How Michele Bachmann Could Still Matter

Christopher Flavelle writes editorials on health care, energy and environment for Bloomberg View. He was a senior policy analyst for Bloomberg Government and chief speechwriter for the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.
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True or False: Representative Michele Bachmann's decision not to seek re-election is an ominous sign for the Tea Party movement she helped build.

Answer: Trick question! Both true and false, but mostly false.

It would be a mistake to make too much of Bachmann's electoral fortunes. She was nationally prominent, yes, but didn't win a single Republican presidential caucus or primary last year, and her margins of victory for her House seat were never wide. In fact, as her star rose nationally, it dimmed at home in Minnesota.

Consider Bachmann's fundraising. During the 2008 cycle, she raised 70 percent of her money, just more than $1 million, from within Minnesota. By the 2012 cycle, her in-state contributions had fallen, not only as a share of her total, to 14 percent, but also in dollar terms. Meanwhile, donations from the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area fell almost by half between 2010 and 2012.

Add to that a growing controversy over how Bachmann paid her Iowa staff during her presidential campaign, combined with a strong Democratic challenger expected renewed support from his party, and Bachmann's choice to bow out says as much about her district and her state as it does about the state of the movement she helped lead.

Will the Tea Party contingent in Congress be weaker with Bachmann gone? It's hard to see how. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida are competing to shape and win the movement that Bachmann helped cultivate, and her practice of bucking leadership in the House seems firmly entrenched.

Of course, Bachmann leaving office may mark a turning point in the evolution of the Tea Party. Her firebrand tactics helped attract many donations from individuals, but political action committees began shying away. From 2008 to 2012, Bachmann's total contributions from PACs fell by 69 percent, while the number of PACs donating dropped 78 percent.

The pullback was led by business PACs, whose contributions to Bachmann fell to $131,000 from $579,000 four years earlier. Perhaps they concluded Bachmann and her style of politics were no longer a good investment. Those seeking to succeed her may conclude that it's time to switch from vinegar to honey.

If Bachmann becomes a sort of cautionary tale, inspiring a kinder, gentler version of small-government conservatives, the anger she harnessed in the wake of the recession could still become a positive force in national politics. Unless and until that happens, her departure from Congress may not foretell much of anything.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Christopher Flavelle at cflavelle@bloomberg.net