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Michele Bachmann faces toughest test yet against challenger Jim Graves

11:02 AM, Oct 24, 2012   |    comments
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Annandale, Minnesota (CNN) -- Jim Graves strolled down Main Street in his pressed shirt with French cuffs and skinny jeans, a dapper enigma in a land of flannels and Wranglers. He stuck out his hand to introduce himself to a ruffian in a wheelchair scooter.

The two talked politics before the stranger confessed he's an anarchist who believes Americans should be allowed to kill three people a day. "That would take care of the idiots REALLLLLL fast," the man said with a chuckle.

Not the typical conversation for a millionaire hotel magnate, who's more prone to discuss bed-sheet thread count than shooting folks. But when people know you're running for Congress, apparently no topic is off limits. A bit exasperated, Graves wished the man well and quickly departed.

Graves isn't gunning for just any seat. He's the Democratic challenger to Michele Bachmann, the firebrand darling of the tea party running for a fourth term.

New to the political scene, Graves doesn't mince words. Bachmann is running scared, he told me, avoiding him at all costs and refusing to debate him until a week before the November election.

"It's just a fact she doesn't want to meet," Graves said. "We've asked her to come on with us, anywhere, anytime, and we'll be there."

Asked about this, Bachmann responded, "Well, phooey. ... I'm not afraid at all."

If America is polarized like never before, few congressional races represent this divide more than the battle going on here. I don't typically cover politics, but this one was too good to resist: a businessman who made millions by accommodating guests at his hotels versus a politician who Fox News host Sean Hannity has described as one of the women most feared by liberals in America.

I traveled to the 6th District of Minnesota to meet both candidates and take the pulse of the race. Bible verses course through the veins of most residents, from the evangelical base in suburban Blaine -- just north of the Twin Cities -- through the rural countryside on northward to the Catholics of St. Cloud, a city anchored by several colleges.

The biggest issue here, like the rest of the nation, is the economy. The district's unemployment rate hovers around 6%, well below the national average of nearly 8%, but it also has the highest foreclosure rate in Minnesota -- a sign there aren't enough high-paying jobs and that residents are struggling to pay their bills.

The district also is highly Republican, very conservative and nearly all white. But even in her home base, there's no shortage of opinion of Bachmann.

Defender of the Constitution. Nut job. Saint. Ol' Miss Crazy Eyes.

You hear it all.

"I hope she gets her ass kicked," said one Minnesotan, one of the few dissenters who met Bachmann during one of her campaign stops.

Few people stoke the ire of liberals like the three-term congresswoman, who last year was a GOP presidential favorite for her anti-tax, political-correctness-be-damned approach. She took on President Bush over his Wall Street bailout. She blasted President Obama when he asked for more bailout money. And she's been one of the most vocal critics of Obamacare, saying it will bankrupt the middle class if it's not repealed.

This summer, Bachmann angered Democrats -- and even some Republicans -- when she suggested the Muslim Brotherhood had infiltrated the U.S. government under Obama. She's unabashed and unapologetic, saying the recent unrest in Libya, Egypt and the Mideast only underscores her conviction.

"I've been proven right in the tragic events of this last month. The Muslim Brotherhood is not the Lutheran Brotherhood," she told Minnesota Public Radio reporter Conrad Wilson during a stop at Buffalo Wild Wings in St. Cloud.

"Political correctness," she told me later, "is a problem. ... We cannot subordinate national security to abide by political correctness. But also political correctness is killing the economy, and it's hurting job creation and innovation. The rest of the world isn't standing still while we're being politically correct."

Democrats believe Graves, 59, poses the best challenge yet to Bachmann, especially because there is no independent in the race. In Bachmann's closest race, in 2008, she won 46% to 43% against her Democratic rival, with an independent getting 10% of the vote. In 2010, Bachmann stomped her Democratic opponent by 13 percentage points.

If Bachmann has alienated independents and socially liberal Republicans while seeking higher office, Democrats hope those voters will gravitate toward Graves. He sounds Republican on many fiscal issues, and because he's never held public office he doesn't have a voting record that could be skewered by conservatives.

