This isn't a typical election year in Minnesota's 6th Congressional District.
For the first time since Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann ran for Congress in 2006, there's no third-party candidate on the ballot. And that means a swath of voters is up for grabs, a development that could shift the race in favor of her DFL opponent, hotel magnate Jim Graves.
"I think it makes a huge difference that this is the first head-to-head race that Rep. Bachmann has had to face in that district," said Tom Horner, a former Independence Party gubernatorial candidate who supports Graves and who advocated to keep the 6th District a two-party race this year.
The good news for Bachmann is that her district became more conservative during redistricting. She's also outraised Graves, picking up $16 million since the start of the campaign, according to OpenSecrets.org. Graves has raised roughly $1.5 million, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission.
And a new KSTP/SurveyUSA poll shows Bachmann leading Graves by 9 percentage points. Graves' biggest challenge between now and Election Day is making sure people in the district know who he is, given 28 percent of voters have a neutral opinion of him and 17 percent have no opinion.
Though the Republican Party of Minnesota released a memo highly critical of Graves' business record earlier this month, chair Pat Shortridge said that doesn't indicate the party is worried about Bachmann's success.
"Voters across the 6th Congressional District deserve to have an idea of 'who is Jim Graves,' what has he done," Shortridge said.
Still, there are some signs Bachmann is facing a tough re-election.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is pledging to put resources into Graves' campaign. And Bachmann has never won her district by a landslide, partly because third-party candidates siphoned votes from her and her DFL opponent.
In 2008, Independence Party candidate Bob Anderson snagged 10 percent of the vote. Bachmann walked away with 46 percent while Democrat Elwyn Tinklenberg had 43 percent of the vote.
It is one factor that prompted the Cook Political Report, which tracks U.S. House races, to change its rating for the 6th from "likely Republican" to "leans Republican."
"Once again, Bachmann has taken a slam-dunk district and made it a competitive race," said House Editor David Wasserman. "If there hadn't been a third-party candidate in 2006 and 2008, she might well have lost."
Meanwhile, polling commissioned by Graves suggests a tight race, and that independents favor him.
College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University political science professor Kay Wolsborn says you can't predict how independents would have voted in the absence of a third-party candidate.
But the Graves surveys shouldn't be ignored, she added.
"Speculation is that those people who voted for a third-party candidate knew Michele Bachmann well enough that they could have voted for her if they wanted to, so they counted that as a vote against her," Wolsborn said.
LOOKING FOR AN ALTERNATIVE
Ron Hustvedt, a writer and a teacher in Elk River, is among those independent voters.
"I'm not really excited about it, but I'm voting for Graves," he said.
Hustvedt is not impressed with Graves' background. But he says Bachmann is too focused on her own national profile, a quality underscored by her recent run for president.
Wooing voters like Hustvedt is critical to Graves' campaign calculus. In fact, Graves said he would not have run had there been extra competition.
"Any of those people who are saying 'I don't know,' they don't have a default vote any longer," Graves said. "Now they either have to vote for Jim Graves or Michele Bachmann."
Graves says he's reaching out to independent voters, talking up his centrist views on the economy and business, and touting his leadership of Graves Hospitality Corporation, which owns hotel properties.
Graves is also arguing that Bachmann is too divisive for the district.
"If Romney wins this election, you want someone who can talk to [Mitt] Romney, someone who can talk to [House Speaker John] Boehner, and get things done," Graves said.
Though the 6th District Independence Party cannot endorse Graves, Chairman Steve Laitinen thinks Graves is more like an IP candidate than a Democrat, and that he expects IP voters to support Graves.
But former candidate Anderson disagrees.
"I know a lot of people think that my votes in the 2008 with Elwyn Tinklenberg would have gone to him, but I disagree because I'm a conservative-leaning independent," he said. "I feel those votes would have gone to Bachmann."
Bachmann's campaign manger Chase Kroll said Graves isn't really a moderate.
"Congresswoman Bachmann has always been a target of the far left," he wrote in an email. "That's why Jim Graves brought Barney Frank to town," referring to a fundraiser that featured the top liberal on the Financial Services Committee.
Bachmann says her record will appeal to independent voters.
"We have a very strong, clear contrast in this race," she said. "We have a big spender on one side ... and on my side have a very clear record of being an independent thinker and also an independent voter taking on my own party as well as the big spending ways of [House Minority Leader] Nancy Pelosi."