10.17.10

The Tea Party's New Queen

On her way to winning a third term, Michele Bachmann is set to lead the Tea Party into power come November. Shushannah Walshe on what first drove her into politics—and how she’s become a major player.

On her way to winning a third term, Michele Bachmann is set to lead the Tea Party after the elections. The Daily Beast’s Shushannah Walshe reports on what drove her into politics, her rapid rise, her record-breaking fundraising—and the investigation into her husband's Christian counseling center.

Michele Bachmann was a Tea Party leader before the movement even had a name. She was a mom from a small town with no political experience outside of founding a controversial charter school in the early '90s. Then out of nowhere, she captured a suburban Minneapolis state senate seat and parlayed it in just six years to national celebrity. Her telegenic looks and battering-ram style—blasting Democrats with over-the-top statements that on more than one occasion have stretched the truth—made her a staple on Fox News and a folk hero to the anti-establishment crowds threatening to sweep the Democrats out of power this fall. And if the predictions of a GOP tidal wave come true, Bachmann will be well-positioned to lead a new generation of conservative politicians on Capitol Hill.

But first she has to win a third term. And she’s taking no chances. Instead of barnstorming around the country, she’s sticking close to home in the campaign’s final weeks, battling Democrat State Senator Tarryl Clark and she’s got a solid 9-point lead. Bachmann’s amassed a record war chest to ensure her challenger gets no closer. Last week her campaign announced she had brought in a staggering $5.4 million since July for a total of nearly $10 million this midterm cycle, more than any Minnesota congressional candidate has ever raised—and the sixth most expensive House race in U.S. history.

“I really believe that she feels she is following God’s lead by being in Congress, and speaking for the rest of us,” Beverly LeHaye said.

Despite her impressive fundraising, Bachmann remains anything but your usual politician. Her deep Christian values have guided her career and home life. Bachmann and her husband have five biological children and have had 23 foster children in their home, all teenage girls.

Her husband, a therapist, runs a Christian counseling center called Bachmann & Associates. They provide Christian-centered therapy on issues including depression, drug addiction, and marital problems.

“It’s trying to help people through biblical principles and I’m sure he uses those rather than the secular because he is a Christian. The Bible has the answers for so many of the problems that people have today that he would use biblical counseling,” says her close friend Beverly LeHaye (the wife of bestselling Christian author Reverend Tim LeHaye).

Gail Sheehy: The GOP’s Ruthless Clique

John Avlon: The House’s 25 Biggest Wingnuts
Recently Bachmann & Associates came under fire when Americans United for the Separation of Church and State started to investigate them because they were receiving state funds. While under investigation in 2008, the state ended a contract they had with the center, but Americans United plans to keep looking into Bachmann & Associates because they believe it is a “clear constitutional violation for an organization that engages in proselytizing and religious counseling to receive any public funds for such programming.”

As Bachmann moves into an even more prominent role with her likely assumption as one of the leaders of the Tea Party movement on Capitol Hill, she can expect to become an even bigger target.

For the moment though, friends and colleagues from her early days say she continues to champion the same conservative issues that first drove her into the political arena.

Beverly LeHaye said Bachmann got her start when she received a letter in the mail from LeHaye’s group, Concerned Women for America, a conservative, pro-life, women’s organization. In the early ‘90s, Bachmann became an outspoken critic of Minnesota’s public-education system and founded New Heights Charter School in her hometown of Stillwater and was soon in the midst of controversy. Only three months after its founding, parents and the school board came head to head in a testy meeting, with parents accuing the school board of “supporting a religious agenda.” All the board members, including Bachmann, resigned on the spot.

But it wasn’t until 2000 that Bachmann officially entered politics and challenged 28-year legislative incumbent Republican State Senator Gary Laidig. Bachmann thought he was too moderate and supporters of Laidig say she had told him she was going to take him on. In the Minnesota state legislature, the party picks a state house hopeful at an endorsing convention who they will back in both primary and general election. In the middle of the convention, in her jeans and T-shirt, Bachmann jumped up and decided to run against Laidig. Laidig backers say it was pre-planned, but either way it was a surprise. Since most of Laidig’s base had left expecting him a shoo-in, she was able to win enough support to get the party’s support, defeat Laidig in the primary, and then win the senate seat. Former colleague in the state senate and then staffer in the district office Sean Nienow said Bachmann’s husband Marcus only found out his wife was running when a friend left a message on the answering machine congratulating her after the convention.

