Almost two decades ago, Michele Bachmann, now a third-term Republican representative and founder of the congressional Tea Party Caucus, was a board member at a new public charter school in suburban Minnesota. Soon after the first school year began, unusual reports trickled home to parents. Denise Stephens, whose daughter attended the school at the time, says a teacher banned the Disney movie Aladdin because it depicted magic. Native American dreamweavers were considered inappropriate for an art project. And rumors spread that the board wanted to mandate religious instruction in the classroom.
The school district launched an investigation. At a packed public meeting in December 1993, three months after the school opened, Bachmann and the other board members resigned.
Bachmann says she never tried to introduce a religious curriculum and that the board stepped down due to a disagreement over the school's academic direction. Yet the incident remains an early indicator of what her supporters and critics alike describe as her instinctive ability to connect with the Republicans' conservative, religious base—and draw criticism from nearly everyone else, including the GOP Establishment. "I am a fighter," says Bachmann, 55, who is mulling a bid for President. "I'm not just there to go along and get along."
Bachmann says that if she runs for the Republican nomination—she'll decide for sure before July—she hopes to win the support of social conservatives in Iowa and South Carolina and fiscal conservatives in New Hampshire. She's already establishing a campaign presence in all three early primary states, she says. "I think Michele is a serious candidate for President," says Vin Weber, a former Republican congressman from Minnesota who is co-chairman of former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty's Presidential exploratory committee. "She has an ability to connect with the grassroots conservative base in the country in a way that very few do." Bachmann opposes raising the debt ceiling, voted for Representative Paul Ryan's controversial budget, and criticized the intervention in Libya as "foolish." During her 2010 campaign she raised $13.5 million, more than House Speaker John Boehner.
What energizes the base can alienate the independent voters whose support makes or breaks a Presidential bid. Bachmann has become famous for controversial comments, including her suggestion in 2008 that Barack Obama may have "anti-American views" and her remark in late April that the prospect of cripplingly high taxes is "similar" to the Holocaust. Her support for a $633 million bridge over the St. Croix River bordering her district comes as she rails against government spending.
Bachmann also has a history of controversial campaigns. In her first bid for public office, she ran for her school board in 1999 as part of a slate of five conservatives endorsed by the Republican Party. During one debate, her opponent, Mary Cecconi, says Bachmann falsely accused her of being endorsed by Planned Parenthood. "It was just lobbed out there to divert attention," says Cecconi, who is the only person to have beat Bachmann.
The following year, Bachmann ran for state senate against a moderate Republican who had been a legislator for 28 years. "You had this weird dynamic of Republicans fighting Republicans," says Washington County Commissioner Bill Pulkrabek, who worked on Bachmann's school board and state senate campaigns. "I've been in politics maybe 20 years, and I've only seen it a handful of times."
The bottom line: Bachmann is well funded and backed by social conservatives. She also has a reputation for intraparty feuds.