Rep. Michele Bachmann’s ascent from Minnesota state senator to U.S. congresswoman and Tea Party star to Republican presidential candidate is being turned against her as she battles in an unexpectedly tight reelection race.
Democratic challenger and political newcomer Jim Graves has tried to portray Bachmann as somebody whose ambition has resulted in her losing touch with Minnesota residents.
Voters “need somebody that can create jobs, not headlines,” Graves said Tuesday night in the candidates’ first debate.
Two of Washington’s top election handicappers – The Cook Political Report and The Rothenberg Political Report -- still think Bachmann will win a fourth term and have put the race in the “lean Republican” column.
But Graves, an entrepreneur and businessman, appears formidable, with the Cook report calling him “the strongest opponent (Bachmann) has ever faced.”
This week could be the determining factor, with one debate down and two more left to go.
And Bachmann is making an overt effort to rebut Graves’ claims, noting she has been living in, and later representing, Minnesota for practically her entire life.
Bachmann on Tuesday night responded to Grave’s absentee attack by saying she visits the district almost every weekend.
"I am here,” she added. “I am one of you. I've been in this district since I was in elementary school."
To be sure, Bachmann is a prolific fundraiser, making the House race one of the most expensive this election cycle, despite national parties and outside groups having spent little.
Bachmann raised about $13 million through mid-October, while Graves collected almost $2 million, including $520,000 from his own pocket.
Their campaign is playing out across the state’s conservative 6 congressional district, which stretches from the St. Cloud area to northern and western Twin Cities suburbs. The district grew more conservative when political boundaries were redrawn this year
Bachmann also continued with her attack on Graves as a big spender who would drive the country further into debt – a Bachmann TV ad calls him "Big Spending Jim."
The race is a far cry from the Republican presidential primary campaign Bachmann waged, in which she focused on national and international issues like Iran, the health care overhaul and immigration policy.
Much of the District 6 debate – and the overall race – has focused on a bridge between Minnesota and Wisconsin near Stillwater, Minn., which now lies outside the district's new boundaries.
During the debate, Bachmann name-dropped Democrats including Gov. Mark Dayton, Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi as she said she exercised bipartisan muscle to pass the bill that helped build the bridge.
"A miracle happened and we finally got it done," she said.
Graves said he wouldn't have voted for the bridge design that passed, calling it a Rolls Royce when a less expensive Chevy would have done.
The entire project is estimated to cost $580 million to $676 million.
The feisty debate crowd of several hundred appeared to have more Graves supporters, with some jeering Bachmann several times, including once when she claimed that taxes would go up if Graves were elected.
The candidates are slated to debate again on public radio, then local television.
Graves’ campaign manager Adam Graves suggested the campaign wasn’t banking on a game-changer for them at the remaining debates – but wasn’t ruling it out either.
“We’re not expecting a surprise, but we wouldn’t be surprised,” campaign manager Adam Graves said Wednesday. “She’s a provocative individual, which is great for fundraising but that has not produced one net job in this district over the past six years.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.