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Michele Bachmann, queen of the tea party, searches for what’s next

The "Queen of the Tea Party," Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) is leaving Congress at the end of the year. Here is a round-up of some of her most memorable moments in politics and on the campaign trail. (Jackie Kucinich/The Washington Post)

IN ST. CLOUD, MINN.

Last month, on a cool Minnesota afternoon, Rep. Michele Bachmann donned an oversize white lab coat and made the rounds in St. Cloud’s newest kidney center. Soon to be out of a job in Congress, the pint-size ball of tea party energy came to this hospital as part of her goodbye tour around her district, a suburban and rural area just north of the Twin Cities that never quite seemed big enough for her ambitions.

Bachmann, a youthful 58, strolled over to a big man strapped up to a dialysis machine. His gray hair spilled out of a hat that said: “Dysfunctional Veteran. Leave me alone.” Bachmann ignored this advice.

“Hi, I’m Michele Bachmann,” she said with a singsong voice and a smile that could crush diamonds.

“I thought it was you,” he said. “Why aren’t you running? Are you running for president?”

“I already ran for president,” she said.

“It didn’t work out too well last time, did it?” he said.

“I won the Iowa straw poll! That’s something,” she said. He shrugged.

“She’s been okay,” he said, after she moved on to other patients. “She should have stuck around Congress. But chances are, I’ll get to see her more often here.” He motioned to his TV. “That’s probably what she wants, anyway.”

In the past eight years, Bachmann gained a national profile with her prescient embrace of the tea party, made a run at the Republican nomination for president, and helped lead the fight against Obamacare, a.k.a. the Affordable Care Act. Now she’s leaving Congress with a thin legislative record but armed with plans to remain in a spotlight that once shone blindingly upon her.

Bachmann says the model laid out by former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) in his post-congressional life is a “great example” of what she’d like to do: some time as a talking head, a position at a think tank (preferably having something to do with foreign policy), premium speaking fees and maybe a book or two. But it’s no easy task becoming the next Newt Gingrich. Just ask him.

“I have no idea what the ‘next’ Newt Gingrich would even sound like, so who knows if she can do that?” Gingrich said in a phone interview. “I know I’m having a hard enough time figuring out what this Newt Gingrich should sound like.”

Still, Gingrich thinks highly of Bachmann and was happy to dole out advice when she stopped by his office. Sit down with some people you trust, he told her. Find the people who do the kind of stuff you’d like to do and get their opinions.

So, the past few months have been a whirlwind of meetings for Bachmann, and her boosters have a common message: She should try to be a force in the 2016 elections.

“If there’s going to be a woman running for the Democrats, why not have the one woman who has participated in dozens of presidential debates out there to talk about it?” GOP pollster Kellyanne Conway said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if one of the non-Fox channels took a look at her and recognized she is a big household name.”

Bachmann met with Meghan McCain, TV host and daughter of a former presidential candidate, to talk about reaching young voters; chatted with former senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and took a boat ride in the Sea of Galilee with the Family Research Council leader and evangelical kingmaker Tony Perkins. (He was thinking about getting into Congress, she was thinking about getting out. They both decided Congress wasn’t for them.)

Actor and close friend Jon Voight said he’d talk to his friends at Fox News on her behalf. As far as he’s concerned, Bachmann is already a star. If there were ever to be a movie about her life, he said, his daughter Angelina Jolie would be great for the part. “Actually, that was not a wise thing for me to say, because her politics are not with Michele,” he said later. “I only wish they would be.”

For years, Bachmann did everything right for the conservative movement. At the height of the tea party’s influence, there might have been no bigger name in the House. But the tea party’s clout has diminished, and Bachmann is leaving Congress under the cloud of an ethics scandal involving illicit payments to a onetime supporter of her 2012 presidential run.

In 2009, there would have been no doubt that Bachmann was destined to cash in when she left Congress. Now, not everybody is so sure.

“She’s kind of become damaged goods,” said Ed Rollins, the longtime Republican consultant who managed Bachmann’s presidential campaign for a time. “The serious people are not going to take her seriously.”

Bachmann has spent a lot of time saying goodbyes. She’ll pretend not to love it, but only for a second.

“I know it sounds odd and counterintuitive, but I don’t like to be the center of things, I don’t like to have that kind of attention,” she said from the front seat of a Suburban on her way to one of her last meetings with constituents. Her striped hoodie, in combination with her perfectly straight hair and flawless makeup, gave her the sheen of a celebrity playing it casual. “But the goodbye parties turned out to be nice. It was like a eulogy in a way, people come out and say nice things about you. It’s awesome, it’s everyone’s dream come true.”

She turned to her communications director, who was driving the car. “We gotta get him the tribute videos!” Later, they appeared in my inbox.

“I know very few people who are Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who are Gandhi, who are a modern-day Martin Luther King,” the cherubic Glenn Beck says earnestly into the camera. “Yes, I understand all of those didn’t work out well in the end, but I think you are the best parts of them.”

The video includes praise from the likes of Fox’s Sean Hannity; the head of the Tea Party Patriots, Jenny Beth Martin; and even a cameo from Al Franken. (“You know we do not agree on much, but we do agree on some things,” the Democratic senator from Minnesota says, pausing for dramatic effect. “Um . . . whoo . . . aaah . . . hmm . . . Asian carp! We don’t want Asian carp in Minnesota.”)

