Rep. Joe Walsh rode a wave of economic anxiety to an upset win last November. Now, he's trying not to get pulled under as voters concerned about a debt default turn a skeptical eye toward his service.
At a July 22 town hall meeting in a community center gym in Lindenhurst, the freshman Republican representing the 8th district paced the room as he told the crowd of about 80 constituents that President Barack Obama has mishandled the economy and overstated the repercussions of a default on the nation's $14.3 trillion debt. Not everyone was buying it.
"I disagree with you," said Tom Weber, a Walsh supporter who watched his construction business decline during the recession. "I think not only the president doesn't understand, I think Congress doesn't understand," he added, as the audience burst into applause.
National polling shows that Republicans are critical of their party's role in the negotiations aimed at paving the way for a vote to increase the debt ceiling. Almost 6 in 10 said Republican leaders are too resistant to a deal, according to a July 19 Washington Post-ABC News poll.
How the role of the new House majority in the debt talks is ultimately judged by voters will be critical in the 2012 elections, when Walsh and 86 other House Republican freshmen will be up for re-election and control of the chamber will hinge on their collective fates.
Walsh, who on a web-video and cable talk shows has accused Obama of "lying" about the seriousness of an Aug. 2 default, is already a prime target for the Democrats.
He has been among the most outspoken critics of the bipartisan negotiations, which has made him a favorite of anti-government tea party activists, limited the maneuvering room of House Speaker John Boehner in his negotiations with Obama, and caught the attention of his constituents -- not always in a good way.
"The thing that concerns me the most is a default," Jeanne Marie Dauray, a 39-year-old paralegal, asked Walsh in a town-hall meeting. "Isn't this of concern?"
Walsh, bouncing on his heels, explained that he believes accepting a deal that doesn't mandate balanced budgets and deep cuts is more dangerous than failing to raise the debt ceiling.
"I don't believe anybody in Washington is going to change the course we are on unless we force them to," he said.
A former teacher with a history of foreclosure and liens for failing to pay income taxes, Walsh ran against runaway spending in Washington and the health care overhaul law and won his swing district in 2010 by just 291 votes. He defeated Democratic Rep. Melissa Bean, who had the support of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business organizations.
Among his constituents, 34 percent are employed by financial services companies, according to Bloomberg data. The industry is pressing Congress to raise the debt ceiling, as all three major credit rating agencies have threatened to downgrade the country if there is a default.
Former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, a retired Goldman Sachs chief executive officer and the architect of the bank bailout during the Bush administration, is one of Walsh's constituents. Paulson recently urged lawmakers to adopt a "sense of urgency" toward raising the limit.
"Failing to raise the debt ceiling would do irreparable harm to our credit standing, would undermine our ability to lead on global economic issues and would damage our economy," he said in a July 22 statement.
Smaller companies in the district are also concerned.
"I'm worried about not only our credit but how our whole banking system and finances are going to be affected," said Jason Speer, general manager of Quality Float Works, Inc., a metal products company that employs 24 people in Schaumburg. "There could be a giant ripple effect."
Walsh said he doesn't want the country to default.
"I'm a crazy tea party freshman and I don't want the country to default," he told voters. "None of us do."
His position is that he has already compromised by voting to raise the debt ceiling as part of legislation that would cut government spending, cap future federal budgets, and install a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget. The U.S. Senate rejected that legislation on July 22.
Walsh remains unbowed. He said he's willing to go beyond the Aug. 2 deadline -- a possibility dismissed by Republican leaders -- if it means House Republicans can get their plan passed.
"I don't know why we're talking to this president," he said, as he ate a grilled cheese sandwich between constituent events. "The bolder Republicans are these 16 months, the better off we'll be politically."
Tea party leaders have urged their members to support his efforts by encouraging them to sign a letter Walsh wrote urging House leaders to oppose a plan drafted by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, that would authorize Obama to raise the debt ceiling without congressional approval.
"The people in Illinois appreciate that he's coming out and calling the president a liar and putting the facts on the line," said Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of Tea Party Patriots, in an interview.
Democrats are already maneuvering to retake his seat. The Democratic-controlled Illinois legislature has redrawn his 8th District to favor their party. Walsh's home is now outside its boundaries.
Iraq War veteran Tammy Duckworth, the former Democratic assistant secretary at the Department of Veterans Affairs who may challenge Walsh, is on the attack.
"He is now a voice for a rigid element that I think people are very uncomfortable with," she said in an interview.
Illinois political strategists expect Walsh to run in the more heavily Republican 14th District, which would create a contested primary with fellow freshman Randy Hultgren.
The 14th, said Illinois Republican strategist Doug O'Brien, offers Walsh the chance to hold a safe Republican seat.
"The general consensus is that the 8th is going to be a very, very difficult district for any Republican to win," he said.
Walsh said he will wait for the results of a Republican Party lawsuit challenging the new district lines before he decides where he's running.
To his constituents, he stressed that he is his own man.
"Boehner, my speaker, gets mad at me a lot because I don't vote with him a lot," he told voters.
Still, he is aware of the risks of his outspoken position. "If most in this district doesn't like what I've done, what will they do to me in 18 months," he asked voters in Gurnee. "Boom, they're going to send me right back home."