That hasn't stopped an avalanche of spin. Bachmann ads have dubbed him Big Spending Jim in lockstep with House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, whose name here is treated with lips curled, like the dirtiest of words. The Bachmann camp has even launched a website, www.bigspendingjim.com.

"I don't care what Michele Bachmann calls me," Graves said. "In business there's a term for smoke and mirrors: It's called bankruptcy. You don't play around with budgets. You're serious about them. ... The last thing we want in a salesperson is somebody who goes and divides and separates and antagonizes and lacks civility and throws verbal grenades at different people, because that doesn't help get the thing done. You've got to bring people together. That's how we've always done it in business.

"I think that Rep. Bachmann is just inexperienced. In deference to her, she doesn't understand business. She doesn't understand budgeting, but then again: Why should she?"

He smiled from beneath his Ray Bans. In nonpolitically correct terms, he just dished out a verbal can of whoop-ass. During one campaign stop, he handed out buttons: "I dig Graves."

Just whose political grave will be dug will be determined by voters in November.

Bachmann, 56, described Graves as a liberal whose support of abortion rights and same-sex marriage run counter to the views of the district.

"This race will offer a clear, stark choice between what my opponent stands for and what I stand for," Bachmann said.

She's proud to carry the mantle of chairwoman of the Tea Party Caucus and said she'll go to bat for the policies that have kept her in office the last six years.

The tea party "really does represent the views of mainstream America, certainly this district, because there are three things the tea party stands for: We believe we're taxed enough already; we believe the government shouldn't spend more money than it takes in; and we believe the government should follow the Constitution."

She added, "Liberals are liberals. That's just who they are. They'd love to see my voice silenced."

It's impossible to know just how close the race is, though apparently it's tightening. Two non-partisan political handicappers -- the Cook Political Report and the Rothenberg Political Report -- have moved their ranking of the contest from likely Republican earlier this year to now lean Republican.

Polling from the Graves campaign last month showed Bachmann with a 2-percentage point lead, 48%-46%, a statistical dead heat because it's within the margin of error. The Bachmann campaign refused to disclose its polling; the congresswoman acknowledged it's a tough race, but one she expects to win.

"Democrats are salivating at the idea of taking out Michele Bachmann," said Kathryn Pearson, associate professor of political science at the University of Minnesota. "On the other hand, she's a fundraising machine. If she needs any money, it won't be hard to raise it. So it's an interesting race, but it's an uphill battle for Graves."

What is clear, the race for the 6th District has the Bachmann camp in overdrive. Her campaign raised about $1.1 million in July alone, and expects to spend well over $10 million for the course of the campaign. By comparison, the Graves campaign has raised about $1.5 million for the entire race, including $520,000 of his own money.

About 20 Bachmann supporters -- ranging in age from College Republicans to retirees -- crowd an office in Blaine to place about 1,100 calls around the district every night, Monday through Thursday. They fill out bubble sheets that are then fed through a computer for instant voter analysis.

Every time a Bachmann supporter is reached, volunteers ring a bell.

Ding. Ding. Ding.

"I honestly believe this woman's a saint," said Pamela Larson, a Bachmann volunteer with the Christian Motorcycle Association. "I just think she's the most wonderful, selfless servant as far as working for the government and taking our concerns to Washington."

More bells ring. Another supporter reached.

From math teacher to hotel magnate

When you're challenging a political heavyweight, your every move is followed. Literally. The Graves campaign has dubbed their stalker "Tracker Mike," a fresh-faced college grad and Bachmann supporter who stands about 5 feet away from Graves at events with a handheld video camera. Anything to catch him in a gotcha moment -- a slip of the tongue, a frown on his face, picking his nose.

"You got a busy day today?" Graves asked Tracker Mike during a festival at Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge.

"It depends on your day," Tracker Mike responded.

