The Minnesota Sixth District, a sprawling, irregularly shaped district comprising of numerous suburbs and smaller cities in central Minnesota, has had a fair share of media attention ever since Republican Representative Michele Bachmann first won her congressional seat in 2006. Bachmann, never one to mince words whether in front of local or national media, became the darling of the conservative movement -- and a key target of liberals -- when she accused Congress members, including then candidate Barack Obama, of secretly having anti-American views, and told Hardball's Chris Matthews that it was up to the media to sniff those politicians out and expose them.
Bachmann's unforgettable soundbite brought in a huge amount of money for her 2008 challenger, Elwyn Tinklenberg -- but with very little in the way of staff support, ground game, or a media plan, Tinklenberg was unable to capitalize on the donations or attention to the race, losing to Bachmann in a three-way race by only three percent of the vote.
Still, in the two years that have passed between elections, Bachmann became more, not less of a target for Democrats both in state and out. Energized by the recession that lingered under the new Obama presidency and encouraged by the ambivalence and outright hatred of many over health care reform, Bachmann took the anger and passion of the fledgling Tea Party movement and created a Tea Party Caucus in the House to further the conservative cause.
State Senator Tarryl Clark, the DFL (Democratic Farmer Laborer) Party nominee challenging Bachmann, faces an uphill battle. Despite the national attention that has been focused on the race, and the millions of dollars pouring into both candidates' coffers, Bachmann has held a constant advantage in fundraising and cash on hand, allowing her to run ad after ad attacking her democratic opponent.
Clark, who has had both stronger fundraising and and a much better staff and field support than any of her predecessors, has managed to hold her own, using web ads, the local media, and Bachmann's own tendencies to prioritize national media appearances on conservative outlets like Fox News over attending local events in her own district. Support throughout her campaign by former President Bill Clinton has continued to keep both Clark's profile and her fundraising numbers high, and help to get her closer to equal footing with the congresswoman.
Many in Minnesota recognize that this is likely the last, best chance for any Democrat to beat The Bachmann. Clark is easily recognized as the most formidable challenger that could have been found for Bachmann, with great fundraising and an well-organized, efficient campaign. An open and contentious governor's race in the state is also expected to boost voter numbers, something that inherently benefits Democrats, especially in a progressive-leaning state like Minnesota. Should Bachmann win once more, she would be serving her third term in Congress, adding to her seniority and power, and the local Democrats would frankly be running very low on high-quality candidates to run against her. And with redistricting a likelihood for the state in 2010, there is a possibility that the remarkably gerrymandered district could be reabsorbed into other adjacent districts, diluting what currently is the most conservative district in the state.
Yesterday, only seven days before the election, Clark and Bachmann met for the first time in a public debate, which included Independence Party candidate Bob Anderson. The first of three debates Bachmann agreed to participate in, all scheduled for this week, was sponsored by the St. Cloud Rotary Club and moderated by the Chamber of Commerce and focused on issues important to small businesses.
The debate was sometimes heated, sometimes formally polite, and focused as much as possible on what Bachmann described as "the three most important issues in the campaign: jobs, more jobs, and even more and better jobs." The roughly 500 people in the audience, a majority of whom, according to one Fox reporter covering the event, appeared to be Clark supporters, attempted to hold back their applause and in some cases jeers as the three candidates sparred on job creation, health care reform, card check, entitlement programs, and even how to work better with the deaf and hard of hearing or other disabled groups.
Bachmann spent a great deal of the debate reiterating a few key points: her background as a small business owner with her husband, the fact that they used to sell and flip homes, using the equity to build up their business, her background in tax law, and that Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is targeting her personally. Bachmann emphasized a need to "keep money in our pockets" rather than ship sixth district funds off to Washington via taxes.
