Inside Last Night's Michele Bachmann Debate-Watching Party

by Abe Sauer

“Oh my God, who invited you?” That’s the first question Chelsea, the young woman with the Michele Bachmann event tag dangling from her neck, asked me when I told the Champps hostess I was here for the Fox News-Google GOP debate viewing party.

Chelsea is distraught, because Bachmann’s campaign might somehow be on the hook for the event’s food and drinks. “I don’t know who organized this. We don’t have any money for this,” she said, kind of having a small breakdown.

Bachmann’s former campaign manager had recently revealed that Bachmann’s operation is basically on life support — telling MSNBC that she “doesn’t have the ability or the resources to go beyond Iowa at this point in time.” After spending like a drunken sailor to win Ames, the only variation on her fundraising woes is the color words used by the press. The Times: “major headwinds.” Minneapolis Star-Tribune: “high hurdle.”

Chelsea will apologize through the evening for being “way too wired.” But she feels better when I show her the invite email I received: “Food/beverages are on your own.” I was invited, and so I came.

Relieved, Chelsea took me back to the empty mezzanine seating area where I and 25 or so Bachmann supporters will watch the Congresswoman’s performance. Together, we will come to one conclusion: “It’s like Perry was on drugs.”

The Maple Grove Champps Americana is not actually in Bachmann’s 6th Congressional district, but in Republican Erik Paulsen’s 3rd, which acts like a vertebral disc between Bachmann’s zone and the 5th — which is represented by not only a Democrat but the first Muslim Congressman, Keith Ellison. But it is appropriate we’re in Champps Americana, not only because it is a favorite local Minnesota chain (that most locals probably don’t know was bought by Colorado’s F&H Acquisition five years ago) but also because it’s a sports bar. That modern American politics are called “sport” is more than just a throwaway criticism.

As we waited, Chelsea explained to me how she “just goes wherever they send me,” referring to the campaign. She was in Iowa. She has no idea where she’ll go next. Asked why she’s such a Bachmann supporter, Chelsea told me it’s “because she’s what America needs right now.” I press: but what specifically? “What do you mean,” Chelsea said.

Before long, the table fills with others, many of who have, or continue to, work and volunteer for Bachmann. David Fitzsimmons, a tall man whose goatee boasts poorly protected borders, seems the most in touch with the current campaign, probably because he is chairman of the Republican Party in the Bachmann’s district. A former Ron Paul fan, Fitzsimmons is now behind Bachmann.

Three women join us: one prim in a trench coat, another sips white wine. Two men of a certain kind of Minnesota beefiness sit down: one wears a giant black cowboy hat, the other all Twins gear. Just before the debate begins, Scott Winer, manager of this Champps, and Rob Powell, Minnesota Senate District 32 Republican Party Co-Chair, sit next to me. Powell orders his second of three Guinnesses and, a day after Bachmann called food safety regulations “overkill,” I order a delicious mountain of nachos.

For a group brought together to watch the debate, the Bachmann supporters don’t stay very glued to the TV.

Bachmann fields her first question, about how much one should pay to taxes, and she lays a giant egg. “She just contradicted herself,” said Winer, sipping his drink.

“What’s that?” asked Chelsea.

“Jack Daniels and sour,” he said.

“Is that a beer?” asked Chelsea.

David, who is constantly checking his phone for tweets, sets the bar of lowered expectations. “These things are what they are.”

The first loud cheer of the night comes not for Bachmann but for Herman Cain’s promise to eliminate the EPA. “But didn’t he say that he’d then rebuild it?” worries the women in a “Michele Bachmann Homeschool Coalition” t-shirt.

If you have not yet read it, these debates offer the perfect opportunity to pick up Jim Lehrer’s latest, Tension City: Inside the Presidential Debates, from Kennedy-Nixon to Obama-McCain. Lehrer’s book appropriately bookends an era when questions for those running for the office came from a select group of elite broadcast journalists (except, as Lehrer points out, one Chicago Sun-Times editor).

For this debate, Fox invited users to submit questions via its (Google-owned) Youtube page. The questions chosen included those on immigration, gays in the military, Israel and the 10th Amendment. Coincidentally, one intriguing entry from Covington, LA that went unasked [all sic]: “I am currently in the 50% of Americans that are not required to pay Fed. income taxes. Dispite Mr. Buffet and Mr. Obama’s complaints, I feel this is unfair. Will you find a way to include ALL Americans, even me, into our tax system?” Your move, Mr. Buffett.