She soon proved to be a popular legislator as former Republican State Senate President Dick Day recounts she would have supporters lining the halls of the state legislature to support her causes at 2 a.m. “Most of the things she was for were very, very difficult to get passed in Minnesota,” said Day. “She is somebody that really I think builds wonderful bridges to a lot of people and then there’s a lot of people along the lines she kind of burns them behind her also.”

“I don’t think there is anyone better at grassroots organizing. She is so good at motivating people. There are two levels of a ground war: the logistical part; the other part is the passion part where you get people to believe in your message, to follow you, and work for you, and support you and I don’t think there is anyone better,” said State Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, who worked with Bachmann on failed legislation to define marriage in the state as between a man and a woman.

Bachmann talks openly about her faith and LeHaye (who prays with Bachmann about issues ranging from the campaign to legislation she may be promoting) says her belief in God goes into everything Bachmann does.

“I think she gives God all the credit. I think she realizes that without God she would not be where she is today and I really believe that she feels she is following God’s lead by being in Congress, and speaking for the rest of us,” LeHaye said. “She thanks God a lot for where she is and what she’s able to accomplish.”

God and Bachmann’s battle against her left-leaning adversaries is what seems to drive her. “She has a particular philosophy about life and she is someone who has who struggled herself. It’s partly this conversion to religion and faith that’s very intense and very real to her. So I think for her the personal is political and the political is personal. It’s not just an occupation for her. She sees what she is doing as part of her calling,” says University of Minnesota political science professor Lawrence Jacobs.

Despite the publicity, it hasn’t been just smooth sailing in Washington. Bachmann is on her fifth chief of staff in four years. She’s also had high turnover in both her press office and her district offices. Nienow, who went to work for her in her first term, says that the turnover comes from working with an intense member of Congress with high expectations.

“There were times I thought, ‘Hey she’s out of line here,’ but I can guarantee you would find that with every member of Congress and staff if you get them to talk to you honestly,” said Nienow. “Just looking at her history, clearly she’s got some challenges in maintaining long-term staff in her office, but those are two different worlds. Generally speaking, if you can maintain long-term staff you are going to help yourself be more effective and get things done. There is a great upside to that and potential downside to not having that.”

Others staffers say that working in Bachmann’s office makes aides “get noticed very fast” for other jobs on the Hill and in the private sector.

Only weeks away from November 2nd, Bachmann is staying focused but is confident enough to decline her opponent’s challenge to debate in eight town-hall forums.

Clark contends that Bachmann is more focused on her national profile than what’s happening back in own state. “Minnesotans are not prone to be putting ourselves out there, drawing attention to ourselves, but what I think they are really upset about is that she’s focused on creating headlines instead of getting results. She is talking a lot, but getting no action.”

Her campaign disputes Clark’s criticism. “Congresswoman Bachmann is out in the district every single day talking to voters. She’s been having this ongoing conversation for years so we don’t really need Tarryl Clark to be setting up public forums for us. Most people know where she stands on the positions.”

“Michele Bachmann was ahead of the curve. She was talking about a lot of the issues that have really come to animate the Tea Party and dominate the political discussion before they had the prominence that they do right now. In terms of the push back against the Obama agenda and the concerns over the encroachment of big government, a lot of what she was saying about that was previously deemed to be controversial is now considered to be the prevailing wisdom of the day,” said a former staffer who still holds his boss in high esteem, but does not have permission to speak on the record about her.

And it’s that national presence that has made her both a target at home and across the country, but it’s also what makes her a potential kingmaker in the new Congress. Jacobs thinks her door will be open to new members of Congress, “She is a pied piper so she may lead through example and helping them connect with sympathetic cable and online media.” For mama grizzlies and Tea Partiers heading to Washington for the first time, she may be an essential stop, but that’s only if she can maintain her lead in these next two weeks.

 

Shushannah Walshe covers politics for The Daily Beast. She is the co-author of Sarah From Alaska: The Sudden Rise and Brutal Education of a New Conservative Superstar. She was a reporter and producer at the Fox News Channel from August 2001 until the end of the 2008 presidential campaign.