Bachmann’s rise and fall—and what it says about the GOP

Beth Fouhy

There was a time, albeit brief, when polls showed Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann topping the 2012 Republican presidential primary field. And that tells you something about the challenges the GOP faces as it tries to rebrand itself as a viable party in presidential politics.

Bachmann, who announced on Wednesday she would not seek re-election to the House, is a tea party favorite popular with many conservative GOP base voters even though she was never fully embraced by the party's leadership in Washington. Outspoken, forceful and attractive—let's not pretend that doesn't matter!—Bachmann's fiery denunciations of President Barack Obama and his policies established her as a national figure and a popular fundraising draw among grass-roots donors even before she launched her presidential campaign.

While her views and style often drew comparisons to the party's 2008 vice presidential nominee, Sarah Palin, it was Bachmann who was willing to step in and compete in the 2012 Republican contest while Palin sat on the sidelines.

Polls showed Bachmann leading the GOP field early in the summer of 2011, and she won the Iowa straw poll, an important organizational test for candidates in the kickoff caucus state. But her candidacy ultimately flamed out amid questions about her grasp of facts. And the positions she espoused on the presidential campaign stage only helped cement the impression of a Republican Party out of touch with a diversifying electorate.

"She had the image of someone determined, disciplined and, in some sense, gutsy," Ruth Mandel of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University told Yahoo News. "But there was always the question of who is her constituency, and what is her credibility?"

As a presidential hopeful, Bachmann made a strong impression—the only woman in the field and a fierce, unapologetic partisan unafraid of blunt rhetoric. “I will not rest until Obamacare is repealed," she declared at a debate in New Hampshire. "It’s a promise, take it to the bank, cash the check.”

But Bachmann also spoke of "anchor babies" on the campaign trail when asked about her views on immigration reform. She opposed vaccinating girls against the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus, claiming the vaccine, Gardasil, caused a friend's daughter to become mentally retarded. She compared the U.S. tax burden with the Holocaust. And she repeatedly reaffirmed her opposition to same-sex marriage, the issue that had launched her political activism in Minnesota.

Bachmann was narrowly re-elected to her House seat in 2012, and she has retained a relatively high profile on cable television, regularly laying into Obama over issues including the fatal attack on the diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya. Her address at the Conservative Political Action Conference in March drew roars of approval when she accused Obama and his family of a lavish taxpayer-supported lifestyle including a dedicated White House dog walker. The speech was later savaged by fact checkers.

Bachmann also drew a rebuke from Republican Sen. John McCain and others for sending a letter to the State Department suggesting that Huma Abedin, a top aide to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, had ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Recently, Bachmann said she was "disappointed" with Minnesota over the state's legalization of gay marriage, saying it "denies religious liberty to people who believe in traditional marriage and who do not want to be forced to violate their conscience and sincerely held religious beliefs."

In a video address in which she announced her decision to retire from Congress, she stands firm on her views on that issue and others.

"I will continue to work vehemently and robustly to fight back against what most in the other party want to do to transform our country into becoming—which would be a nation our founders would hardly even recognize today," she says. "I proudly have and I promise you I will continue to fight to protect innocent human life, traditional marriage [and] family values."