Jim Graves is a 58-year-old self-made Minnesota businessman and grandfather of seven, still married to his high-school sweetheart, running against a symbol of unhinged hyperpartisanship in the halls of Congress. Bachmann’s bizarre presidential run only highlighted what an awkward fit she is for the common sense civility that characterizes “Minnesota Nice.”

But she’s never faced a truly competitive opponent, despite a string of narrow wins—and that’s changed this time around.

“I started my first company in a basement with $2,000 in the bank, and I’ve been able to create thousands of jobs,” says Graves, who started the mid-scale AmericInn hotel chain. “I’m a person who understands the economy and has built real businesses on Main Street. Now I want to give something back. I’ll be a good ambassador for the district. And you can juxtapose that against Michele Bachmann—someone who’s divisive and antagonistic, ridicules our president, and spreads fear and division.”

“My policy approach transcends political lines,” Graves says. “I’m a centrist, a libertarian when it comes to social issues—I don’t think government should be involved with personal lives. I really believe in separation of church and state. Bachmann wants to blur those lines—she would [replace] our democracy with a theocracy … She epitomizes everything that’s wrong with Congress and this country—a lack of civility, a lack of bipartisan or nonpartisan approach to problem solving.”

Polls show the race is now neck and neck—with 48 percent for Bachmann and 46 percent for Graves and the remaining still undecided, according to a Greenberg Quinlan Rosner poll. Crucially, independent voters now lean toward Graves by a 15-point margin. Now the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is backing Graves in his campaign, showing it is very much in play.

But this is the most conservative district in Minnesota, compounded by redistricting. Moreover, Bachmann has been a successful conspiracy entrepreneur—raising millions of dollars in campaign donation by throwing out extreme statements—such as questioning how many fellow congressmen have “anti-American” views (to use one mild example)—and then fundraising off it by playing the victim.

“She makes these inflammatory comments for fundraising purposes,” Graves recognizes. “As soon as she says something outrageous, the money spigot opens up. I was just told she’s raised more than $20 million this race—that’s unbelievable in rural moderate Minnesota district. We’re more in the $2 million range—so she’s got a 10 to 1 advantage.”

But interestingly, Graves doesn’t connect his campaign to the current president. “My campaign isn’t an endorsement of President Obama’s first term in office,” Graves says. “I would have done some things differently than he did—I’m staying focused on doing what’s right for the people on the Sixth Congressional District.”

Graves believes the tipping point in the district was the combination of Bachmann’s presidential campaign creating embarrassment for constituents and a more recent self-inflicted scandal. “I think a turning point was Ms. Huma Abedin and the whole Muslim Brotherhood conspiracy theory. And when people in the district saw that Speaker Boehner and Senator McCain said this has no basis in reality, I think that woke people up here. That’s not what a person in Congress or especially a person on the intelligence committee should say.”

h/t: John Avlon at The Daily Beast

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