Religion to Resentment: Michele Bachmann's Appeal

The morning before her much-lauded debate performance in New Hampshire last month, Michele Bachmann was courting a gathering of more than 40 small business owners in the town of Amherst.

At the luncheon, Bachmann stuck to the economy and the failures of the Obama administration, and this pro-business crowd loved it.

“Her fiscal responsibility in Congress has been tremendous,” said luncheon hostess Glynis Citarelli, a photographer who supported Rudy Giuliani in 2008 but now identifies as a conservative rather than Republican. In putting together the guest list, Citarelli targeted small business owners who had been supporting Mitt Romney or Tim Pawlenty, and she left many won over.

Bachmann’s fiscally focused pitch underscores that in New Hampshire, unlike Iowa, her supporters are more drawn to her conservative fiscal bonafides than her positions on social issues.

“This time around the social issues need to be put away and focus on the economy,” Citarelli said. “Social issues aren’t on my list of priorities.”

But how is it that Michele Bachmann, a candidate who rose to prominence in Minnesota state politics based in large part on her outspoken stand against gay marriage, who went to a Christian law school that was the pre-cursor to Pat Robertson’s Regents University, who’s said God called her to run for Congress and called herself a “fool for Christ” while addressing a church during her first campaign – how is she not getting boxed in as a social issues candidate?

Because her central talking point isn’t so much a policy position—on budgets or social issues—but an attitude of alienation and anger.

Religious Right Roots

When Michele Bachmann first ran for political office in 1999, she campaigned against a state curriculum that she viewed as an example of government overreach. A year later, she challenged a Republican incumbent for the state Senate, and won. In the legislature, she drew attention and headlines for her vigorous opposition to gay marriage and abortion rights.

From the earliest days, then, her political career has always included the comingling of sharp skepticism about government with aggressive stances on conservative social issues. But during her time in Minnesota, the culture war positions were much more front and center.

“Michele Bachmann’s career in Minnesota was launched and sustained by her focus on social issues,” said Larry Jacobs, a political scientist who directs the University of Minnesota’s Center for the Study of Politics and Governance. And she’s leveraged them quite effectively. Going back to that first campaign for school board, Jacobs said Bachmann demonstrated a unique talent for mobilizing evangelical churchgoers who he says were “disengaged” from Republican politics in the state. Her outreach “gave them a focal point, an identity, and a candidate to project themselves into a real force in Minnesota politics.”

Bachmann drew on that support in her first run for Congress in 2006, when she won 50 percent of the vote in a three-way race for an open seat.

“Suit up, sign up. It’s worth everything,” Bachmann told the Living World Christian Church during that campaign, as seen here in a video posted by an anti-Bachmann blog. Her pitch blended a call for political activism with her own testimony about living her Christian faith. “It will change you, and it will change our world,” she said.

The pastor who followed her back up stage thanked Bachmann, reminded congregants of the deadline to register to vote at the church, and pointed them to voter guides. “I don’t want any more letters about church and politics don’t mix,” he added. “If that’s your opinion, then you need to get saved.”

Bachmann has continued to access that direct line to evangelical voters, even as she’s put more of her focus on budget and fiscal issues.

She continues regular interviews with Christian broadcasting outlets, where she continues to emphasize the deep connection she sees between evangelical faith and conservative politics. As a Congresswoman, she praised Beverly LaHaye, the founder of evangelical lobby group Concerned Women for America as “an extraordinary woman who has completely abandoned herself to the will of God” in a 2009 Christian Examiner article.  And when asked about her hopes for own legacy in a profile last year on the Christian Broadcasting Network’s 700 Club, Bachmann teared up as she answered, “that I was faithful. That I have done what the Lord has called me to do.”

That strategy has allowed her to widen her pitch to focus more pointedly on fiscal and budget issues while bringing along her evangelical base.

“She’s looking to broaden her message, even while the social conservative groups have a good understanding of where she’s coming from,” said Jacobs.  

And in this early phase of her presidential campaign, it also sets up a way around the Huckabee problem – the potential fall-off of support from Iowa to New Hampshire, where independents also vote in primaries and social issues aren’t as potent a driver at the polls. And Bachmann’s brought on people to her campaign who felt that problem acutely, including many alums of Huckabee 2008 campaign, including national campaign director Ed Rollins and former Iowa political director Wes Enos.

“It’s a sophisticated political strategy. She is not going to get boxed in to the abortion issue, or something like that,” said Bill Prendergast, a liberal Minnesota blogger and Bachmann critic who has chronicled her career for years. And he said she it’s long been part of Bachmann’s approach. “She was always acceptable and courting the Rush Limbaugh base of secular conservatives. That’s not a new thing for Bachmann at all.”

And while she has long cultivated relationships with evangelical political powerhouses like Focus on the Family, there is no Minnesotan svengali with a master plan behind the curtain. Her career, and her hard-charging approach, is the making of Bachmann and her husband.