When the group wasn’t watching the debate, they were talking state politics and how Obama just simply must be defeated somehow. “You look at it, and they have the same-sized, same-looking houses. It’s a microcosm of socialism up there,” says the women drinking white wine, lamenting the inability of Republicans to gain traction in certain impoverished parts of northern Minnesota.

Obamacare. Goddamn Obamacare! If there was one thing everyone in this room agreed on, it’s that Obamacare has got to go. Winer nodded his head in agreement as each candidate took shots at Obamacare. His only criticism was of Romney’s technical answer involving an executive order to issue waivers to each state blah blah blah. He felt Romney’s answer seemed weak on Obamacare. “Just get rid of it,” he said. Business has not been good for Winer. “It is what it is,” he said of the weak economy. “My dream ticket is Chris Christie and Rubio.”

“What’s Obamacare about anyway?” said Chelsea.

“You know, I couldn’t even tell you,” said David, clearly able but unwilling.

Bachmann’s crew got rolling with the Congresswomen’s answer about education. It made for the first cheers of the night for her and energized everyone.

Bachmann lucked into the immigration question and said, among other things, that she would like to build a wall along every inch of our border. Her people love hearing her be tough on immigration. They like all the immigration stances except Perry’s. “I just don’t understand that. Makes no sense,” said the prim women in the trench, referring to Perry’s in-state tuition policy for “illegals.”

Big picture reports often paint Bachmann and Perry as very similar candidates. But that doesn’t seem right at all. The candidates these Bachmann supporters respond best to are Herman Cain and, in a few answers, Rick Santorum. The ones I speak with admit Newt is a legend, a major brain, worthy of respect (if not a vote). They even find Ron Paul and Gary Johnson adorably goofy and lovable.

The conventional wisdom might be that, once Bachmann’s gone, her evangelical base will fall in behind Perry. But this crowd seems more likely to give its vote to… Romney. With Perry already having sucked up all of the vacillating Bachmann fans, those diehards who are left see Perry as the greatest enemy in the field.

The HPV question finally comes home to roost and Bachmann backs off her original claims by dumping all the blame on the anonymous mother and then savaging Perry. “I think she did a good job actually,” said one woman, her white wine now gone.

“If somebody told her that story, then what’s she supposed to do?” lamented the women in the trench. “I mean, I should know if my child is having sex or not. It’s my choice.”

Of all the issues these Bachmann supporters could break with her on, somehow it’s her HPV vaccine claims. Another women leaned in and flatly said the vaccine is a good thing: “I even heard it’s for boys. They said boys can get it too.”

While Bachmann takes Perry to task as a Tea Party bandwagon jumper and crony capitalist, her public easing off on Romney is seen as a posture for a VP spot. Yet she kneecapped Romney at the pre-debate event with Ralph Reed’s new joint, the Faith And Freedom Coalition, when she implored social values conservatives not to settle and instead seek out a candidate whose values they “share.” (Coded message, received!) Bachmann banged away at this idea of not settling again during the debate, although with not quite a strong-enough evangelical pitch.

On his way out, the man with the big black cowboy hat waved goodbye and says that Perry clearly did the worst: “It’s like he was on drugs.”

Bachmann has time to dawdle and find a new play. She has missed about 53 percent of Congressional votes since she announced and has not held an event in her district anytime in recent memory.

“Ours is one of the most gerrymandered districts in the country,” said Bachmann’s fellow Stillwater resident Karl Bremer, an investigative journalist and co-author of the upcoming book The Madness of Michele Bachmann: A Broad-Minded Survey of a Small-Minded Candidate. While her district will be redrawn, probably by the courts, between now and February, if it remains anything like it is, Bremer says, “She would almost certainly win.” Bachmann has until the first week of June, 2012 to announce a run to hold her current seat. But with the GOP national convention not until September of 2012, she may be forced to decide before getting any vice-presidential nod, a goal a few of her supporters here grudgingly admit to in passing.

The table exploded in laughter. Everyone had jumped to huddle around David’s phone as he read Michelle Malkin’s tweet: “If Perry goes after Obama in debates like he just did against Romney, we’re screwed. Just saying.”

“Awesome,” they said. “So true.” And: “I love Malkin.”

“Wait, are you Michelle Malkin?” Chelsea asked the woman in the trench coat.

Abe Sauer can be reached at abesauer at gmail dot com. He is on Twitter.