Conspiracy theories have been a constant in Rep. Michele Bachmann's political career since she first ran for the Stillwater school board in the late 1990s. She made her initial foray into politics by claiming that the Profile of Learning amounted to social engineering. Her anti-gay-marriage ideas were rooted in notions of sinister forces bent on destroying traditional marriage. Her bizarre rants within the past year against "anti-American" members of Congress, a global currency and government-mandated youth "reeducation camps" all exhibit the same disturbing tendency. She sees threats that few other elected officials perceive, let alone describe on national television.

Another example came this week as Bachmann sounded a shrill alarm against an American institution: the U.S. Census. In yet another TV talk show appearance, the telegenic Republican decried the population survey as "government intrusion," then warned darkly that census information was used to round up Japanese-American citizens during World War II. The implication, of course, was that it could be used to round up Americans again. Bachmann's backpedaling "I'm not saying that is what the administration is planning to do" did nothing to squelch those fears, especially considering that she was appearing on the Fox TV show of Glenn Beck, who has spent the months since the presidential election painting apocalyptic visions of the future.

This is hard-core conspiracy theory, the likes of which are rarely seen outside the most extreme parts of the blogosphere. Even Beck seemed taken aback by the government round-up rhetoric.

While Bachmann certainly is entitled to her outside-the-mainstream beliefs, she's too often crossed a critical line. The two-term congresswoman from Minnesota's Sixth District bluntly said she will not fully fill out the census form, a misdemeanor punishable by up to $5,000. Her census fear-mongering clearly could push others to do the same. What Bachmann is doing -- on national television, no less -- is encouraging people to break the law. That's not right-wing. That's not conservative. That's just wrong.

It's hard to tell what Bachmann's priorities are. Is it serving her constituents or taking controversial positions? Her long list of odd comments and lack of substantive legislative accomplishments suggest the latter: a politician interested more in being the face of the fringe element than solving the real-life problems of her north-suburban district.

At the very least, the census statements call Bachmann's strategic judgment into question. She may be setting in motion events that could substantially hurt her home state and potentially cost her the office she occupies.

The 2010 census will likely determine whether Minnesota loses one of its eight U.S. House seats; population determines seat allocation. Political experts agree that a few thousand people not filling out census forms may be all it takes for the state to lose a congressional advocate in the nation's capital. If Minnesota were to lose a congressional seat, Bachmann's district appears to be candidate for absorption. Bachmann has been careful to say that she's willing to tell the census how many people live in her household, the basic information that will determine whether Minnesota keeps a congressional seat. But that's a message that's easily lost in her fear-mongering; Beck didn't help when he pantomimed flushing census documents down the toilet.

Bachmann is undeniably an emerging national political figure. The question for Sixth District voters next year is whether that role is in her best interest or theirs?