“There is no Karl Rove in the Michele Bachmann corner calling the shots,” Jacobs said. “And she has risen through her own ingenuity, strategic maneuvering and toughness, through Minnesota politics and onto the national scene.”

And at the heart of that toughness has been never flinching from a fight – an attitude that is deeply resonating with conservative voters anxious about the future of America.

The Ron Paul Model

When Karen Testerman first noticed Michele Bachmann in the spring of 2009, when she repeatedly and pointedly asked Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke to point to the constitutional basis for the government response to the financial crisis

Testerman, a conservative New Hampshire activist and former Republican gubernatorial candidate, liked Bachmann’s style, that uncompromising tenacity. “That’s sometimes what we’re missing in political circles when they try to negotiate and not standing up for their particular values and their character,” she said. She saw that appeal again at the house party she hosted for Bachmann over Memorial Day – an energy she compared to Bill Clinton’s.

During the first months of the Obama administration, it wasn’t just Bachmann who was getting more attention in Washington. So were the libertarian-leaning economic policies of Texas Rep. Ron Paul. Bachmann became a regular attendee of study groups hosted by Paul, now her GOP competitor.

“She’s very open to studying,” Paul told The Washington Independent at the time. “In fact, she’s been working really hard to get me back to Minneapolis. She says, ‘You’ll get such a great reception there!’”

And go he did, to a town hall in Minneapolis in September of 2009. At the time, the national press portrayed the event as an odd couple. “Wingnut worlds collide,” wrote The Daily Beast, of the pairing of the “ultra-religious neocon” Bachmann and the “anti-authority libertarian” Paul. 

Then came the 2010 midterms, when the string of Tea Party victories transformed Michele Bachmann’s Washington profile.

“What’s happened is, she just happened to be there at the right moment,” said Brian Glenn, a political historian at Wesleyan University. “All of a sudden the Tea Party movement came through, and she rides the wave.”

And Bachmann rode that wave better than anyone else. She was there to capitalize on the Tea Party midterm victories by forming the Tea Party Caucus in the House – and becoming its chairperson. Then, she delivered the Tea Party response to the State of the Union. All the while, she kept delivering her quotable “money blurts” that endeared her to angry conservative voters across the country who were looking for a leader and opened a steady stream of small contributions to her Congressional campaign, and now, her presidential campaign.   

That ability to anticipate a political opportunity, and to position herself squarely in the middle of it, is quintessential Bachmann, said Jacobs.  

“Michele Bachmann has been very skilled at anticipating groups of voters who are not necessarily engaged in politics, don’t appreciate how they can be a force politics, identifying them, and then mobilizing them as a potent force,” said Jacobs, pointing back to her early successes activating evangelical voters in Minnesota.

The other through-line, from Minnesota to Washington, is her willingness to aggressively take on members of her own party. In an echo of her current tense relationship with House Speaker John Boehner, Bachmann’s Republican colleagues in the Minnesota Senate stripped her of her post as Assistant Minority Leader after she challenged the GOP leader in a tax increase fight.

So she’s always known how to pick a fight, and turn it to her advantage. But she’s gotten smarter about it, Jacobs said.

“Michele Bachmann has grown as a politician. When she first started there was basically one Michele Bachman who worked on one speed,” he said. “She’s now able to modulate her messages so that she speaks a language and a et of policy positions that could well end up appealing to a broader sector of Republicans and conservatives, particularly those concerned about spending and what they see as overwrought government authority.

That’s the Michele Bachmann that Karen Testerman sees, and the one that may help her straddle the transition from Iowa to New Hampshire.

“I think the average voter out here, who is watching things deteriorating, they’re looking for someone who’s going to fight until the very end as our founding fathers did, to put their property and their sacred honor on the line,” Testerman said of Bachmann’s appeal. 

‘Bachmann Shares My Resentment’

For now, it’s clear that something about Michele Bachmann is connecting. She’s surging in the polls, behind only Mitt Romney nationally and in New Hampshire (where she narrowly leads Romney among independent voters.). 

“Underestimating Michele Bachmann is a big mistake,” said Jacobs. “This is someone who is very smart, very strategic, and has a growing track record of effectiveness and political success.”

Particularly when there’s such a hunger for a vessel for the pent-up anxieties and anger. When 80 percent of Americans say they’re either “dissatisfied” or “angry” about the performance of the federal government, as reported in the Washington Post/ABC News poll this week, there’s fertile soil for an anti-establishment candidate who connects as much on emotions as issues.

“I sense that Michele Bachmann shares my resentment,” New Hampshire Republican Robert Jasick explained, noting that he was drinking out of his old Mitt Romney coffee mug from 2008. “I sense that she shares my righteous indignation that the good citizens of this state and around the country are being put through hell by the choices of this administration.”