Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn
Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn

Credit: Gage Skidmore on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).

(WOMENSENEWS)–Can Michelle Bachmann lose?

That’s a question in the race for this congressional seat, which was redistricted in favor of Bachmann, an outspoken social conservative and the only Republican woman to run for president this year, in a bid that ended after the Iowa caucus in January.

Challenger Jim Graves, a political newcomer and hotel executive who started the motel chain AmericInn and the company Graves Hospitality, was only 2 percentage points behind the incumbent, according to a poll released by his campaign on Sept. 17.

“In the spirit of humility, it has a lot to do with Bachmann and her extreme stance,” Graves said in a phone interview, adding that he thought Bachmann is “self-destructing.”

Bachmann’s campaign did not return repeated requests for comment.

Graves’ internal poll doesn’t faze Kelly Fenton, deputy chair of the Minnesota Republican Party. Fenton shrugged off campaign polls and noted that redistricting eliminated some of Bachmann’s weaker areas and gave her Carver County, one of the most conservative in the state.

“The only poll I look at is the outcome on Nov. 6,” Fenton said, adding that Bachmann “never loses.”

Linnea House, executive director of Minnesota NARAL, a state-level abortion rights organization in Saint Paul, Minn., conceded Bachmann’s knack for winning.

“Every election cycle there is a strong candidate that runs against Rep. Bachmann,” House said in an email interview, “and there is usually an excitement that builds about six weeks out that she may in fact lose the race. And alas, that has never happened.”

Glimmer of Hope

In this race, however, House saw a glimmer of hope for the challenger. “Graves has an effective message that reaches Democrats and Independents.”

But if Graves wins it will be “an election night surprise,” said Kathryn Pearson, a professor of political science at the University of Minnesota in Twin Cities, Minn. “Only 43 percent of newly constituted 6th District voted for Obama [in 2008].”

Bachmann is an established opponent of abortion under any circumstances and gay rights and same-sex marriage, Pearson said.

Graves has publicly said he is pro-choice. But Pearson said he is not talking about social issues and choosing instead to focus on his business experience, which could appeal to independent voters and perhaps some Republicans.

In his interview, Graves reiterated that the economy is his foremost concerns, but said he supports same-sex marriage and that he is “totally fine to talk about that . . . .

It’s a democracy, not a theocracy.”

NARAL Pro-Choice America, a Washington-based abortion rights organization, has not endorsed Graves, said Deputy Political Director Erika West. But she added that Graves willingness to identify himself as pro-choice is a “step in the right direction.”

Bachmann enjoys a strong fundraising advantage but is warning supporters about being targeted by Democrats and the threat posed by Graves. In a Sept. 20 e-mail to supporters she referred to her “self-funded multi-millionaire opponent.”

Bachmann had raised $18 million as of the end of July and Graves had raised under $600,000, just over 3 percent of Bachmann has raised, according to the Federal Election Commission.

In 2010, the average House incumbent only raised about $1.5 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Disproving Conventional Wisdom

Graves has put about $250,000 into his campaign but says he does not plan to funnel massive amounts into the race, telling WeNews that it “would be setting a precedent that I would be ashamed of.”

Instead, he wants to disprove conventional wisdom that the biggest “war chest” wins the race. Graves said he’s running his campaign “the old-fashioned way,” by talking to as many people and media outlets as he can.

Graves, who sits on the board of the College of St. Benedict, a women’s college in Collegeville, Minn., said he is a “real proponent of women’s rights.” He added that many top managers at his company are women.

He supports the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and equal pay for women, but had doubts about the Paycheck Fairness Act, which failed to pass in the Senate a few months ago. While he said he was not overly familiar with the legislation, he worried that it might produce “unnecessary frivolous claims” and also expressed concern about the burden of proof on employers.

The absence of a third-party candidate could help Graves, who is targeting Bachmann as an inflammatory extremist.

One of his ads compares Bachmann to former Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who infamously instigated a witch-hunt for communists in the U.S. government in the 1950s. Another spot released Sept. 19 claims “she’s too worried about her own career to worry about anything else.”

Fenton of the Minnesota Republicans disputed that. “She’s very in touch with her district,” she said, and has the “strong support of constituents.”

Samantha Kimmey is a writer covering women and politics this election season.

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