WASHINGTON – During her last week on Capitol Hill, Rep. Michele Bachmann squished close to Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi for a holiday picture, told President Obama at the White House Christmas party that he should bomb Iran and strolled onto the floor of the House for a farewell speech in which she praised Moses as the original lawmaker.
After eight years on Capitol Hill, Bachmann leaves Congress a little bit as she entered: simultaneously polished and gaffe-prone, carrying a fiery message and always smiling.
“I’m feeling so happy and elated and really joyful,” she said in a recent interview before final votes in the 113th Congress. “I took advantage of every part of this opportunity … I kept the faith and did exactly what I told [voters] I was going to. I was extremely hardworking. I jumped in with both feet.”
Bachmann now is preparing for life after Congress and that includes maintaining her share of the political spotlight.
She won’t say exactly what she plans to do, but the Republican insists she will play a role in the 2016 presidential race — although not as a candidate. Always a prodigious fundraiser, Bachmann will keep her political action committee alive and plans to continue raising money.
“She has proved herself to be very articulate and in line with the conservative wing of the party,” said Scot Crockett, a conservative political strategist in Minnesota. “There are a ton of people and groups out there who are already doing a lot of that … but Michele Bachmann has a strong following and people will listen to her.”
Democrats have had a different reaction. When Bachmann first announced that she would not seek another term, the Democratic House Majority PAC said in a statement, “Michele Bachmann’s decision to retire from Congress is good news for the people of Minnesota and our nation.”
‘A nobody from nowhere’
Calling herself a “common ordinary person” and a “nobody from nowhere,” Bachmann pulled herself into politics through local Stillwater schools and then the state Legislature.
Upon arriving in Washington, the former IRS lawyer and foster mother became a nationally polarizing figure, known for her often scorching rhetoric on everything from vaccines to gay marriage. She founded a congressional Tea Party caucus and often stood up to members of her own party. She questioned whether Obama held “anti-American views” and called climate change “voodoo.” At one point, she sponsored the “Light Bulb Freedom of Choice Act,” rebelling against the government’s decision to phase out incandescents in favor of energy-saving bulbs.
In 2011, Bachmann launched a bid for the presidency and won the Ames Straw Poll in August that year. Her rise proved short-lived and she ultimately lost the Iowa caucuses — though not before forcing former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty from the field.
When she returned to her Republican-leaning congressional district, Bachmann found herself in a dogfight against a surprisingly strong Democratic competitor. She won, but by a tiny margin of just under 4,300 votes. Because of alleged campaign finance violations during her presidential run, Bachmann’s presidential campaign was under investigation at one point by the FBI, the Federal Election Commission, the U.S. House Ethics Committee, the Iowa Senate Ethics Committee and the Urbandale (Iowa) Police Department. The Office of Congressional Ethics last year found “substantial reason to believe” Bachmann failed to adequately oversee her political committees and she, and her staffers, may have misused political action committee money.
Leaving ‘knowledge factory’
Bachmann has always made the most of her time in Washington, gulping every opportunity as it came. She rarely skipped a rope line, cable news appearance, holiday party or government-sponsored trip to some foreign locale.
In the past year, she appeared on the Hallmark Channel to talk about knitting and adoption. She traveled to the Mexican border to glimpse the Rio Grande with Iowa Republican Rep. Steve King. She delivered one foreign policy address to Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., and another speech at England’s prestigious Oxford University.
She says one of her favorite memories was when she was shoved aside by Secret Service in the Capitol several years ago. She waited to see who was there and spied former President George W. Bush linked arm-in-arm with the Dalai Lama.
“He said, ‘Hey Michele, how are you doing?’ ” she recalled, saying both the sight itself and the fact the president knew her name took her breath away. “I was really surprised.”
Bachmann leaves Washington a bit wistful, calling the city a “knowledge factory.”
“I loved satiating my curiosity,” she said.
In her final weeks, Bachmann’s Capitol Hill office already had a new tenant. Her staffers were left to shuffle around in the basement, using smartphones instead of desktop computers.
Bachmann herself was busy relishing her last rounds, embarking a number of farewell stunts, including creating a BuzzFeed listicle of “16 things I’ll miss about being in Congress.” Among the items was a brief video of Bachmann rapping and swaying to the hip-hop single, “Thrift Shop.” A photo of her puffing on a cigar noted that she would miss “smoke-filled rooms,” while another showed her amid a crowd all clad in seersucker suits for “Seersucker Thursday.”
Mike McKenna, a Virginia-based Republican political strategist who has worked on a number of presidential campaigns, said Bachmann is “not someone people agree with, she’s someone people care about.” Bachmann’s appeal does not come from brilliant policy, McKenna said. “She’s not a genius,” he said. “She’s not even a political genius. But she’s always true to whatever it is she thinks.”
One bill passed
Bachmann was born in Iowa and moved to Minnesota as a child. Her mother and father divorced when she was young and her mother remarried and settled the blended family in Anoka. In college, she met her husband, Marcus, and she worked her way through law school. The couple had five kids and housed another couple dozen foster kids over several years. Though always intrigued by politics, Bachmann didn’t run for office until 1999, when she lost a school board race. She was a state senator for six years, before running for the U.S. House in the Sixth Congressional District in 2006.
Bachmann sponsored 64 bills in eight years and only one got signed by the president — a post office renaming. But she counts among her proudest accomplishments passage of the $700 million St. Croix River bridge project connecting Minnesota and Wisconsin. Much of her value, she said, has come in being a nationally prominent conservative voice.
She recalls a high point in 2009, when she asked people to come to Washington to protest the Affordable Care Act — which she always calls Obamacare — and tens of thousands of people crowded onto the steps of the Capitol, bearing signs that read “You Can’t Fix Stupid” and “Waterboard Congress.”
Said Bachmann: “I’m not a nasty person. I make reasoned arguments. I recognize that I’m not a dirty fighter. I don’t think I have an enemy here.”
Giving her farewell speech last week, Bachmann called the act of law-giving venerable and said it was no coincidence that the United States, enjoying happiness and prosperity, was built on the foundation of the Ten Commandments.
In a nod to Minnesota-born author and humorist Garrison Keillor, Bachmann said it had been a privilege to serve people in the Sixth, which she said was “known as Lake Wobegon country.” Standing alone on the House floor wearing a tan jacket, a scarf tied tightly around her neck, Bachmann called Minnesotans “the greatest people in this country … people where all the men are good looking and the children are above average. It is a state unlike any other.”
Allison Sherry • 202-383-6120