opponents acknowledge that Bachmann's new low profile is an astute political move.

"I think she learned that her quest for the presidency really cost her a lot of political capital in her district," said Minnesota DFL chairman Ken Martin. "She saw in her own polling -- as we did -- that something was going on in her district. So she doubled down and did what she needed to do to win the election."

Tough year

Bachmann's single percentage point re-election win, one of the most expensive in the nation, ended a tough year that began with her sixth-place finish in the Iowa GOP presidential caucuses.

But Bachmann is not the only national Tea Party figure to fall on hard times. Allen West, an ideological ally in the Tea Party Caucus she founded, lost a bitterly fought recount election in Florida. Meanwhile, the broader Tea Party movement, which helped Republicans win a House majority in 2010, was little in evidence in the year-end fiscal cliff drama in Congress.

Bachmann declined an interview for this article. But outside of the media, she has been in direct communication with her supporters.

"I am not in Washington to win a popularity contest," she wrote in a fundraising pitch to supporters last week. "Instead, I am here to fight for our conservative values and stand up for our shared beliefs."

If a 4,296-vote margin of victory gave her reason to be cautious, Bachmann also is not backing down from the outspoken brand of conservatism that helped propel her to the national spotlight. In a separate fundraising e-mail from MichelePAC, her national political organization, Bachmann called herself a "tried and true conservative" who joined a minority in voting against the "'so-called' compromise" of the fiscal cliff deal worked out between the White House and GOP leaders.

Bachmann further exhibited her independence on the first day of the new Congress by showing up late for the election of GOP House Speaker John Boehner, then filing a new bill to repeal Obamacare, the 34th such attempt by House Republicans. In a potential sign of political isolation, no other House Republicans have signed on to the bill.

In a break from the days when she could rally thousands of supporters to descend on the Capitol, Bachmann held no press conferences and made no TV appearances during the fiscal cliff battle, the main preoccupation of Congress.

Kotman said that was a bow to political reality. "From the very beginning," he said, "it was clear this was going to be a negotiation between the president and the [House] speaker."

Close-to-home issues

Instead, Bachmann has emphasized parochial issues, attending a ceremony to commemorate new commercial flights to St. Cloud, helping raise money for a hospital charity, and carrying legislation to rename a post office for slain Cold Spring police officer Thomas Decker.

Democrats have long tried to unseat Bachmann by painting her as an ideologue more concerned with a national Tea Party agenda than representing her own district. Her 2012 challenger, DFL businessman Jim Graves, is leaving open the possibility of a rematch in 2014.

One thing Graves will point to is Bachmann's Jan. 1 vote against the fiscal cliff deal, which protected about 99 percent of Americans from scheduled income tax increases. "I'd like to know how many people in the Sixth District would have actually seen their taxes go up," said Graves' campaign manager, Adam Graves, his son.

Bachmann told supporters that she voted against the deal because it contained "no meaningful cuts" in federal spending.

Watchwords

Spending cuts and fiscal discipline are certain to be the watchwords of Bachmann's politics going forward, as they always have. But as she plays it safer back home, she risks alienating the conservative evangelicals andTea Party supporters critical to her nationwide fundraising base.

Ken Crow, an Iowa Tea Party activist who chaired Bachmann's presidential campaign in Madison County, said the influence of polished campaign advisers from back East helped douse her early momentum.

"The Tea Party wanted the tough-talking, take-no-prisoners Michele, and when she became soft, that cost her dearly," Crow said.

But with the coming congressional debate over raising the nation's $16 trillion debt ceiling, Bachmann and her Tea Party allies believe they've got some cards to play.

"There was a time when raising the debt ceiling was a routine matter of business," said Walter Hudson, a Minnesota coordinator for the Liberty Tea Party Patriots. "It's a different era, and our movement can definitely claim some responsibility for that."

That's a conversation Bachmann plans to join, Kotman said.

Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.

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