House GOP walking fine line with Tea Party in effort to keep Bachmann and her ‘antics’ out of leadership

Jon Ward Contributor
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House Republicans Thursday reacted strongly against Rep. Michele Bachmann’s decision to run for a top leadership post in the new majority, looking to nip in the bud any chance that she might attract support from the substantially large group of incoming freshman lawmakers.

The trick for Republicans is to keep Bachmann – the Minnesota Republican viewed by many in leadership as an unserious and unhelpful spokesman for the party – away from an elevated platform that many in the party feel would hinder or harm the GOP, without being viewed as not listening to the Tea Party movement, which supplied much of the energy that gave them a 61-seat pickup and control of the House.

Bachmann is loved by many in the conservative grassroots for her outspoken support for a wide range of conservative positions, no matter how politically incorrect. She has developed a national profile after only two terms in Congress by appearing regularly on TV. But she has attracted significant negative attention as well for comments deemed extreme or careless.

She is running against Rep. Jeb Hensarling, a Texas Republican, for the chairmanship of the House Republican Conference, which functions as a communications and logistics hub for the party.

Top House Republicans from Eric Cantor to Paul Ryan are firmly behind Hensarling, arguing that he is a solid conservative who will provide the very “constitutional conservatism” that Bachmann says she represents.

But Hensarling is far less well known beyond Washington and his home district of the southeast Dallas suburbs, so there is potential for average grassroots conservatives who know of Bachmann but not Hensarling to interpret the party’s support for the latter as a slight of the Tea Party.

And Bachmann could, in fact, gain traction, if a significant number of incoming freshman Republicans side with her. But Republicans made the case, strenuously, that that won’t happen.

“Bachmann will have a tough time convincing anyone that Hensarling isn’t conservative enough,” a House Republican aide told The Daily Caller. “She’ll have an even tougher time convincing the conference that she wouldn’t take our whole team down in flames with her antics.”

Another House Republican staffer aligned with the most conservative elements of the party called Hensarling “literally unbeatable.”

“A Bachmann win would be possible were she running against a no-name do-nothing member,” the Republican said. “But Jeb Hensarling has been one of the most active members of the Conference in recent years–as [Republican Study Committee] chairman, as [National Republican Congressional Committee] fundraiser, as financial services and budget guru, and as media maven.”

Bachmann aides did not respond to requests for comment.

House Republicans were helped Thursday by two well-known political figures who have significant influence with Tea Party voters: Sarah Palin and Dick Armey.

Palin, in an e-mail to The Daly Caller, declined to endorse Bachmann, even though she has been an outspoken advocate on the congresswoman’s behalf and accused Politico of sexism Thursday for using a picture of Bachmann having makeup applied to her face.

“I’m taking a position on who gets to sit in the big boy highchair this morning for breakfast… Trig or Tripp?” Palin said, referring to her son and grandson, respectively. “Leadership in the US Congress this morning? Nah … not ’till after the Cheerios,” Palin said.

Armey, the chairman of FreedomWorks, defended Hensarling from the insinuation that he is an “establishment” politician bent on protecting the status quo, in an interview on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

“This is not an insider. This is not an establishment guy. He’s a very bright and able person,” Armey said, telling ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that he was “surprised to hear you characterize Jeb Hensarling as an establishment guy.”

One of the key things that Republicans are citing as an examples of Hensarling’s conservative bona fides is his opposition in 2008 to the TARP bailout of Wall Street banks. Hensarling was one of 171 members of Congress to vote against the bill.

“If you lose your ability to fail, soon you will lose your ability to succeed,” Hensarling said in a speech on the House floor opposing the bailout designed by then-President George W. Bush’s Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson.

A Hensarling aide argued Thursday that “Hensarling was an ‘insurgent’ before being an insurgent was cool.”

“He led the GOP opposition to the bailouts in 2008 and that involved being an insurgent against a sitting president and presidential candidate of his own party,” the Hensarling aide said. “Portraying the guy who was the leader of the opposition to the Bush bailouts as an establishment guy would be humorous if it weren’t so annoying in this context.”

The aide expressed frustration at what he said is “more of a media construct than a fact-based analysis,” pointing ratings by the American Conservative Union, Citizens Against Government Waste, the National Taxpayers Union and the Club for Growth that all show Hensarling as equally or more conservative than Bachmann.

Cantor said Hensarling’s “principled approach to limited government is unquestioned” and called him “an extremely effective communicator.”

Ryan cited Hensarling’s “economic expertise and strong ability to communicate” as the reasons for his support.

But Republicans are fighting an uphill battle in a political and media world of short hand references where Bachmann as Tea Party representative makes for an attractive storyline.

“The Tea Party has said, ‘We want a leadership post.’ … Will there be a Tea Party member in the leadership? And will Michele — is Michele Bachmann your choice to be in that fourth position?” ABC’s Diane Sawyer asked Republican leader John Boehner, the soon-to-be House Speaker, in an interview Thursday.

“We have a leadership table that reflects the broad group of members that are in our conference,” Boehner said. “Whoever the members elect, I’m going to serve with. And serve with successfully.”

It is difficult to know how Tea Party voters think and feel about specific issues precisely because it is such a decentralized movement. But one of the few national Tea Party groups made clear that they see these early leadership post decisions as important.

“We hope to see leadership that stands for conservative, Tea Party values, but we don’t get involved in internal GOP politics. However, we will be watching closely to see if the Republicans are serious about conservative principles,” said Mark Meckler, a co-founder of Tea Party Patriots.

And some on the right are labeling Bachmann as a Tea Party representative, in contrast to others.

“Rep. Bachmann is, in many ways, one of the leaders of the ‘tea party’ in Congress. Incoming GOP members would be well-served to have one of their own in leadership,” wrote the editors of BigGovernment.com, a website run by conservative media figure Andrew Breitbart.

No one wants to see Bachmann gain the Conference chairmanship more than Democrats.

“I would like to announce my endorsement of Michele Bachmann for that position. I’d like to see her out there for sure,” James Carville, a former campaign adviser to Bill Clinton, said on “Good Morning America.”

One House Democratic leadership aide grew wide-eyed as he described his hopes for a Bachmann win in the race with Hensarling.

Erick Erickson, a conservative activist and the founder of Redstate.com, said in an e-mail that while he is a fan of Bachmann’s, he supports Hensarling for the chairmanship, and hopes that Bachmann might serve as vice-chair, a post currently held by Cathy McMorris Rodgers, of Washington.

“I think there is a place in leadership for Bachmann and she has earned a spot by traveling the country tirelessly for candidates,” Erickson said. “But I think in that position, Hensarling is the best fit. I really hope the leadership will push her for Vice-Chairman of Conference. She and Hensarling together would be a great tag team.”

Jonathan Strong contributed to this report.

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