Bachmann also seemed to shock many in the audience by criticizing former president George W. Bush for what she saw as wasteful spending that upped the deficit, and stating that she initially agreed with some of Obama's plans for reducing the deficit. She then accused the president of taking the $1.2 trillion debt to $1.4 trillion due to bailouts and other unnecessary spending that will have to be paid off by our children and grandchildren."We are looking at a remarkably lower standard of living for the next generation."
Clark, meanwhile, focused the debate on key issues like instituting a pay-as-you-go system of government to eliminate waste and reduce the deficit, pointing to her time in state government where legislature is forced to provide a balanced budget as an example. "We cut 10% of budget in last year alone. Congress needs to cut their own budget."
Clark was quick to point out numerous stances that Bachmann was taking that were not supported by the votes she made in congress, such as Bachmann's refusal to vote to vote for tax cuts for the middle class.
Bachmann stated that the biggest risk to businesses and taxpayers is that no one knows exactly what the tax code will be "at one second after midnight."
Clark rebutted, "You're the ones that's there. You’ve let the middle class down twice, first by voting against the taxcuts then by leaving before it was done. Hopefully you will go back to vote for it so people don’t have to wait until midnight."
Bachmann also managed to get in some rebuttals of her own, especially when the issue of card check came up in the debate. When asked if the candidates would vote yes or no on card check, an increase in the ability for workers to join unions, Clark dodged the question by saying she believed that there was a lot of misinformation from the Chamber of Commerce out about the issue, and that she would work with both sides to help them have a level playing field.
Bachmann countered, "I think you just heard a politician tell you she would vote yes on card check. I will tell you clearly that I will vote no. My competitor is supported by Big Labor and she will be voting yes."
Clark shot back, "I am beholden to no one. This is not a big issue, the big issue is jobs."
"She's still not answering," Bachmann replied."I will vote no."
However, Bachmann did her own dodge when it came to discussing entitlements, as the moderator brought up the Debt Clock and asked the candidates what would be done to address those numbers. "France and Greece are examples of where the U.S. could be if we don't do something about entitlements," Bachmann warned. "We need everyone to be involved, both parties. Don't make this a political football."
Clark, meanwhile, provided a handful of concrete solutions that could be considered, including a pay as you go system of budgeting. "We need to look at cuts, and where there is too much paperwork, reward states that have good outcomes and address instances of fraud."
The debate also touched on questions regarding transportation projects and how to increase accessibility of services for the deaf, hard of hearing, or others with disabilities. But the starkest contrast between the two candidates was when they were asked what changes they would like to see made regarding health care reform. Clark defended the reform, stating that heath care costs were rising out of control. "In America a family needs to be able to purchase an affordable plan, and be able to take their kids to the hospital if they need it."
Bachmann, on the other hand, defended her vote against the bill and touted her leadership in trying to undo reform. "I voted no because I knew it would be an unworkable mess. If you thought you had bureaucracy before, you’ve never seen anything like this solution." She spoke against what she said was the reform plan's inability to add new doctors, and then advocated for her own plan for to "step up" to modified Health Savings Accounts. "Anyone can have any insurance they want, paid for with pre-tax money, and then deduct the rest from your taxes."
Clark adamantly argued against Bachmann's plan for reform, even taking her rebuttal into the response period of a different question. "Deductions only work for the wealthy," said Clark. "Those who can afford to pay up front and get back their money later. This would be the biggest tax increase ever."
Yet there was one place that the candidates could all agree -- there have been way too many attack ads on the air. When asked if there were any lies or misrepresentations each candidate would like to address, Anderson, who spent a majority of the debate repeating that he would be the best candidate to go to congress because as an Independent he would have no loyalties to either party, stated, "You should both be ashamed of yourselves for spending $15 million on attack ads when the economy is so bad."
Clark agreed. "I think every ad you have done has been false and misleading," she told Bachmann.
Interestingly enough, even Bachmann agreed that there were too many. "I know it’s difficult to watch ads. I don’t like them either."
Anderson, Clark and Bachmann will debate for a second time on October 28th on Minnesota Public Radio. To see the full debate, watch below.
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