The Bachmann District: When a Retirement Changes Everything

by Stuart Rothenberg June 3, 2013 · 9:26 AM EDT

[Editor's Note: A day after this story was first published, Jim Graves dropped out of the race. Read on to see why.]

“Graves spokeswoman Julie Pearl said Bachmann’s retirement does not change the way Graves will run in the race, nor does the campaign feel it hampers his election chances.”

That’s the next to the last paragraph in a very fine story written by Roll Call political reporter Emily Cahn about GOP Rep. Michele Bachmann’s retirement from Minnesota’s 6th District.

If the campaign team of Minnesota Democrat Jim Graves really believes that spin, you might as well cross the district off of your watch list for 2014. They don’t understand much about politics.

Bachmann’s retirement is a huge development in the district. It will require Graves, who lost to the tea party conservative last year by just 4,296 votes (50.5 percent to 49.3 percent), to adopt a very different strategy if he is going to have any chance of winning a year and a half from now.

It also makes the 2014 contest dramatically more difficult for the Democrat, no matter what his press folks say.

Bachmann’s district is reliably Republican. Mitt Romney won it by 15 points over President Barack Obama last year, and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., won it by more than 11 points over Obama four years earlier.

Districts like this one don’t go Democratic in federal races (except, possibly, during Democratic waves) unless they are already represented by a longtime Democrat who has personalized the district by proving to voters that he or she is both independent and moderate.

Bachmann, after all, was already controversial when she won her House seat in 2006 — a terrible year for Republicans (That cycle, then-Rep. Mark Kennedy, a Republican, left the seat to run for Senate). Bachmann’s grip on the seat has been something less than tight because she is so controversial that even some Republican voters have been unable to cast their ballots for her.

Graves knew that and presented himself as a reasonable, moderate alternative to the conservative firebrand who spent months running for president rather than tending to her constituents. He talked about politicians who “are more interested in their own careers” and blasted Bachmann in a TV ad for ignoring workers out of a job when a Minnesota paper mill burned.

Without Bachmann on the ballot, Republican voters are likely to return to their traditional vote cues, the most important of which is party. And that’s terrible news for Graves, who can now put his opposition research on the congresswoman into the trash.

Graves may well begin with a lead in the next Public Policy Polling survey you’ll see of this district’s voters, but that would be because Graves is well known from his last race, while the GOP field will be scattered.

But when this race truly begins to form, Graves will find himself at a serious partisan disadvantage in a midterm election and with a Democrat sitting in the White House.

Obviously, Graves’ prospects will improve if Republicans have a bloody primary, or if the GOP were to nominate someone who had Bachmann’s controversial reputation or who turns out to be a bad fundraiser and campaigner. We won’t know about that for months.

For now, Graves will have to deal with a more difficult landscape than he faced in 2012, and he’ll have to start putting together a much different race than he planned against Bachmann.

For the Graves campaign, Bachmann’s retirement changes everything.