House tea party icons face re-election challenges
RAMSEY, Minn. -- Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann's tendency to cause a ruckus on Capitol Hill made her a tea party sensation. Her bulging campaign treasury and conservative district make her a clear favorite to win a fourth House term on Election Day, despite her Democratic rival's attempts to turn her won't-budge philosophy into a liability.
Three other high-profile House conservatives, facing opponents insisting that their views are too extreme, have trickier paths to re-election next month. GOP Reps. Allen West of Florida, Steve King of Iowa and Joe Walsh of Illinois are all embroiled in tough and expensive races that are drawing plenty of spending by friends and foes from around the country.
The challenges faced by West, King and Walsh stem in part from this year's redrawing of congressional districts and a political climate that has cooled for tea party politicians since the 2010 groundswell that swept them into office. They also underscore the risks that frequent television appearances and outspoken views can bring.
"You get more attention, you've got better ability to get your message and policy positions out there," said GOP pollster David Winston. "The challenge is because everybody's paying such close attention, you have a lot of scrutiny."
The new political realities of 2012 could explain why Bachmann, whose district grew even more conservative, used a recent campaign stop to draw attention to her collaboration with Democrats like President Barack Obama and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to gain approval for a bridge project back home.
"Everyone was able to set aside their own personal agenda and got a big thing done," Bachmann told a suburban Minneapolis chamber of commerce gathering.
Bachmann abandoned a short-lived run for the GOP presidential nomination last winter. She has stirred tea party voters by her opposition to Obama's health care law, resisting an increase in the federal borrowing limit and frowning on spending deals struck by her own party.
Her Democratic opponent, hotel magnate Jim Graves, rips Bachmann in a TV ad as "distracted by her own celebrity." He suggests his business background makes him capable of untangling Washington gridlock that frustrates voters.
"We need more out of our leaders in Washington. That's exactly why I'm running for Congress," he says.
But Graves, waging his first campaign for office, faces a huge financial disparity. Campaign finance reports show Bachmann with $3.6 million cash available entering October, six times what Graves reported.
National Democrats recently added Graves to their list of House candidates whom they are helping raise money. But with outside groups routinely swooping into House districts with ads and other help worth hundreds of thousands or more, neither side has invested much in Bachmann's race.
"We think we'd be wasting our donors' money by spending it on somebody who's not in danger," said Max Pappas, executive director of the FreedomWorks political committee, a conservative group that has spent nearly $10 million in dozens of House and Senate races.
Though partisans on both sides love to defeat notorious foes, they say that when it comes to spending campaign cash, their calculation is usually a cold assessment of where they can gain congressional seats.
"We don't go after them necessarily because they have tea party celebrity status," said Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., who heads House Democrats' campaign machinery. "We go after them because they're weak in their own districts."
West, a freshman, exemplifies a widely recognized conservative who is unafraid of frequent television exposure yet finds himself in a tight re-election battle in a moderate district with many new voters.
A retired Army officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, West has a reputation for unabashedly stating his mind. This includes charges that scores of congressional Democrats are communists, labeling Florida Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz "vile" and "despicable," and calling Social Security disability benefits "a form of modern, 21st-century slavery."
Democrat Patrick Murphy, a political neophyte and construction company executive, has TV spots repeating some of West's comments. "Bullying and name-calling has no place in the playground or in Congress," Murphy says in one ad as children play behind him.
Though his recent commercials portray him as a loving father and protector of Medicare _ a huge issue for South Florida's many seniors _ West ran a searing ad featuring Murphy's mug shot from a teenage arrest outside a South Beach club. Murphy responded with a spot describing an incident in which West fired a gun near an Iraqi prisoner's head and threatened to kill him, after which West was fined and left the Army.
The two have raised more than $18 million combined, making it one of the country's most expensive House races, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. But with West's ability to raise money from conservatives nationwide, his contributions have outpaced Murphy's by 6-1.
Their fight has also drawn $3.4 million in spending from outside groups, putting it in the top 20 among House races.
Included is over $1 million from the House Majority PAC, the campaign committee associated with House Democratic leaders, making West their top target. West has benefited from $990,000 from the Treasure Coast Jobs Coalition, largely financed by a New Jersey man identified by the Palm Beach Post as a drug company executive.
In Iowa, King is in the toughest re-election battle of his decade-long congressional career. His vulnerability comes from a redrawn district that leans less Republican than before and a well-financed challenge from the well-known Democrat Christie Vilsack, who is married to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, a former Iowa governor.
Tea party voters adore King for his opposition to the health care overhaul, advocacy of strict immigration enforcement and opposition to abortion and gay marriage. He's also known for attention-grabbing statements.
While opposing legislation this summer to make it illegal to watch dog fighting, King said society's priorities are wrong if it makes dog fighting illegal but condones people fighting. Those remarks were criticized as a defense of dog fighting, and helped prompt the Humane Society to spend nearly $500,000 for an ad criticizing King, saying, "Those aren't Iowa values."
King says his words are often twisted by opponents he calls "professional hyperventilators." He has been aided by the National Federation of Independent Business and the House Republican campaign organization, which ran a spot linking Vilsack to Obama. One of King's ads shows him in a farm tractor as a man says, "Give me that Iowa straight talker any day."
In the Chicago area, freshman Walsh is being challenged by Tammy Duckworth, a former Obama administration official who lost both legs and an arm in Iraq while serving as an Army helicopter pilot.
Walsh was a political newcomer when he eked out his 2010 victory after a rocky campaign. Shortly after taking office, he released a video in which he said, "President Obama, quit lying," and he's accused Obama of spending money "like a drunken sailor." He also generated headlines when his ex-wife accused him of missing $117,000 in child support payments, a dispute Walsh says they resolved.
This year, Walsh blasted Duckworth for being a "failed bureaucrat" and for talking too often about her war experiences. She says that rather than representing his district, Walsh is "there to serve the tea party and that simply is not good enough."
Unlike fellow conservatives Bachmann, West and King, Walsh has raised significantly less money than his opponent, unusual for an incumbent. Duckworth has another advantage _ new district boundaries that include far more Democrats.
The new district is also more racially diverse _ a problem for Walsh, who earlier this year said civil rights leader Jesse Jackson would be out of work if blacks "weren't so dependent upon government." He also said there are radical Muslims in Chicago's suburbs "trying to kill Americans every week."
Amid expectations that Walsh was doomed to defeat, a race that had attracted only modest spending by outside groups was energized recently when the Now or Never PAC injected $1.8 million in TV ads and other assistance for him. The group is financed largely by Americans for Unlimited Government, a conservative organization based in Fairfax, Va.
AP reporters Matt Sedensky in Miami, David Pitt in Des Moines and Sophia Tareen in Chicago contributed to this report. Fram reported from Washington..