"When you stick to what you believe in," Graves said later, "it isn't stressful at all as far as somebody having a camera in your face. It doesn't bother me. I just ignore it.

"The primary issue is that the 6th District needs good, quality, on-the-ground representation," Graves said, "and it just hasn't been there during her tenure in Congress. She isn't representing the people. She's representing her own ideologies and own platforms that don't resonate and don't directly correlate with the needs of the district. We think it's very important for somebody to be from the 6th District and get things done."

Graves doesn't just criticize Bachmann; he's equally harsh on President Obama for using what he calls class warfare to divide the nation. Since when was it such a bad thing, the millionaire pondered, to work hard and become successful in this nation?

"Where I differ most with Obama is on the tenor of his approach at times. An example: discussion on the Buffett Rule. I would never approach that as a class warfare issue," he said. "I come from business, so I approach it from that perspective: We know the best way to bring an enemy into our camp is to make them our friends.

"I think the president could've gotten a little more done if he had reached across the aisle and worked a little bit more. Again, I'm being very candid. People may not want to hear that, but that's what I believe."

On other key issues, he believes the Wall Street bailouts were necessary, contrary to Bachmann. "The whole system could've rolled down, and the whole world was looking at us, at America, to hold it up," Graves said.

He also supports portions of Obamacare, namely the pre-existing conditions provision and allowing children to stay on their parents' plans until the age of 26. "People ask me all the time: 'Would you ever vote against it?' What I say is: 'Well, sure I would if there was something better.'"

Graves' narrative is the apple-pie American success story.

He worked in a factory grinding and polishing lenses at age 15 to pay for his tuition at Cathedral High School in St. Cloud, then labored as a janitor before classes at St. Cloud State University. He met his future wife, Julie, while rehearsing for the musical "Hello Dolly" in high school; they've been married nearly 40 years. He and Julie played music in bars to help make ends meet during college. He strummed the guitar; she sang.

His first full-time job was at a Catholic elementary school in St. Cloud, where he taught for two years. "What I remember most," said Sandy Oltz, one of his former students, "is he wasn't strictly by the book. He taught us math and arithmetic and reading and the Bible, but he also wanted us to know what the world was really like."

Graves got his big break when the father of one of his students asked if he would join him in a business development. He and Julie had two young sons, with a third boy on the way, and $2,000 in the bank. On a hunch, he quit teaching. The first project went well, and Graves began taking risks on his own. He found investors, started with three restaurants, then dabbled in the agricultural business before starting the Midwest hotel chain AmericInn, a name he chose for patriotic loyalty after the 1979 Iran hostage crisis.

The chain flourished, and Graves soon owned more than 60 hotels across the Midwest. It wasn't an overnight success. There were many Christmas Eves early on, he said, when he wondered if he'd make payroll. He sold out for millions in 1993 and moved into the luxury hotel and condo development business. His Graves 601 Hotel is one of the signature hotels in downtown Minneapolis, frequented by NBA stars and socialites.

His net worth stands between $22 million and $111 million, according to his House financial disclosure form, which allows for wide ranges in reporting one's wealth.

When Graves decided to expand his luxury business into Chicago and New York, some questioned his business acumen. "The barriers are one step below insurmountable," hotel consultant Kirby Payne told the Star Tribune in 2005. "I'm not sure why he wants to do this. Is it ego?"

Many have wondered the same thing now: Why would a guy who has everything throw his hat into the political ring against a juggernaut like Bachmann?

He wasn't even thinking of running for Congress in January. But he said he was watching a cable news show this spring when the host asked why "good people" weren't going into public office.

"My wife and I looked at each other, and I said, 'Why don't we try to help make a change?'"

There were two other Democrats in the race already. After meeting with both, he decided to join the race and the other two quickly bowed out.

If the Bachmann campaign is a well-oiled, well-financed machine, the Graves' camp is very much a family affair, largely run out of their hybrid vehicles, which overflow with buttons and other campaign material. His son, Adam, took a sabbatical from teaching religious thought at Metropolitan State University of Denver to run his father's campaign. He has begun calling his dad "Jim" to sound more professional, but admits it's weird.

