An audacious right-wing Republican, U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann stood out from the moment she was first elected to Congress in 2006. Democrats were ascendant and Bachmann was a stridently conservative new arrival with a homespun Minnesota twang.
Four terms later, Bachmann is leaving just as Republicans take control of Congress for the first time since she was first elected. After a turbulent career dotted by fights with the left and her own party, and a fast-rising and fast-fading presidential campaign, Bachmann said she is ready to leave, her work in Congress complete.
“I didn’t get sucked into the system of Washington,” she said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I didn’t become a politician. I was a constitutional conservative.”
That role Bachmann carved for herself often placed her in the spotlight during her eight years in office. She provided a consistently conservative voice on television on issues ranging from health care to immigration, and even delivered a “tea party response” to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address in 2011 that overlapped with her party’s official rebuttal.
Speaking on MSNBC in 2008, she said that Obama “may have anti-American views.” The comment led to a flood of donations to her opponent and a narrow, three-point victory in one of Minnesota’s most conservative congressional districts. In recent years, she has said Obama’s policies put America on a path to “Marxism.”
Bachmann has rarely walked anything back. “I don’t have a lot of regrets from my time here,” she said.
Democrats alternated between derision and anger at her outlandish comments, which even some former members of her staff say stretched the truth or were outright false. “Who cares?” Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi once responded, when asked about Bachmann’s response to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allowed same-sex marriages to go forward in many states.
Bachmann began her career as a tax attorney. She lost her first election, a bid for a school board seat, in 1999, but the next year her devout following of cultural conservatives first lifted her to victory in a competitive state Senate primary and again, when the 5th Congressional District seat opened, put her ahead of three other candidates at a nominating convention in 2006. No one challenged her in the primary that year. She successfully campaigned on conservative values and talked proudly of raising five children and 23 foster children.
“I think her major innovation was in politics,” said Larry Jacobs, a professor at the University of Minnesota. “I don’t think she leaves behind a traditional legacy in terms of monuments and buildings — I think she showed again and again her ability to mobilize new forces in politics.”
Jacobs said Bachmann talked about issues that ardent conservatives wanted addressed.
Listing her own career highlights, Bachmann offers a mix of local projects and conservative flashpoints. Among her proudest moments, she said, were opposing her own party during the 2008 financial bailout and leading the House opposition to Obama’s health care overhaul. One of her most vivid memories, she said, is thousands of opponents of the health care law coming to Washington and marching near the Capitol waving signs and flags.
But she’s equally quick to draw attention to her district in the Twin Cities suburbs. Bachmann said would have run again if Congress had not approved a $700 million bridge over the St. Croix River linking Stillwater, Minnesota with Houlton, Wisconsin. She is also proud of her work on adoption and foster care issues. One of her last official trips as a member of Congress, over the Thanksgiving holiday, was to an orphanage in Haiti.
As she wrapped up her congressional business this past week, Bachmann said she is determined to play a role in the next presidential election. The possibility of Democrats nominating Hillary Rodham Clinton will make the voices of Republican women more important than ever, she said.
“I occupy a very unique space,” she said. “I am the only woman who has been in presidential debates on the Republican ticket.”
Her own presidential bid began in June 2011 and peaked with a win in a key Iowa straw poll, but she never found traction with voters as real ballots were cast. While she has “no intention right now of running for president,” she also won’t rule it out.
“I think it will develop as we go what my level of involvement will be,” she said.