Michele Bachmann’s Political Swan Song

Amid a tangle of federal investigations into alleged misuses of campaign finances, and a looming re-election fight against a tough opponent, Bachmann bows out.

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Alex Wong / Getty Images

Michele Bachmann after a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on May 16, 2013.

Michele Bachmann’s swift rise and bruising fall tracked the fortunes of the Tea Party movement she helped inspire. Her punchy stem-winders against Barack Obama made her a cable-news celebrity, a fundraising powerhouse and, briefly, an insurgent contender in the 2012 GOP presidential primary.

But by the time Bachmann announced early Wednesday that she would not seek a fifth Congressional term in 2014, she had also become something of a punchline. She was a gifted provocateur but an indifferent legislator. Her penchant for incendiary rhetoric — which often shaded into outright misinformation — incensed Democrats and alienated many fellow Republicans.

A former tax lawyer first elected in 2006, Bachmann, 57, practiced politics as infotainment, using her perch in Congress to bludgeon her opponents with a freewheeling style that made her a favorite of the Tea Party grassroots. A conservative firebrand, she fashioned herself as one of the leading critics of the President’s health-care law and an unrestrained federal government. She helped to form the Tea Party Caucus, and surfed the movement’s rise from the back benches of the House to national celebrity.

Bachmann attacked her targets without much care for accuracy; at times her penchant for hyperbole helped keep the political fact-checking industry afloat. (Her file at PolitiFact, which rated just 15% of Bachmann’s statements it assessed to be true or mostly true, is a trip through the fever swamps of conservative paranoia. In a send-off that seemed tinged with genuine regret, the Washington Post‘s Glenn Kessler called her “a fact-checker’s dream.”) This approach helped fuel her victory in the 2011 Iowa straw poll, which briefly vaulted her into the top echelon of the GOP presidential contenders.

But Bachmann’s campaign unraveled quickly, hampered by internal strife, mismanagement and a flawed candidate prone to misstatements. She exited the race after plunging to sixth in the state’s first-in-the-nation caucuses, with just 5% of the vote. In November, Iowa’s Republican governor pointed to her victory at Ames to make the case that the non-binding beauty contest had “outlived its usefulness.”

Bachmann’s decision to bow out of a looming re-election battle, revealed in an 8 min., 40 second video released in the middle of the night, spares Republicans the hassle of defending some of her outré remarks and may help them hold onto Minnesota’s most conservative district.

The move comes amid a tangle of of federal investigations into alleged malfeasance during her messy presidential bid. The Office of Congressional Ethics, the Federal Election Commission and an Iowa investigator appointed by the state supreme court have looked into separate claims that her campaign concealed payments to a Hawkeye State senator who worked for her campaign, pilfered a private database of an Iowa home-schooling network, and misused campaign funds to promote a memoir. Bachmann has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, and did so again in her video message early Wednesday.

“Rest assured, this decision was not impacted in any way by the recent inquiries into the activities of my former presidential campaign or my former presidential staff,” she says. “It was clearly understood that compliance with all rules and regulations was an absolute necessity for my presidential campaign. And I have no reason to believe that that was not the case.”

The cloud of ethics probes wasn’t the only possible deterrent. Bachmann was facing a tough re-election battle against Jim Graves, a wealthy businessman who came within a few thousand votes of toppling her last year. She insists in the video that this wasn’t a factor.

“Be assured: My decision was not in any way influenced by any concerns about my being reelected to Congress,” Bachmann says. “I have every confidence that if I ran, I would again defeat the individual who I defeated last year.”

But retiring now allows Bachmann, who never showed much interest in Washington dealmaking, to hit the cable news or speaking circuit with an unblemished electoral record. She remains a conservative touchstone; on the day she declared she wouldn’t run again, an e-book publisher released a political-romance novel with a heroine — a presidential candidate “full of firebrand pluck and red state sex appeal” — modeled after the congressman. Bachmann may be done with Washington, but her fans aren’t over her yet.