ELK RIVER, Minn. -- Some 25 people were on hand at the 6th Congressional District candidates' forum as Tarryl Clark began her pitch.
"It's really unfortunate that Congresswoman Bachmann couldn't be here, even though Congress is out of session," the Democratic state senator said as independent candidate Bob Anderson sat mutely at her side. "I am running, frankly, because I think Washington still isn't working for us, and I don't think your congresswoman is either."
Two nights earlier, the congresswoman in question, Michele Bachmann, sat before an enthusiastic crowd of 400 conservative supporters in Minneapolis -- in the next congressional district from hers. They had turned out to see the founder of the House Tea Party Caucus
at the "Reclaiming America: The Taking Back Congress Tour
," even as the Minnesota Twins played a few blocks away in the second of their doomed
playoff games with the Yankees.
"This is probably the most disliked Republican in Congress," conservative radio host Dennis Prager said to cheers. Bachmann, wearing a brown dress with a big polka-dot bow at the waist, took a curtsy. "I actually think your being a female and being as good-looking as you are is a major factor," he went on. "That your intelligence and values should come in such a beautiful package disturbs the liberals and the left tremendously."
Whether looks will play a factor on Nov. 2 is debatable. But the most popular Republican woman after Sarah Palin
and her equally telegenic
Democratic challenger have attracted more money to their campaigns than any other House match-up this year.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics
(CRP), by mid-summer Bachmann and Clark had raised more than $7 million between them. More recent reports
show the two-term incumbent has raised $7.5 million alone, while Clark's campaign said this week she had surpassed the $3 million mark.
Given her national celebrity, it isn't surprising that slightly more than half of Bachmann's donations come from out of state, according to a breakdown
by CRP. More than 80 percent of Clark's money is from Minnesotans, although she has benefited from national appeals by party heavyweights like former President Bill Clinton and liberal groups such as EMILY's List
Considering the piles of cash being heaped on the 6th District at a time when the average House campaign
costs just over $1 million, a casual observer might conclude the race is tight. Yet, so far, it is not.
The most recent poll
showed Bachmann with a comfortable nine-point lead over Clark.
No Bigger Target
It would be difficult to find a more high-profile Republican incumbent that Democrats would more like to beat this year than Michele Bachmann. She drives progressives crazy
with her sometimes questionable
statements on cable TV, where a University of Minnesota study
last year calculated she appeared on average once every nine days.
In 2008, Bachmann said on "Hardball
" that Barack Obama "may have anti-American views" and called for an investigation of members of Congress to find out if they were "pro-America." In the next four days, more than $1 million poured into the campaign of her until-then obscure Democratic opponent, Elwyn Tinklenberg. He came within three percentage points of Bachmann, the narrowest re-election margin for a House GOP incumbent that year.
"Sometimes she may get carried away with the rhetoric," said Daryl Thompson, an Elk River salesman, "but we really need someone in Washington who will represent the 6th District in a less-government fashion."
Barring another late-breaking gaffe and what University of Minnesota political scientist Larry Jacobs calls "a perfect storm" of low Republican and high Democratic turnout, it seems unlikely Clark can prevail.
The 6th stretches from the Wisconsin border, wraps around the northern suburbs of Minneapolis and St. Paul and extends west beyond working-class St. Cloud -- Clark's hometown. It is the state's most conservative district. There are liberal pockets -- Bachmann lives in blue-leaning Stillwater -- but voters in the district preferred John McCain for president over Obama by seven points.
Clark is on the Democratic campaign committee's targeted "red to blue
" list, but party strategists in Washington privately write off her chances. That hasn't stopped rank-and-file Democrats from giving generously to the assistant majority leader of the Minnesota state senate if it will help defeat the much-reviled lightening rod for liberal rage.
That's unlikely, said Eric Ostermeier, author of the Smart Politics
blog at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs: "They picked the wrong fight based on their emotions."
Clark is "running as good a campaign as you can, but the odds are against her," said David Schultz, a political scientist at Hamline University in St. Paul. "This is a Republican year in a highly Republican district and Bachmann represents the conservative values of that district."
Brad Yorkman, an Elk River home-school supply store owner, echoed several constituents interviewed in saying he liked Bachman's "candor" and the way she "tells it like it is." He said her fiscal and social conservatism matches his own and criticized Clark and other Democrats for wanting to increase the size of government and his tax bill.
"The liberal arm of Congress wants to get any conservatives they can out," he said. "This is an important race because of the differences in their values."
Ostermeier said Clark's only hope is to convince voters that Bachmann is too conservative for even the 6th. He has written
that while the district is the 128th most conservative in the nation, Bachmann's voting record is the 28th most conservative
in the House of Representatives.
Clark made that case in an interview. She said Bachmann has lost touch with her constituents as she has traveled around "crusading" and appearing on national TV.
"She has made this a national race. She's a bit confused about what she's running for," Clark said. "She's been running around the country ginning people up, ginning the right-wing extremists up and been raising a lot of money off of it." In the meantime, Clark insists, she is now "in striking distance" of the incumbent.
Bachmann shuns the mainstream national media
and turned down an interview request. She also has shunned Clark and Anderson, the Independence Party candidate who is drawing 6 percent in polls. The incumbent recently agreed to three debates
but only in the final week of the campaign.
Which is not to say the two major party candidates aren't "talking" to and about each other. The campaigns have waged a high-tech war of tweets
, targeted cellphone ads
, sarcastic websites
and dueling commercials.
Bachmann's first ads featured "Jim the election guy
," an actor talking about "Taxing Tarryl." Clark responded on YouTube with actual constituents, or "Real Jims
," who dissed their congresswoman for taking money from BP and Wall Street.
Most recently, Clark dispensed with Minnesota nice in a video
that accuses Bachmann of standing up for special interests while "not doing @#%! for the people of the sixth district."
"That was bold and gutsy and probably a good way to raise money nationally," said Jennifer Lawless, an expert on women and politics at American University in Washington.
But Schultz said the race is "barely about any real issues. It's more ugly personality attacks."
Interviews with voters reveal disgust with the mud-slinging, but it's not clear what impact it will have.
Mary Woodley of Cottage Grove is a staunch Republican who watches Glenn Beck and has voted for Bachmann in the past. But an ad by an outside group
accusing her of wanting to "privatize" Medicare and a Clark spot saying the lawmaker wants to "wean
" seniors from Social Security has raised questions and left the 59-year-old wanting to know more.
Even if Clark doesn't win, if she can sow doubt in voters' minds to narrow the Republican's winning margin, that will speak volumes about Bachmann's political future. That could include an ideological dream grudge match in 2014 with liberal Sen. Al Franken or, if the GOP retakes control of Congress next month, a more prominent role in leadership.
"If she wins by a large margin, that shores up her credentials in the House even more," Lawless said. "If she underperforms, even if she wins, that sends a message that maybe the talking heads that the Republicans are deploying need to change."