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6th District race comes down to the wire

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Bachmann HQ
Volunteers prepared campaign fliers for Republican Michele Bachmann.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

Inside a Republican Party campaign office in Woodbury, volunteers stamped postmarks on thousands of Michele Bachmann campaign fliers that would find their way into mail boxes throughout the 6th Congressional District, which wraps around the north of the Twin Cities from Afton in the east to St. Cloud in the west.

Kim Schneider of Stillwater is one of the devoted Bachmann workers who was happy to help her candidate.

"She has a deep heart, and because she stands for life," Schneider said. "And she stands for traditional marriage. She stands for the safety of our country. She stands for actually everything I think everybody should stand for." 

Schneider and other supporters speak of Bachmann in almost reverent terms. For them it's more than a political relationship. Bachmann, 50, is not shy about discussing her religious faith. She recently told a suburban congregation that she's a fool for Christ and that God told her to run for Congress. Bachmann has surrounded herself with passionate volunteers who share her Christian values. 

Michele Bachmann
Michele Bachmann talked to voters during a recent visit to a Catholic church in Buffalo.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

"Thank you to everyone who came out," Bachmann told her volunteers. "This is an incredible showing. They say that people don't care about politics anymore. Are you kidding? You've proved just absolutely the opposite."

As a state senator, Bachmann was a vocal opponent of abortion and fought unsuccessfully for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. As a congressional candidate, she talks about staying the course in Iraq, strengthening border security, cutting taxes and building more highways. She rarely talks about gay marriage.

"Well you know, we worked very hard and I was proud of my work on that in the Minnesota Senate," Bachmann said. "But that issue didn't make it on the ballot. And since it didn't make it on the ballot, it's just not in the public discourse right now."

Bachmann has been organizing like-minded suburbanites since she first entered politics in 1999 as a candidate for the Stillwater school board. She lost that race, but won a seat in the Minnesota Senate the following year after beating an incumbent Republican in the primary. 

Bachmann entered the 6th District race after Congressman Mark Kennedy decided to run for the U.S. Senate. She beat out three rivals for the GOP endorsement last spring, and declared herself a woman on a mission. Since then, Bachmann has spent most of the campaign honing her image as fiscal conservative and repeating a simple message.

"We want the voters to know that I'm a state senator," Bachmann said. "I'm a federal tax lawyer. My husband runs our business. We employee 30 people in the 6th District.  We have five children, 23 foster children. I really hate taxes, and I want to lower them. And that's what I want the people to know."

Along with her supporters, Bachmann has inspired a similarly dedicated following of critics who don't like her conservative politics. Bloggers scrutinize her every move and post unflattering photos and video clips online.

Kay Wolsborn, a political science professor at the College of Saint Benedict and St. John's University, says the opposition is the price Bachmann pays for being clear on policy positions.

"She doesn't come across as very capable of compromise," Wolsborn said. "And I think that resistance to compromise, coupled with the strength of her convictions, I think inevitably would raise some serious opposition."

Patty Wetterling
Democrat Patty Wetterling greeted supporters at before a recent campaign event at Stillwater High School.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

Democrat Patty Wetterling is different from Michele Bachmann in nearly every way. Wetterling wants to roll back tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, and remove troops from Iraq. She supports mass transit, embryonic stem cell research and abortion rights. Wetterling even has a contrasting campaign style.

Wetterling, 56, appeared reserved and self-conscious as she recently greeted fans as arriving for a high school football game in Anoka. Despite her low-key approach, Wetterling has a presence and name recognition most candidates only dream of. Voters like Terry Protivinsky of Anoka were eager to talk to Wetterling.

"I think she very authentic," Protivinsky said. "I think she's been through a lot in life, and I think her experiences have taught her how to be a real human being, an authentic person. And that's what I buy into."

Voters are comfortable with Wetterling because they've seen her face on television for 17 years. Wetterling gained national attention in 1989 when a masked gunman kidnapped her 11-year-old son Jacob. He's never been found. Wetterling turned the tragedy into a platform to address child safety issues. But Wetterling has tried hard to prove she's more than a single-issue candidate.

"I want to be a voice for real families," Wetterling said. "Hard working, middle-class families don't feel they have a voice. They feel a real disconnect from what's going on in Washington. And I understand their challenges. They've been mine as well." 

The St. Joseph resident ran for the same congressional seat two years ago, losing to incumbent Republican Mark Kennedy. She started off this year as a U.S. Senate candidate, then switched races in January. Wetterling says she's a better candidate this time.

"Everything is different," Wetterling said. "I know more about the issues, the politics, the people in the 6th District. But more than that, I know more about myself. And I'm enjoying it and wanting to represent, there are some really good people in the 6th District, and  I'm eagerly approaching that goal."

Wetterling  jumped quickly on the Mark Foley scandal, demanding accountability from House Republican leaders. It was also an opportunity to remind voters about her expertise in child safety issues.

Political science Professor Larry Jacobs of the University of Minnesota says the momentum Wetterling gained from the Foley scandal could be fleeting.

"Well I think Patty Wetterling has ridden the child safety issue pretty far," Jacobs said. "The question is whether it remains a news story. I think the issue has worked well for her because it's been in the headlines, and she has unchallenged authority on that issue. The question is a week from today do voters still see this as a pressing issue. And I guess have some questions about whether they will."    

Republicans describe Wetterling as an extreme liberal who doesn't fit the conservative district. Wetterling rejects the label and says she's always been able to find the middle ground on issues. 

"I  think that the people want to see people who can be effective and work across party lines," Wetterling said. "Everybody talks about doing that. I've actually done it with the federal legislation in the 17 years I've been working and advocating."

John Binkowski
John Binkowski of the Independence Party has relied on debates to get his message out.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

There's a third option for voters in the 6th District, John Binkowski of the Independence Party.  He's a construction manager, college student and political novice who lives in St. Mary's Point. Binkowski, 27, wants to reduce federal spending, favors a gradual withdrawal of troops from Iraq and backs a national sales tax. Polls show his support stuck in the single digits. Still, Binkowski has enjoyed running a low-budget, alternative campaign.

"This has exceeded all expectations in many ways, in the response that we've gotten from people, which has been overwhelmingly positive," Binkowski said. "I was sort of nervous starting out that I might be perceived as a snotty young guy who was going to say that I have a better way."

Without the benefit of TV ads, Binkowski says he's trying to make his mark during several debates. Bachmann and Wetterling meanwhile have blanketed Twin Cities television with increasing negative ads. Financial reports show they've already raised a combined $4.65 million, which sets a new record for a Minnesota Congressional campaign.