Faced with that kind of devotion, I want to know whether Bachmann returns the favor. I try to reach her while I am in St. Cloud, but she is in the heat of her 2010 re-election campaign, and her spokesman tells me Bachmann is “focused on meeting with constituents over the next two weeks.” In late November, following the election—which Bachmann wins by 13 points after spending $11 million, making hers the most expensive House race in the country—we chat on our cell phones as I scribble notes from our conversation on the back of some scrap paper.
The queen of the Tea Party, who is considering a presidential bid, says this conservative-mom movement “really sprang out of nowhere,” and she credits Twitter, Facebook and the Smart Girl Politics blog for lighting what she calls a fire in the heartland. “These women aren’t going away,” Bachmann says, noting that they’re not necessarily asking to see a woman on the ballot. “You’re not going to see conservative women demand an affirmative action spot on a presidential ticket. You’ll see conservative women rise to the national stage based on their own merit.”
One conservative woman who’s already reached the national stage—and taken her lumps—is Christine O’Donnell, whose failed run for the U.S. Senate in Delaware made national headlines. That is why one month after speaking to Bachmann, I’m speeding through Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, trying to keep my eyes on the road as I frantically text O’Donnell’s spokesman to find out what time she plans to sit down with me. It’s my fourth attempt to meet her after more than 20 requests, and if I’m feeling disconnected, perhaps it’s because almost all of our communications have been via text messages. I spot the creaky, classic Morrison House Hotel on my left and pull up to a parking meter. I don’t have enough quarters, but I don’t care; nailing this interview is worth the cost of a ticket.
Turns out I have plenty of time, as O’Donnell is still meeting over breakfast with some PR professionals who will help her craft her image for the next phase of her career (coming soon: a book, due out in August, about her campaign). Thirty-five minutes later, O’Donnell breezes in with a wide smile and an apology. “God bless you!” she says, laughing when I tell her how I had to harass her spokesman every day for more than a month to get this interview.
She’s prettier in person than on TV. Shivering in her heavy winter coat as cold wind seeps through the door, she sits down on a sofa in the lobby, and I follow. Once settled, O’Donnell tells me that women can’t win on the national political stage. “I don’t think we’re there yet,” she says, staring at me from behind glasses that have purple plastic frames. “I hate to say this: I don’t know if the other female conservatives you’ve spoken to have echoed this, but there’s definitely a double standard.”
She sounds bitter, talking about the “inappropriate treatment” she received during her Senate bid, counting off the handful of females who defended her record. She asks me what I’ve found talking to women around the country, wondering if I am perhaps more hopeful about women’s election chances. I tell her that I don’t believe she had a chance in Delaware, where a majority of voters are Democrats, but that I think in more conservative Pennsylvania, a strong Republican woman candidate could have prevailed.
“You think she could have won?” O’Donnell is incredulous. “I think they would have been calling her a bitch and a whore,” she says. “I mean, I hate to say it, but—you know?”
O’Donnell argues that women won’t be able to reach top political office until they start supporting one another. “Not enough women have each other’s back,” she says. “Women on both sides of the political aisle need to unite so that we can send a message to future female candidates that if you step up into a political arena that is mostly male dominated . . . you’re not going to be alone.”