On a hot July afternoon in 2010, in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) launched the House Tea Party Caucus with much fanfare and a little humility, declaring, “I am not the head of the tea party.”
It was a signature moment for the tea party and for Bachmann, who had parlayed her standing as one of the most identifiable faces of that anti-government movement to become one of the most recognizable political figures in American politics. And the new House caucus suggested that the movement’s fervor was about to bear legislative fruit.
Less than three years later, everything seems to have changed. Just before dawn on Wednesday, Bachmann, 57 — barely reelected in November and facing multiple investigations of her failed presidential campaign’s finances — announced that she will not seek reelection to her suburban Twin Cities district in 2014.
Bachmann joins the ranks of other once-high-profile tea party voices who have moved quietly to the political sidelines. Sarah Palin resigned as Alaska governor in 2009 and has focused on reality TV of late. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.) and Allen B. West (R-Fla.), two of the most outspoken members of the 2010 class of House freshmen, lost their 2012 reelection bids and are working in media careers.
The biggest stars now reside in the Senate, where two first-termers, Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), have electrified the movement in recent months and established themselves as the leading disruptive forces to Democratic Majority Leader Harry M. Reid’s bid to move President Obama’s second-term agenda. Still, although the two senators are capable of blocking or slowing the Democratic agenda, they are in no position to implement or advance their conservative philosophy legislatively.
To many, Bachmann’s roughly five-year run — from obscure freshman to serious contender in the 2012 Iowa presidential caucuses to Wednesday’s retirement announcement — was a near-perfect reflection of the tea party’s greatest strengths and weaknesses.
In a nearly nine-minute video posted on Facebook and YouTube, she insisted that retirement does not mean she will stop fighting for conservative principles.
“Unfortunately, today I’m even more concerned about our country’s future than I have ever been in the past,” she said. “On so many issues, we’re clearly on the wrong track.”
In her career in elected office, she has been able to command attention and draw fans among conservative activists, tapping into online messaging that allowed her to raise nearly $30 million for her past two House races.
“Michele was the first to nationalize her House races via innovative online and social media techniques,” said Ed Brookover, a consultant to the Republican.
But under the Capitol dome, where collegial relations are the foundation of building coalitions to pass laws, Bachmann had little clout, a largely aloof figure with no legislative imprint even now in her seventh year in Congress. Her statements often put fellow Republicans on the defensive.
“Bachmann had great potential but didn’t have the discipline, detachment or ear for prime time,” said Ed Rogers, a longtime Republican lobbyist and strategist. “Too bad for the GOP. We need a big-time charismatic woman leader.”
Bachmann’s meteoric rise and fall came to symbolize many aspects — for better or worse — of Congress in the 21st century. It is the age of the provocateur, where conservatives on the far right and liberals on the far left who would have been puckish figures in a previous era instead become national sensations for the several million political junkies who follow cable news and devour online politics.
First elected in 2006 to represent a district stretching from outside St. Paul east to Wisconsin, Bachmann quickly became a regular on political cable TV shows.
In October 2008, appearing on MSNBC’s “Hardball With Chris Matthews,” she questioned whether then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) held “very anti-American views.” The moment brought condemnation from critics and sent independent voters in her district into the arms of an otherwise unknown challenger. But it also brought her millions of dollars in small donations from conservatives nationwide. She narrowly won reelection and became the first congressional tea party star.
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) kept their distance from Bachmann, supporting a different candidate when she considered running for a junior leadership post after the 2010 midterm elections.
But in a sign of tea party clout outside Washington, Bachmann’s presidential bid initially soared to the top of opinion polls alongside veteran Republicans. “I think that I just had a real sense of the pulse of the people,” she told The Washington Post in early 2011.