House tea party icons face re-election challenges

RAMSEY, Minn. (AP) — The tendency of Rep. Michele Bachmann, Minnesota Republican, 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. Republican Reps. Allen B. 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 Mr. West, Mr. King and Mr. 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 Mrs. Bachmann, whose district grew even more conservative, used a recent campaign stop to draw attention to her collaboration with Democrats such as President 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,” Mrs. Bachmann told a suburban Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce gathering.

Mrs. Bachmann abandoned a short-lived run for the GOP presidential nomination last winter. She has stirred tea party voters by her opposition to Mr. 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 Mrs. 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 Mr. Graves, waging his first campaign for office, faces a huge financial disparity. Campaign finance reports show Mrs. Bachmann with $3.6 million in cash available entering October, six times what Mr. Graves reported.

National Democrats recently added Mr. 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 of dollars or more, neither side has invested much in Mrs. 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 of New York, who heads HouseDemocrats‘ campaign machinery. “We go after them because they’re weak in their own districts.”

Mr. 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.

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