U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann’s decision not to seek re-election instantly reshuffles the political dynamics in a congressional district that has drawn massive amounts of national money and attention.

Now several likely GOP candidates are scrambling to strengthen political roots in a reliably conservative district that catapulted Bachmann from fledgling activist to a Tea Party powerhouse with national prominence.

“It’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity in the Sixth District, so there are going to be a lot of people taking a serious look at it,” said state Sen. Branden Petersen, an Andover Republican who said he is unlikely to run for the seat.

For months, the race was hardening into a rematch between Bachmann and wealthy DFL businessman Jim Graves, who stunned the political establishment when he came within a whisker of winning last November.

Now, a scrappy and ambitious collection of Republicans face their best chance yet at claiming a major political office after their party suffered a string of bruising political setbacks in the state.

Within hours of Bachmann’s announcement, the jousting began. Failed 2010 gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer, former legislator Phil Krinkie and Rep. Matt Dean of Stillwater are in the mix. Former Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch of Buffalo, Rep. Peggy Scott of Andover and newcomer Pete Hegseth are also possible candidates.

Many political watchers say Emmer, a former House legislator who has been tested statewide, could prove a strong favorite in the Republican field. A full-throated conservative, the Delano native has spent much of the last two years hosting a daily conservative talk-radio show. In his race for governor, Emmer got nearly twice the votes in Wright County as did DFLer Mark Dayton, who went on to become governor.

In a statement released Wednesday afternoon, Emmer said that “I have begun discussions with my family and close friends about potentially launching a campaign.”

Krinkie, who now heads the Taxpayers League of Minnesota, lost to Bachmann in a bid for the Sixth District seat in 2006. Now, Krinkie said, he would give a run “serious consideration.”

State Rep. Tim Sanders, a three-term lawmaker from Blaine, says he’s interested in a run. “I’d be a fresh face and I think I represent the district well,” he said.

Looking for a die-hard

Luke Yurczyk, chairman of the Sixth Congressional District Republicans, said conservatives in that area are looking for a die-hard small-government believer with a proven willingness to buck liberal ideology. “We are looking for a candidate who is going to be outspoken,” he said. “We want someone who is truly committed to reducing the size of government and someone who is a vibrant person to carry that message.”

Dan “Ox” Ochsner, who hosts a talk radio show on KNSI Radio in St. Cloud, said the ideal candidate would have Bachmann’s voting record and passion for conservative social and economic principles, but devoid of some of her liabilities.

“It’s no secret that there was a lot of anti-Michele Bachmann Republican votes going to Graves, who was seen as a pro-business candidate,” Ochsner said. “The Sixth is such a conservative Republican district that I would think any solid Republican name would have a leg up.”

DFLer Graves pressing on

Several political insiders said Graves’ hopes may dim without Bachmann as a political firestarter. Bachmann drew millions of dollars from conservatives around the country, but she also riled Democrats from California to New York, who sent millions to her challengers.

“I am not going to change my strategy one bit,” Graves said Wednesday. “I am who I am. My policies are what they are, and they are not going to waver.”

Strategists say they expect many voters in the area may now settle behind a reliably conservative candidate whose personal ambition does not burn quite so bright.

“The Democrats’ very unlikely path to victory was based on running an exceptionally negative campaign against Congresswoman Bachmann,” said Pat Shortridge, a former Minnesota Republican Party chairman. “Now even that is gone.”

With the seat up for grabs, even Graves is not sure another Democrat won’t take a crack at flipping the historically conservative Sixth District.

“It certainly would be a high-profile situation for them, but it will not change my approach one bit,” Graves said.


Staff writers Rachel E. Stassen-Berger and Corey Mitchell contributed to this report. baird.helgeson@startribune.com 651-925-5044