A smear machine fueled by huge sums of cash has fixed its sights on a new Public Enemy No. 1. Her name is U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann.
Minnesota voters won't be heading to the polls until November 2010, almost a year from now, but this machine is already pouring megabucks into a TV ad campaign attacking Bachmann. In the ad, an actress portraying the congresswoman greets voters with oil oozing from her hands. A frightened baby wails, and constituents glare with disgust at the sticky handprints she leaves on their backs. The message? Bachmann is a shill for Big Oil.
Attack ads such as this are just one weapon in the multifront assault that Bachmann will face in coming months. For insight into what's on the horizon, we can look to Colorado. There, a cabal of Democratic activists, led by high-tech mogul Tim Gill, has masterminded a potent new political strategy that's "redefining liberal politics," according to Time magazine.
It's no surprise that Bachmann finds herself in the left's cross hairs. She is everything its zealots most despise: a woman who flaunts feminist orthodoxy and dares to advocate limited government, free markets and traditional marriage.
The Colorado model is fueled by unprecedented piles of money, contributed by a clubby group of multimillionaires. It uses left-wing nonprofit organizations, rather than traditional Democratic Party channels, to get its message to voters. Its scorched-earth tactics range from smear ads that twist the facts to trumped-up charges of ethical violations.
Using this strategy, left-wing activists have transformed Colorado from Red to deep Blue since 2004. Democrats have announced plans to export their model to other states, and Rob Stein of the George Soros-funded Democracy Alliance has put Minnesota at the top of the list.
What might this mean for Bachmann? Former Colorado congresswoman Marilyn Musgrave, a Republican whose politics resemble Bachmann's, knows only too well. In 2008, the attack machine defeated her after three brutal attempts.
The buzz among Washington insiders is that Bachmann will be "the next Musgrave." Guy Short, Musgrave's former chief of staff, expects Democrats to pump millions of dollars into Minnesota to try to take Bachmann down in 2010. Her adversaries, he says, will work to drive up her unfavorable ratings to the point where voters finally growl, "Anybody but Bachmann."
Short already sees striking parallels between the anti-Musgrave and anti-Bachmann campaigns. In Colorado, Democrats revved up their attacks on Musgrave a year before the 2008 election. One particularly scurrilous ad, which Time magazine called the "most shameless" of the 2004 elections, captures their flavor. The ad depicted Musgrave sneaking onto a battlefield to pick the pocket of a solder caught up in a fire fight. It falsely alleged that Musgrave was "cheap" on soldiers' benefits when she has, in fact, been one of the military's strongest supporters.
Musgrave's opponents also attempted to impugn her integrity with bogus ethical charges. In 2005, a left-wing outfit called Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), another Soros-funded enterprise, alleged that she had misused taxpayer funds in her office arrangement, though Musgrave had previously cleared the arrangement with the relevant House committees, according to Short.
"CREW is a left-wing attack machine masquerading as a public interest watchdog," says Short. "It purports to be bipartisan, but its real goal is to defeat Republicans."
CREW's allegations against Musgrave were not only unsubstantiated but never even investigated, says Short. But the media picked them up, with devastating effect. "CREW listed Musgrave as one of the '13 most corrupt' members of Congress, though she never violated either the letter or the spirit of the law," he said.
Bachmann is enduring similar harassment. Last month, she put a press release about a health care "House call" on her congressional website. After the event took place, CREW charged that she had violated House ethics rules, and the media, which routinely characterize CREW as a neutral watchdog group, picked up the story. A spokesman for the House Administration Committee confirmed that Bachmann had conformed to House rules. Nevertheless, her reputation had been impugned.
If the left brings the Colorado model to Minnesota, Bachmann's constituents in places such as St. Cloud might like to know that attacks against her are being fueled by fat cat donors from places such as New York City.
Yet in 2010, the Colorado model may lose some of its steam as issues trump big bucks. In Virginia and New Jersey, voters recently elected Republican governors and rejected Democrats, whom they perceived as more negative, according to pollsters. Next time around, Democrats may run into their own buzz saw.
Katherine Kersten is a Twin Cities writer and speaker. Reach her at email@example.com.