Whether you love her or hate her (and there are plenty of people in both camps), it seems as if Bachmann has been around a lot longer than her nearly eight years in Washington. The former tax attorney, mother to five children and 23 foster children, organized Congress’s tea party caucus, was a pugnacious voice on television, and proved a reliable source of traffic for liberal and conservative bloggers everywhere.

Even this summer, she threw around some weight, working with Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) to help sink her party’s attempt at a border security bill.

“She doesn’t take nuanced political positions,” said Perkins of the Family Research Council. He meant it as a compliment. “She’s a rock star when it comes to conservatives.”

But while her star may still burn, it’s in a shrinking universe.

This month, Bachmann gave one of her last official speeches as a member of Congress, to the Heritage Foundation. The audience was primarily made up of a couple dozen interns.

“She played an important role in helping to brand the Republican Party and conservative movement as opposed to the Obama agenda in 2009 and 2010,” conservative pundit Ramesh Ponnuru of the National Review said in a phone interview. “But I’m not sure that she has found quite as compelling a role since then.”

Bachmann doesn’t see it that way. “People are very appreciative for the work that I’ve done here,” she said in the car, still daydreaming about the Tom Sawyer fantasy of attending her own funeral. “A lot of times, you wonder if anybody noticed or anybody cared. It’s not like a member of Congress is this big, exalted position.”

This isn’t the first time she tried to leave Congress for something a little more exalted. She did run for president. She was the first woman to win the Ames Straw Poll but ended up finishing sixth in the caucuses. The race kept her in the national conversation, but not always for the right reasons.

In August, a former Iowa state senator pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and concealing campaign payments as part of an endorsement-for-pay-scheme during the 2012 Iowa Republican caucuses.

The man, Kent Sorenson, had been paid between $7,000 and $7,500 a month to support Bachmann, according to court documents. A state Senate ethics panel found “probable cause” that these payments violated the body’s ethics rules.

Bachmann’s former chief of staff, Andy Parrish, has said in a sworn affidavit that Bachmann knew about these payments, but it’s unclear whether there will be further investigation into her role in the matter. Last year, the House Ethics Committee said it wouldn’t pursue a full-scale investigation.

“I think as far as me and my campaign are concerned, it has been pretty well wound down,” Bachmann said when asked about the issue.

Sorenson seemed to think otherwise when I reached him briefly over the phone. “There’s a lot of things I’d like to say, but I just can’t,” he said breathlessly. “But in the near future, I think you’ll see a lot of things that will make it clear why she would resign.”

Regardless of her exact role in the matter, Bachmann’s reputation didn’t escape unscathed.

Bachmann has kept a much lower profile since her presidential campaign imploded and since she eked out a victory in her last congressional race by 51 percent to 49 percent. In May of last year, she announced she would not seek reelection.

Her friends say it has nothing to do with the ethics issue or even with the possibility of another difficult race. A couple of people close to her said that one reason she is leaving Congress is because her husband, Marcus Bachmann, has had health problems. Bachmann said that yes, Marcus has been suffering from serious chronic pain, but no, this is not why she is stepping aside.

Bachmann put it this way: “I’ve worked as hard as I could for as long as I could.”

To watch Michele Bachmann in action on one of her last swings through her district as a congresswoman is to see the very definition of Midwestern nice, the kind of person who has probably been told at least once, “Ya got spunk, kid.” For a time, you can almost forget what made her a controversial figure. She visited the home of a family that had adopted nine children with various disabilities. Bachmann got every single one of them to smile (she did whatever it took, from singing along to One Direction to a lightsaber fight).

Later, she headed to the groundbreaking of an education center at a wildlife refuge where she channeled her inner Henry David Thoreau to talk about the meaning of life.

“Finding a feather, holding a stick, putting a rock in your pocket, that’s life,” she told the crowd.

As one of her final stops on this late September day, Bachmann went to a coffee shop to meet with her constituents face-to-face.

While there, a contractor named Mike Dubois had a question for her about how his construction business should deal with what he considered burdensome Environmental Protection Agency regulations. She directed him to speak with a local state representative who was in the crowd. She moved on to join constituents who wanted to talk about something a little more cable-news ready.

On immigration: “What the president wants to do now is grant wholesale amnesty,” she shouted to the gaggle that quickly formed around her. “He’s planning to do an executive order and make everybody legal. Presumably, it could include terrorists that are here in the United States.”

The crowd chimed in. “Well, kick him out then.” “Impeach him.” “Send him back to Kenya!”

Bachmann laughed. She opened her arms wide, harnessing the energy from the room.

“I didn’t know we were supposed to have a king,” a voter said.

“No, I agree, we’re not supposed to have a king,” Bachmann said.

“He’s a dictator.”

“He’s a dictator now,” Bachmann parroted back. “He’s making up the law as he goes along.”

Dubois, the contractor, stood in the back of the room watching.

“She’s more focused on the federal level than the state level, which concerns me a bit,” he said, perturbed that she pawned him off onto someone else. “I didn’t like that she told me to talk to the state representative. She’s drifted away from the state. It wasn’t a very Minnesota type of response.”

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