11.06.09

Bringing Down Bachmann

The far right’s star House member just hit the headlines with a rowdy health-care rally on Capitol Hill. Benjamin Sarlin reports on the Democrats lining up in Minnesota to send Michele Bachmann into early retirement.

Michele Bachmann took her paranoid campaign against the White House to new heights on Thursday, leading a mass protest inside the Capitol itself that led to multiple arrests. Antics like these have made her one of the breakout stars of the Republican Party in the Obama era, drawing praise from Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, and even George Will. But her stunts have also made what is otherwise a relatively safe Republican seat potentially vulnerable to Democratic takeover.

Her bid for reelection to a third term is still a year away. But two credible challengers have already emerged to vie for the Democratic nomination: physician Maureen Reed and State Senator Tarryl Clark. Both are making Bachmann's extremist rhetoric the centerpieces of their campaigns.

“I think that elected officials have a high responsibility to dial down anger and to dial down fear,” said physician Maureen Reed, one of Bachman’s two Democratic challengers. “People don’t problem-solve very well when they’re really mad and really scared.”

“In the Republican Party, there is a pretty broad area that is mainstream, and then there are the fringes of the party,” Clark told The Daily Beast. “And then there's Michele.”

In a separate interview, Reed repeatedly pledged to “dial down” the rhetoric from Bachmann's amped up levels.

"I think that elected officials have a high responsibility to dial down anger and to dial down fear,” she said. “People don't problem-solve very well when they're really mad and really scared.”

Both candidates have so far proved capable fundraisers, setting up a tough battle for the chance to take on America's most notorious congresswoman. Clark, who announced her candidacy in July, reported raising over $300,000 by the end of September. Reed, who began her campaign earlier, raised $130,000 in the same period and has over $300,000 cash on hand. But the incumbent has far more money amassed, with over $600,000 cash on hand.

Although Minnesota's 6th District is solidly Republican, Bachmann has proved vulnerable in the past. Last year she barely won her second term against Democrat Elwyn Tinklenberg 46 percent to 44 percent—even while voters went for John McCain over President Obama 53 percent to 45 percent. The race took place only days after she delivered a rant on MSNBC against “anti-American” lawmakers, including Obama, whom she said the press should investigate.

According to Steven Schier, a professor of political science at Minnesota's Carleton College, Bachmann's rhetoric is her biggest weakness.

“I think it's hurt her,” Schier said. “It means the district is not reliably safe for her as a result when I think it could be for another Republican who was less flamboyant.”

John Batchelor: Bachmann’s Angry MobNeither Reed nor Clark are particularly fiery candidates; their politics tend to fall in line with the Democratic Party mainstream and both stay on-message in interviews—in stark contrast to the freewheeling, endlessly quotable Bachmann. Both are pro-choice and neither strongly broke with the president on the stimulus, bailouts, or health care, areas where Bachmann has been constantly on the attack. The two candidates have yet to stake out a major battleground issue for the primaries.

Reed ran for lieutenant governor on the Independence Party line in 2006—downplaying the hot-button social issues in favor of wonkier fare.

She campaigned on a heath-care plan that year that, like the one being debated in Congress today, would have required Minnesota residents to purchase insurance while subsidizing costs for those who had difficulty affording the premiums. She said the Democrats felt “very much like home” for her, but that her chief asset in the race in against Clark and eventually Bachmann was her appeal to independents and moderates.

Clark, on the other hand, has come up through traditional Democratic channels as a state lawmaker; she is the senate's assistant majority leader. She brings with her much stronger institutional support as a result, including key endorsements from a number of unions like the SEIU and Minnesota AFL-CIO.

“I'm running against Michele because I think I'm a better matchup,” Clark said. “I'm a proven campaigner, I've run and won in a tough district, I share a lot of voters with a Republican governor as well as Democratic candidates, I work hard and I have a strong bipartisan track record working on all bills I carry.”

But Clark also carries strong associations with a state government that, like others around the country, has been forced to make painful budget cuts in recent years. And Reed, who served as chairman of the University of Minnesota's regents, plans to exploit the opening in the primary.

“The budgets I manage come in on budget at the end of the year,” Reed said. “I don't believe in throwing money at government and I don't believe in throwing stones at government.”

But both candidates seem far more eager to direct their attacks at Bachmann. Clark told The Daily Beast that she was concerned by the congresswoman's frequent attacks on the Census, which Bachmann at one point said she would refuse to fill out. Her stance drew a rebuke from fellow Republican lawmakers who were nervous supporters would follow her lead.

“I have no idea why she wants people to break the law, but why does she want us to send our tax dollars to other states?” Clark said, noting that population counts will help determine funding for the state and district. “She should be fighting for our dollars.”

Clark also took aim at Bachmann's attacks on AmeriCorps, which she has likened to “ re-education camps.” Bachmann's criticism came back to haunt her when it was reported her son had joined Teach for America, an AmeriCorps program.

“We have three things in common: We're women, moms, and we both have sons in AmeriCorps,” Clark said. “The difference is I'm proud of mine and we should be proud of our young adults giving something to the community.”

A spokeswoman for Michele Bachmann could not be reached for comment for this story.

Benjamin Sarlin is a reporter for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.