On a recent Saturday, the family traversed more than 100 miles across the district to try to meet voters. They hit a festival at the wildlife refuge, an Alzheimer's walk in St. Cloud (Graves' mother suffers from the debilitating disease), a stroll through downtown Annandale and a visit to Minnesota Pioneer Park -- where about two dozen old folks, some in bonnets, gathered for a celebration.

"I hope he wins," said Doris Ashwill, 91. "I just shake my head at her. Radical isn't the word. What do they call the ones who go backwards? ... Reactionary, that's what she is."

The night ended with a fundraiser for the Paramount Theatre in downtown St. Cloud. More than 700 people jammed inside the theater, dancing and swaying as local bands played classic rock.

Graves, his wife and close friends took in the scene. Campaign treasurer Peter Donohue pointed out the festive mood of the largely Democratic crowd in the land of Bachmann. "These are the people Michele Bachmann represents," he said facetiously.

On stage, the bass kicked in and a woman crooned, "Barracuda."

Disappointed by Democrats

Long before Michele Bachmann became a political rock star -- the first Republican woman to represent Minnesota in Congress -- she and her then-boyfriend Marcus campaigned for Jimmy Carter when he was running for president in 1976.

She was a senior in college at Winona State. The two were captivated by Carter's status as a born-again Christian and his selection of Minnesota's Walter Mondale as his running mate.

"We were very proud that our favorite son, Walter Mondale, was chosen as vice president," Bachmann said. "And so we volunteered to work on the presidential campaign. It was my first presidential election. ... So I was proud to go and work for him. (Marcus) and I did. We danced at the inaugural ball."

But the enthusiasm for Carter quickly dissipated amid an energy crisis, the Iran hostage taking and a floundering economy. "We just decided we couldn't support him any more. And we voted for Ronald Reagan in 1980 and never looked back."

In hindsight, she said, she's not shocked at her younger self. That college senior was "very reflective of Minnesota," she said, a person who believed the Democratic Party "was the party of the little guy."

"I think it was at one time, but it isn't any more," she said. "And today, I think the party of the little guy is the Republican Party -- because it's really about traditional values, it's about a strong military presence and it's also about the economy and making sure that there truly is competition. You can have free markets. That's what the Republican Party stands for. That's what we thought the Democrat Party used to stand for."

Bachmann's parents were Democrats. They divorced in 1970 when she was about 14. After the split she was raised by her mother, who struggled to pay bills. The young Bachmann babysat for 50 cents an hour to help make ends meet. (One of the girls she babysat, Gretchen Carlson, went on to become Miss America in 1989 and later the co-host of "Fox and Friends.")

The lessons instilled by her mother -- of working hard, saving money and believing in God's loving hand -- have never left her.

"So many of the things that have happened in the last four years really hurt people in this district," she said. "I care about them, because I came from a family where I had a single mom; we were below poverty. I don't want anybody to have to live like that. It's no fun. I've been there, and I want to make sure people have opportunities."

The former Miss Congeniality of Anoka swept into state politics in 2000, quickly becoming known as one of the most conservative state legislators for her stances against abortion and homosexuality -- positions she has defended in the halls of Congress to the ire of Democrats, independents and socially liberal Republicans.

The mother of five children has created countless enemies along the way. Her anti-gay stance has caused a divide within her family; one of her stepsisters is a lesbian. Bachmann once hid behind bushes at a gay rights rally, her opponents contend, and her husband's counseling clinic has been vilified by gay rights activists as a place where they try to "pray the gay away."

While liberals are licking their chops at the prospect of Graves etching her political epitaph, Bachmann has no plans of going anywhere.

"I'm a very consistent person. I don't run for popularity contests. What you see is what you get," she said. "I don't promise one thing here in the district and then go differently to vote in Washington."

Running for the Republican presidential nomination, she said, was the "hardest thing I've ever done in my life," but she was buoyed by supporters and her conviction to overturn Obamacare.

