Mere months ago, Joe Walsh's congressional campaign appeared in disarray. A campaign manager quit, then sued him for $20,000 in nonpayment. The national GOP considered his campaign a dead loss and refused to fund it; a former Eagles guitarist threatened to sue for copyright infringement over a song on Walsh's website.
Further, the 8th congressional candidate was criticized for not disclosing his Evanston condominium had gone into foreclosure, and two top-level staffers quit, claiming an exodus of volunteers went with them.
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But Joe Walsh hung around. And, his campaign leaders say, he's running a well-oiled fight now, featuring 1,400 volunteers who personally distributed 80,000 pieces of campaign literature over the summer.
And political observers say the campaign, while still fighting against the tide versus a popular incumbent Democrat, Melissa Bean, is gaining new attention, though they still say Bean has a big advantage so far.
Walsh's campaign manager since April, Nick Provenzano is a former McHenry County Board member who served as secretary of the McHenry County Republican Party and has worked on more than 25 campaigns, including former 8th District Congressional Republican candidate David McSweeney's.
Provenzano who disputes the campaign was ever in free-fall says they've built an e-mail base of 10,000 contacts. Walsh appeared at 30 different parades, and his entry at the Barrington's Fourth of July parade drew 165 adult walkers. He says the campaign works diligently to get each supporter, run a positive campaign, focus on the issues and point to votes by his opponent Walsh says do a disservice to the 8th District.
Provenzano claims that recent negative ads by the three-term incumbent, including a new TV ad and mailer, are signs that Bean is nervous.
"She felt she could hide, with no advertising and no town hall meetings. She won't debate, either, Provenzano said. "But this bunker strategy of riding this out went terribly wrong.
Reliable polling in the 8th congressional district is virtually nonexistent, as most trackers focused on races they considered more competitive.
Still, New York Times projections, built from statistical models that account for polling, experts, fundraising and past election returns, dropped Bean's likelihood of winning from 97.8 percent on Sept. 24 to 80.6 percent on Oct. 1.
And a Sept. 30 poll touted by the Walsh campaign has Bean and Walsh in a dead heat at 41 percent, with 5 percent for Green Party candidate Bill Scheurer and 13 percent unsure.
Bean spokesman Jonathan Lipman says the pollster, We Ask America, leans conservative and discounts its credibility.
Other nonpartisan polls are starting to take a closer look at the 8th congressional district, but with less than three weeks to Election Day, few observers are willing to say the race has gone from a sure thing to up for grabs.
"Some could argue there's no such thing as a safe Democratic district this election cycle, but Melissa Bean seems to be pretty well-entrenched, DePaul University political science professor Michael Mezey said. "National committees aren't putting any money in this race, which suggests they're viewing this race as safe for her.
Third-quarter campaign finance reports due to the Federal Election Commission Friday night show Bean continues to outpace Walsh, raising $317,000 to his $133,000. For the entire election cycle, Bean has collected $1.9 million and Walsh $439,000.
Also, Walsh may not be able to do much spending in the last weeks of the campaign. He has just $7,130 in cash on hand with $96,000 in debt after spending $160,000 in the third quarter, according to his campaign finance statements.
Bean has $925,000 in cash, and her spokesman said her committee already paid for most of the commercials it plans on airing.
"Raising $300,000 or $500,000 may seem like a lot to the average person, but it's nothing in terms of campaign dollars, said Nathan Gonzales, political editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, a New York-based nonpartisan newsletter. "The key is turning that grass-roots support into tangible dollars to be able to communicate to voters.
"You have to get known, Gonzales added. "It won't matter squat if the best candidate has the best message but no money.
Walsh has the enthusiastic backing of local tea party groups but lacks support from national Republicans, who made it clear they'd put their money elsewhere after he beat five others in the February primary.
A spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee said at the time party leaders believed they had better chances of beating Democrats Debbie Halvorson in the 11th and Bill Foster in the 14th, and holding onto Mark Kirk's 10th District seat.
Walsh's campaign downplays the differences in finances, saying money isn't an accurate yardstick to measure the effectiveness of a grass-roots movement like his.
They point out Walsh has dominated in local dollars, raising four times as much from 8th District ZIP codes in the second quarter. Those are the constituents who will come out to the polls on Nov. 2, Provenzano says.
"People are maxed out financially and still writing $20 checks and then walking precincts all weekend, he said. "That's the type of race we're running.
As the Republican wave continues to surge nationally, pollsters and political analysts who previously wrote Walsh off as a viable candidate are paying a bit more attention to the 8th Congressional race.
The Rothenberg Political Report rates all other Congressional races in Illinois, but didn't handicap the 8th District because it didn't consider the race competitive.
"We don't think (Bean) is vulnerable because the Republican candidate isn't good enough to take advantage of a strong Republican year, Gonzales said. "He's not a state representative that's repped part of the district, or someone from the business community with some personal money.
Still, Gonzales admits his colleagues "are getting a little nervous they ignored a potentially competitive race, especially since Bean hasn't received financial support from the Democratic Party.
But he said he believes Walsh's third-quarter financial statements would have to show he closed at least part of the gap between himself and Bean if he has a legitimate shot of winning.
The Hill, a nonpartisan congressional newspaper, also didn't rank the 8th District. And the nonpartisan Cook Political Report has classified the 8th District as going "likely Democratic its strongest ranking in every release over the past several months.
Meanwhile, a couple nonpartisan polls recently improved their ratings for Walsh. RealClearPolitics considers the race as "Likely/Leans Democratic but warns, "If there is a Republican wave brewing, Bean could find herself pulled under.
In past months, a former campaign manager sued Walsh for $20,000 in nonpayment, a case that's pending. Primary opponents criticized him for previous liberal social leanings, pointing out Walsh used to support gun control and gay rights. An attorney for former Eagles guitarist Joe Walsh threatened to sue for copyright infringement for a video on the candidate's website that was similar to the Walsh-penned song "Walk Away. The video was quickly taken down.
Walsh also faced criticism for not disclosing his condominium foreclosure. And then there were the campaign staff departures.
Meanwhile, Lipman refutes Provenzano's suggestion that Bean is running scared, saying she regularly holds resource forums and tele-town halls that have drawn more than 180,000 participants.
He said Bean felt new ads needed to show Walsh is too conservative for the 8th.
"I think certainly people have serious economic concerns the congresswoman appreciates and is working hard to address, Lipman said, "but her opponent has irresponsible and extreme positions that are far from the mainstream of this fiscally responsible, socially moderate district.
And Kent Redfield, a professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Springfield, said Bean going negative is a smart strategic move.
"If you're an incumbent, people know you and already have a sense of who you are, he said. "There has to be some substance to the ads, of course, but I see this as her being prudent so people remember all the controversy that swirled around him.
But even Redfield cautions that no Democrat in a potential swing district should feel safe, particularly with such strong anti-incumbent sentiment.