Meet the man who could defeat Michele Bachmann.
Jim Graves is a 58-year-old self-made Minnesota businessman and grandfather of seven, still married to his high-school sweetheart, running against a symbol of unhinged hyperpartisanship in the halls of Congress. Bachmann’s bizarre presidential run only highlighted what an awkward fit she is for the common sense civility that characterizes “Minnesota Nice.”
But she’s never faced a truly competitive opponent, despite a string of narrow wins—and that’s changed this time around.
“I started my first company in a basement with $2,000 in the bank, and I’ve been able to create thousands of jobs,” says Graves, who started the mid-scale AmericInn hotel chain. “I’m a person who understands the economy and has built real businesses on Main Street. Now I want to give something back. I’ll be a good ambassador for the district. And you can juxtapose that against Michele Bachmann—someone who’s divisive and antagonistic, ridicules our president, and spreads fear and division.”
“My policy approach transcends political lines,” Graves says. “I’m a centrist, a libertarian when it comes to social issues—I don’t think government should be involved with personal lives. I really believe in separation of church and state. Bachmann wants to blur those lines—she would [replace] our democracy with a theocracy … She epitomizes everything that’s wrong with Congress and this country—a lack of civility, a lack of bipartisan or nonpartisan approach to problem solving.”
Polls show the race is now neck and neck—with 48 percent for Bachmann and 46 percent for Graves and the remaining still undecided, according to a Greenberg Quinlan Rosner poll (outside polling also shows Graves close behind, within single digits). Crucially, independent voters now lean toward Graves by a 15-point margin. Now the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is backing Graves in his campaign, showing it is very much in play.
But this is the most conservative district in Minnesota, compounded by redistricting. Moreover, Bachmann has been a successful conspiracy entrepreneur—raising millions of dollars in campaign donation by throwing out extreme statements—such as questioning how many fellow congressmen have “anti-American” views (to use one mild example)—and then fundraising off it by playing the victim.
“She makes these inflammatory comments for fundraising purposes,” Graves recognizes. “As soon as she says something outrageous, the money spigot opens up. I was just told she’s raised more than $20 million this race”—in fact that number includes the money she took in during her presidential primary run—”that’s unbelievable in a rural moderate Minnesota district. We’re more in the $2 million range—so she’s got a 10 to 1 advantage.”
True to form, Bachmann is hiding behind a barrage of negative ads while refusing to debate Graves until the final week of the campaign.
“She’s spending millions on ridiculous attacks ads saying I am somehow responsible for TARP, the stimulus bill, the Affordable Care Act,” he says with a laugh. “But I wasn’t in Congress then—I was busy trying to keep my company afloat and make payroll. She was the one in Congress at the time. She’s attacking me as being a big spender, despite the fact that’s the opposite of what I am. I’m a business guy. I’m a spendthrift.”
The political leaders he admires don’t fit narrow partisan lines. “President Clinton did a great job in the 1990s—he balanced the budget and was able to work with people like Speaker Gingrich and others. It sent the message that we can balance the budget but we need to be willing to compromise. I like the way that Reagan brought the country together—I don’t agree with everything he did but he certainly garnered a lot of positive feelings during a difficult time for the country.”
But interestingly, Graves doesn’t connect his campaign to the current president. “My campaign isn’t an endorsement of President Obama’s first term in office,” Graves says. “I would have done some things differently than he did—I’m staying focused on doing what’s right for the people on the Sixth Congressional District.”
Graves believes the tipping point in the district was the combination of Bachmann’s presidential campaign creating embarrassment for constituents and a more recent self-inflicted scandal. “I think a turning point was Ms. Huma Abedin and the whole Muslim brotherhood conspiracy theory. And when people in the district saw that Speaker Boehner and Senator McCain said this has no basis in reality, I think that woke people up here. That’s not what a person in Congress or especially a person on the intelligence committee should say.”
This is a congressional race with national implications because a defeat for Bachmann would send a clear message to members of Congress that there is such a thing as too extreme in American politics. It would advance the cause of civility and constructive problem solving because it would show Washington that voters will punish those politicos who pander to the fringes while trying to divide and conquer.
“Yes, it’s the most conservative district in the state,” says Graves, acknowledging the challenge of this campaign. “But I look at it this way: everyone has the same primary interests—access to good jobs and fiscal responsibility. Everyone wants the economy to do better and those issues transcend party registration.”
Update: This article has been revised to reflect that Bachmann last week agreed to debate Graves, to show additional poll results, and to clarify that Bachmann’s fundraising total includes money raised for her presidential campaign earlier this year.