"It's worth it because the country is so magnificent. It's worth fighting for. That's why I ran. Because I want to make sure that it's everything it was when I was growing up."

Bachmann rose to the front of the GOP presidential pack in August 2011 after winning a straw poll in Iowa. Months later, she dropped out after a poor finish in the Iowa caucuses.

Now, back home, she's basking in the district's anti-establishment beliefs. The more she's mocked by Jon Stewart, the more New York Times op-eds condemn her beliefs, the more her base rallies.

"The roaring 1990s are over, unfortunately. We now need to concentrate on saving this nation, and Michele is a wonderful individual that cares very much about doing that," said Matthew Coombes, a volunteer who drove from Massachusetts to pitch in.

In the 6th District, it's easy to see why she's loved by many. She's charismatic, engaging, even charming to complete strangers. When she walks into a room, all eyes turn toward her. She sticks out her hand and introduces herself: "Hi, I'm Michele."

Bachmann dished up a round of chicken wings to Kim Saatzer's table during a stop at Buffalo Wild Wings in St. Cloud. "She's just fighting for our freedom," the 49-year-old Saatzer said. "If you take God out of this country, this country is going under."

From there, she met with workers at J-Berd Mechanical Contractors, who told her of being audited three times in three years, which they said was a sign of an overzealous government cracking down on small businesses. That's the No. 1 complaint among business owners: regulatory burdens stifling job growth, Bachmann told the employees.

"Don't you think they could find somebody else they could go and look at once in a while?" she asked.

She spun through St. Cloud for a quick hit on a conservative radio show, "Ox in the Afternoon," where she picked up the endorsement of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. While at the radio station, she criticized the administration for underestimating the turmoil in the Mideast, for spending "billions and billions more staying in a lost cause" in Afghanistan, and for budgetary overspending.

"That's the real problem in America right now," she told the radio audience. "Government has no interest or willingness to balance its books. ... All of us have to. Only the federal government keeps trying to figure out ways to print money it doesn't have, and that puts all of us at risk."

She then toured a high-tech business and hobnobbed with powerful Republicans before settling in with supporters to watch the first presidential debate at a call center in the town of St. Michael. There were hisses and gasps when Obama spoke, cheers when Romney offered up his beat-down.

That same night, her opponent hosted Rep. Barney Frank, the Massachusetts Democrat despised by Bachmann. She's seeking to repeal Dodd-Frank, the set of banking reforms that Obama pushed for and Congress passed in the wake of the nation's financial crisis.

"So, this is my opponent's new mentor in Congress," Bachmann said, working her supporters into a frenzy of "Wowwwwwwws."

"Thank God, Barney Frank is timing out," she said, referring to Frank's decision not to run for re-election.

The crowd clung to her every word, ready for her looming showdown with Graves. She loved the moment, said it was inspiring to be home. "Just remember," Bachmann said, "the only way we repeal Obamacare is this year."

"We have to!" one woman shouted.

"Hey, that's a great option," Bachmann said. "I'm grateful we got it, because the Supreme Court completely let us down. They upheld this completely unconstitutional bill, unfortunately. But now, it's up to the American people. Now, we've got a chance."

She urged them to hit the call centers in droves, tell their friends, neighbors, relatives the importance of this election. "Call your little heart out between now and election night, because it's that important," she said. "We only have one chance at this."

"Count me in," another woman shouted.

Before leaving, Bachmann said she was more energized than ever for an election.

Graves and Bachmann are on a collision course for their first of three debates, beginning October 30.

"I have to confess," Graves told me, "over the years, I've said I wish I could sit down and debate that woman."

But he couldn't help but wonder if she'd avoid him yet again. "Hopefully, she'll show up," he said.

Bachmann said she's sticking to the script she's followed in previous races, with debates waiting until the end -- a point that has driven Democrats crazy. "These are the debates we've always set up; these are the debates we always do," she said. "I look forward to that."

Game on.

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