Undaunted in Defeat, Michele Bachmann Returns to Minnesota

Bachmann joins the handful of presidential candidates who lost with a bang, not a whimper, but picked themselves up to again present themselves as candidates for elective office.

02.22.12 9:02 PM ET

Michele Bachmann’s presidential campaign flamed out in spectacular style. After winning the Ames Straw Poll in August, the Minnesota congresswoman seemed poised to become the standard bearer for social conservatism in the Republican primary. Then, a series of devastating gaffes undermined her credibility, including her claims that the HPV vaccine could lead to mental retardation. She eventually finished sixth in the Iowa caucuses and dropped out of the race the next day. In the course of her campaign, she became a national punchline, parodied on Saturday Night Live for her “crazy eyes.” Now back in Minnesota, Bachmann is running for reelection to her seat in Congress. Her rough road places her among the handful of presidential candidates who lost their campaigns with a bang, not a whimper, but still picked themselves up again to present themselves before the voters as candidates for elective office. Among her peers:

After he narrowly lost the presidency in 2004, no one would have blamed Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry if, like Al Gore, he grew a beard and traveled the world. The trauma of swiftboating would have been enough to drive many into retirement. Instead, Kerry threw himself back into the work of the U.S. Senate and has since become chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He successfully stood for reelection in 2008 and shows every sign of soldiering on in public office—one rumored possibility might be replacing Hillary Clinton as secretary of state in a second Obama term—for years to come.

Texas Sen. Phil Gramm was an early frontrunner in the 1996 Republican primary. Like Bachmann, he finished first in the Ames Straw Poll (albeit in a tie with eventual nominee Bob Dole). But, unlike the Minnesota congresswoman, he also lapped the rest of the field in fundraising. Despite those advantages, he ended up finishing fifth in the Iowa caucuses, and then was forced to drop out prior to New Hampshire when he lost in Louisiana (which then held an early presidential contest) to Pat Buchanan. Gramm picked himself up and ran for reelection to the Senate. While this may have been good for Gramm, it quite possibly was far more detrimental to the nation. In his last term in the Senate, Gramm established his reputation as one of the main scapegoats for the financial crisis, overseeing massive deregulation of the banking industry as well as derivatives markets as chair of the Senate Banking Committee.

In a weak Democratic presidential field as Mario Cuomo and other party stars stayed out of the race, Tom Harkin seemed to have all the advantages. He was a Midwesterner from a swing state, with unvarnished liberal credentials and the backing of labor. Harkin had already defeated two incumbent Republican congressmen and one incumbent senator in his political career, and as the home-state favorite in the Iowa caucuses, he seemed poised for success. But it didn’t come. Harkin faded quickly and was superseded by other Democrats ranging from the far more charismatic Bill Clinton to the less-than-magnetic Paul Tsongas. However, Harkin returned to the Senate, where he has continued to build a career as a liberal warhorse, untainted by the collapse of his presidential hopes two decades ago.

Ted Kennedy took on Jimmy Carter in an exciting presidential primary where he pitted his charisma and loyal following against a tired, wounded, and unpopular incumbent president. Kennedy fell flat on his face. The only memorable moment he left behind was his defiant concession speech at the 1980 Democratic National Convention. It marked the end of his presidential hopes and allowed him free rein to return to the Senate as an elder statesman. (Although it did allow him free rein for “waitress sandwiches" as well.) As the “lion of the Senate,” Kennedy had a role in passing almost every major piece of legislation in his 30 remaining years in office before dying of cancer in 2009.

Gore Vidal famously asked, “Who present that famous day can ever forget those women with blue-rinsed hair and leathery faces and large costume jewelry and pastel-tinted dresses with tasteful matching accessories as they screamed ‘Lover!’ at Nelson?” The answer, of course, was the electorate of the state of New York, which twice reelected Nelson Rockefeller to the governorship after his defeat in the 1964 GOP presidential primary. While Rockefeller was rejected by his party for being far too liberal for its base—after all, he was the namesake of Rockefeller Republicanism—he found a home in New York politics. While he never succeeded at turning his wealth, charisma, and passion for governing into success at a national level, he, for better or worse, did shape New York state for decades to come.

John Breckinridge was a rising star in American politics who became the youngest vice president in history. But when he became the nominee of one faction of the imploding Democratic Party in 1860, he not only lost the resulting four-way race for the presidency but then had to preside over the U.S. Senate when the returns from the Electoral College were received. His office meant that he had to officially pronounce Abraham Lincoln the winner (a humiliation shared only by Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey, and Al Gore). Breckinridge then returned to Kentucky, where he was promptly elected to the U.S. Senate by the legislature. However, his Senate term was abbreviated. In less than a year, he was expelled for sympathizing with the Confederacy and fled south, where he became a general in the Confederate Army, an organization that also flamed out.