Wellstone of the Right?

With Democratic Sen. Mark Dayton retiring, Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty in a heated re-election battle, and two open U.S. House seats, Minnesota is surely a venue for hot political stories this year.

In the 6th District (suburban St. Paul), one of the two open House districts, competition to succeed the certain Republican Senate candidate, three-term Rep. Mark Kennedy, is intense. Smelling a pickup, district Democrats are likely to nominate Patty Wetterling, a math teacher who drew 46% of the vote against Kennedy (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 92%) in ’04. In that race, Wetterling impressed observers by raising more than $2 million, in good part because of her reputation as founder of the Wetterling Foundation, which helps missing children. Following a brief flirtation with the Senate race early this year, liberal Democrat Wetterling dropped down to again run in the 6th District.

Among Republicans, the favorite for nomination at the May 6 district party convention is State Sen. Michele Bachmann, a federal tax attorney and swashbuckling conservative. Her three rivals are State Representatives Phil Krinkie and Jim Knoblach, and businessman and political newcomer Jay Esmay. Although all four contenders are considered conservatives on social and economic issues, the 51-year-old Bachmann has secured about 65% of the delegates so far selected for the district convention. (Up to now, about one-third of the district convention delegates have been chosen.).

“What’s particularly interesting,” Bachmann told me during a recent visit to Washington, “is that they come from areas I didn’t expect to do so well in. My best precinct conventions [to choose delegates to the district conclave] have yet to be held.” (Taking a page from the book of Pawlenty — who went into the race for governor four years ago after securing the convention endorsement and avoiding a primary — the four GOP candidates for the U.S. House nod have all signed a written pledge to accept the endorsement of the convention and not challenge the winner in a primary.)

Why is Bachmann showing such political muscle, pundits and pols wonder, when there is little noticeable difference between her and her GOP rivals? Bachmann herself offered this answer: “When the unions and other liberals fight me every year and I don’t bend on anything, the grass roots takes notice. Referring to late out-spoken Minnesota Democratic Sen.] Paul Wellstone,” she quipped, “You might say I’m something like a Wellstone of the right.”

Abolish the Department of Education?

The mother of five and foster parent of 23 got her political start leading grass-roots opposition to the Clinton Administration’s “Goals 2000” program that would have vastly enhanced the U.S. Department of Education’s control over local public schools and their programs. In 2000, Bachmann challenged Republican State Sen. Gary Laidig, a 28-year-veteran of the legislature, for renomination. Recalled the fledgling conservative candidate: “I didn’t know much about elective politics, but I knew Laidig was a RINO [Republican In Name Only] and needed a challenge. To my surprise, I won the convention endorsement with 61% of the vote.”

After two years confronting Democrats in St. Paul, Sen. Bachmann became what she calls “the No.1 target for elimination in redistricting.” The portion of her district in which she lived was merged with a heavily Democratic district represented for the past ten years by Democratic Sen. Jane Krentz. With vigorous support from teachers’ unions, Planned Parenthood and environmentalists (who named Bachmann one of the “Toxic Twelve” in the legislature), Krentz had a major advantage in campaign funds. But the Republican, who had an advantage in volunteers and shoe leather, won by a decisive nine percentage points.

In her race for Congress, the vivacious Bachmann is more like most of the House Republicans in the so-called “Gingrich Class” that seized the majority in 1994 than a George W. Bush Republican. Not only is she vigorously opposed to the President’s “No Child Left Behind” program (“It’s a bad idea — not much different from ‘Goals 2000.'”) and still endorses abolishing the U.S. Department of Education — a cause once trumpeted by conservatives running for Congress and a plank in past national Republican platforms, but little discussed in recent GOP campaigns. Bachmann also sports a 100% lifetime rating from Minnesota Citizens for Life.

Discussing the political history of her state, Bachmann pointed out that Minnesota has elected only two women to Congress and both were Democrats: Coya Knudsen (1956-58), famed for the 1958 campaign in which her abusive husband successfully called for her defeat, using the slogan “Coya, Come Home,” and present Rep. Betty McCollum, who has served since 2000. Noting that a race against Wetterling will mean either another Democratic woman in Congress from the Gopher State or a first-ever female Republican, Bachmann said with a smile: “It’s time to make history.”


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