Just because tea party fundraising queen Michele Bachmann has bowed out of a second Sixth District congressional matchup against Democrat business mogul Jim Graves, don't assume Graves now has the upper hand.
If anything, his race may have just become a whole lot harder.
Minnesota's Sixth District leans Republican. It's one of the most conservative in the state. And while the district isn't a tea party haven either, a more moderate Republican challenger could give Graves a run for his money.
Bachmann eked out a win last November against Graves after a haphazard presidential run and a series of high-profile public gaffes. But despite spending $12 million on the race, she won by just over 1 percent when GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney swept the district by 15 points. GOP operatives are hoping the right Republican challenger could appeal to many of the same voters who cast ballots for Romney.
With Bachmann out of the way, GOP strategists think the deep bench of patient Republicans who hail from the Sixth District are ready to jump in and make the race more about local issues and less about a national conservative movement.
A long line of state lawmakers including Reps. Tim Sanders, Matt Dean, David FitzSimmons, Peggy Scott and Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer have all been tossed around as GOP potentials. St. Cloud Mayor Dave Klies, who represents the most populous area of the district – and who also did a stint as a state lawmaker – has strong potential, pundits say.
"Without Bachmann there as a punching bag for Democrats, this becomes a very tough race for Jim Graves," says Brian McClung, a GOP strategist in Minnesota who ran communications for Gov. Tim Pawlenty. "Bachmann drew a lot of fire from around the country. Without that dynamic in the Sixth District, this should be a really good race."
An off-year election, which typically means lower turn out, could also help Republicans keep control of the seat.
Bachmann's sudden announcement Wednesday morning surprised many of the state's top strategists and even caught Graves a little off guard. Buttons on Graves's website still encourage supporters to donate to help him 'defeat Bachmann.'
"I was surprised at the timing. They were doing robo calling up until yesterday afternoon," Graves says. "She was doing more in the district than I had ever seen since she has been in Congress."
Bachmann had also launched an aggressive television and radio ad campaign last week against Graves.
But it may have been too little too late.
Graves internal polling released last week, showed his campaign quickly outpacing Bachmann and he had started developing a strong grass-roots fundraising strategy. While Graves had paid for his first showdown against Bachmann primarily out of his own pocket, he had pledged to raise $3.5 million for a second run.
Over time, experts also said the political middle in the district began slipping away from Bachmann.
"There likely was some backlash because she ran for national office and was often on national TV shows and not as visible in the district," McClung says.
Graves says people back in Minnesota were ready for a new approach and Bachmann could read the political tea leaves.
"She probably thought it was too much of an uphill battle," Graves told U.S. News. "Everyone can be against something, but they are ready for someone who can roll up their sleeves and be for something."
As to whether his race just got a lot harder to win, Graves says he's going to stick to his message of creating jobs and dealing with the district's problems in a practical way.
"This isn't a blood sport or just a game," Graves says. "I am contributing my time and I am going to do the best job I can."