U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann says she pulled in $5.4 million in campaign contributions in the third quarter of this year -- more than any Minnesota congressional candidate has ever raised in an entire campaign, let alone a three-month period.
Experts say the money strengthens Bachmann's advantage in her re-election campaign, and gives her the freedom to plan her political future -- or that of others.
To put the size of Bachmann's war chest in perspective: Her third-quarter total of $5.4 million exceeds what candidates in the most expensive Senate race in 2008 amassed in the same period. Sen. Al Franken pulled in $4.1 million that third quarter, and his opponent, former Sen. Norm Coleman, piled up $2.8 million.
Bachmann's campaign says the third-quarter funds came from about 80,000 contributors nationwide. That's twice as many as the 44,000 individual donors who contributed to the campaign of her DFL opponent Tarryl Clark.
Clark has not yet released her latest finance numbers, which are officially due on Friday. Clark's spokeswoman Carrie Lucking says the campaign never aimed to outraise Bachmann. But Lucking says the forthcoming numbers will show that their camp set some records, too.
"I'm proud to report that we will set another record for a challenger running for Congress this quarter, and that we will be among the top, if not the top, Democratic fundraiser in the nation," said Lucking.
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Independence Party candidate Bob Anderson's spokesman says his camp has raised about $6,000 in the third quarter.
Political scientist Eric Ostermeier of the University of Minnesota says Bachmann has outstripped her peers because of her national reputation as a media darling, and the head of the tea party Caucus in Congress.
"She's able now to appeal nationally, because she is a household name among conservatives," he said.
Plus, Ostermeier notes Democrats in the state and nationally targeted the campaign. They could have pumped money into the race against incumbent GOP Rep. Erik Paulsen in the 3rd District, which is much more Democrat-friendly. The 6th District is the most Republican leaning in the state.
"And yet most of the money and energy and calories being burned gets spent on trying to dethrone Bachmann," said Ostermeier.
Bachmann has been mentioned as a potential presidential or vice presidential candidate down the road. Ostermeier doubts she raised her money with such ambitions in mind, especially since she recently removed her name from a presidential straw poll at the Values Voter Summit, a conference for conservatives.
"You can become a player in state and national Republican circles by virtue of the fact that you've got funds to throw around."
But experts say Bachmann will likely be in a position to hold onto her pile of cash for future campaigns. Bachmann campaign spokesman Sergio Gor says she finished the third quarter with $3.4 million cash on hand.
When asked what Bachmann's campaign plans to do with any leftover funds, Gor said, "The donations being raised are for the current race. We have a very expensive media market in the Twin Cities."
Some would beg to differ.
"It looks to me that she can't possibly spend the money she's already raised," said political scientist Steven Smith of Washington University in St. Lous.
"She's raising as much as statewide candidates for governor and U.S. Senate raise, and she's running in a constituency one-eighth that size. So there's just no way she can spend all that money," he said.
Smith says Bachmann will have a lot of options about what to do with the cash. She's not allowed to hold onto it personally, but she could keep it in reserve for her next congressional campaign.
"At a minimum, if she's able to retain her seat and redistricting doesn't create too many problems for her, she'll be in a position to fend off challenges without lifting a finger, two years from now," said Smith.
State law would forbid Bachmann from using the money for a gubernatorial bid. But Smith thinks Republicans will likely see her as a good candidate in a statewide race for U.S. senator.
Bachmann could also use the funds to support other candidates.
"You can become a player in state and national Republican circles by virtue of the fact that you've got funds to throw around," said Smith.
According to the Federal Elections Commission, a campaign committee can give up to $5,000 to any other political committee per calendar year, and up to $2,000 to other candidates for U.S. House or Senate per election cycle.