Bachmann faces strong challenge

Rep. Michele BachmannMichele Marie BachmannBachmann won't run for Franken's Senate seat because she did not hear a 'call from God' Billboard from ‘God’ tells Michele Bachmann not to run for Senate Pawlenty opts out of Senate run in Minnesota MORE (R-Minn.) is facing a surprisingly tough reelection battle.

The Tea Party favorite and former presidential candidate has over the years warded off a succession of well-funded challengers with a combination of hard work and huge fundraising hauls.

But her challenger this time around, moderate businessman Jim Graves (D), is better suited to the district than previous opponents, and has a new line of attack: That she has abandoned Minnesota and is more interested in being a national figure.

“She hasn't created one job — she creates headlines. People are tired of the show horse, they want a workhorse,” Graves told The Hill. “She doesn't represent the district, she doesn't get the job done. I think the district deserves a full-time on the ground voice in Congress, and her divisiveness and antagonism shows what's wrong with Washington.”

Polls show a surprisingly close race, especially since the newly redrawn district is actually a touch more conservative than her old one — it would have given President Obama just 43 percent of its vote in 2008.

A poll for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune released earlier this week had her leading by six points, while a SurveyUSA poll from last week had her up by nine. Graves argues the race is even closer than that, and has released internal polls showing him within the margin of error.

Bachmann has been running ads tying Graves to President Obama and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), slamming him for supporting the stimulus and Democrats’ health care reform law, though he’s said he only backs parts of it.

“He'd be a vote for Nancy Pelosi as speaker and a rubber stamp for the Obama agenda, and he's already voiced support for wildly expensive measures like the stimulus and Obamacare,” Bachmann campaign spokesman Chase Kroll told The Hill. “He's just another big-spending liberal who wants to go do it in Congress.”

Graves pushed back.

“I'm a totally independent spirit. I'm not here endorsing Obama's first term — he's done things I would have done differently. I don't think he united the country enough, and he should've picked up the Simpson Bowles initiative,” he said, referencing a bipartisan initiative to balance the budget.

The congresswoman has flexed her considerable fundraising muscle for the race, bringing in a total of $13 million already. That includes $4.5 million in the last full fundraising quarter, the largest haul of any House candidate in the country. She has more than $3 million in the bank.

Graves hasn’t matched that and he says he doesn’t want to completely self-fund. But he said he’s put between $250,000 and $500,000 into the race, and that his campaign will end up spending between $1.5 million and $2 million in total, enough to get his message out. Bachmann’s campaign says he’s already spent a half-million dollars and they are braced for him to spend more.

Kroll declined to share Bachmann’s internal polls, but said she was up by a comfortable margin. CREDO PAC, a liberal super-PAC, is seeking to take her out, but the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has yet to spend any money in the district, a sign they don’t see it as one of the more competitive races in the country.

But a recent Bachmann ad suggests she’s worried about Graves’s attacks that she’s abandoned the district. The ad features constituents talking about her work for the region, saying she’s “here every week fighting for Minnesota jobs.”

Kroll denied that the ad had anything to do with her opponent’s attacks.

“That ad isn't a response to anything Graves has done or said, that ad was actually cut a while ago because we had families and business owners who said they wanted to go on air for Michele and go to bat for her,” he said.

He also said the months she spent campaigning in Iowa hadn’t hurt her campaign. “She did have to miss some votes just like Obama when he was running, McCain when he was. She missed votes just like every other candidate who's ever run for president,” said Kroll.

The two are set to debate three times between now and Election Day, with their first meeting occurring next Tuesday. Those debates could affect the race, especially if one or the other has a major stumble.

The Tea Party firebrand is still the favorite to win in the Republican-leaning district. But that there’s a race at all this close to the election is a surprise.