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updated: 8/14/2011 8:08 AM

Walsh faces tough fight ahead in re-election bid to Congress

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  • Illinois Congressman Joe Walsh, left, has a hallway chat with 14th District Congressman Randy Hultgren in Washington D.C. The two Republicans could find themselves in a primary matchup in the newly drawn 14th District.

       Illinois Congressman Joe Walsh, left, has a hallway chat with 14th District Congressman Randy Hultgren in Washington D.C. The two Republicans could find themselves in a primary matchup in the newly drawn 14th District.
    Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

  • Illinois Congressman Joe Walsh walks to his Cannon House office after an early morning meeting in Washington D.C. this spring. Walsh, in the past six months has become a public face of the tea party through his frequent media appearances.

       Illinois Congressman Joe Walsh walks to his Cannon House office after an early morning meeting in Washington D.C. this spring. Walsh, in the past six months has become a public face of the tea party through his frequent media appearances.
    Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

 
 

Clapping his hands, Joe Walsh strides into a room at Richard Walker's Pancake House in Crystal Lake on a sunny Saturday morning.

He is wearing worn blue crocs, a red polo shirt tucked into rumpled green cargo shorts, his striped belt missing a loop in back.

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"How you doing folks?" he asks, greeting the two-dozen or so constituents who have turned up to his latest "Cup of Joe with Joe" session, with no hint that a current scandal of late child-support payments is weighing him down or that exasperation shown by some Republican Party leaders has left scars.

"We started these about five months ago," he tells the group, pausing to help a waiter pass out a plate of hash browns, so "you could literally touch and talk to your congressman in a quieter, smaller setting. You can ask me questions you might not want to ask at a big town hall. You know me. I enjoy a town hall, but I enjoy these equally, because we can really get kind of a discussion going."

Walsh, with charisma, candor, and the classroom management skills carried over from his days as a history teacher, is seemingly comfortable in settings large and small.

In eight months' time, the McHenry Republican -- who has never held elected office before -- has catapulted himself onto the national stage.

"Both what he represents and the way he represents himself make him an engaging interview, and he doesn't shy away from the spotlight," University of Illinois Springfield Political Science Professor Kent Redfield said.

Calling himself the "most accessible congressman on the planet," Walsh is a frequent guest on political talk shows.

His videos calling President Obama a liar on a government default and Republican Sen. John McCain a "troll" for criticizing tea party members have, in recent weeks, gone viral. So did the "Hardball" clip where Walsh engaged in a verbal brawl with host Chris Matthews.

Yet, as he bids for re-election in a redistricting year amid personal scandals and frequent clashes with party leaders, a difficult road lies ahead, political experts say.

"What makes him attractive could also make him unattractive," Redfield said.

Walsh calls himself a kind of "radically old representative" who came to Washington to "fundamentally change" the way the nation does business.

The Washington outsider -- who defeated three-term incumbent Melissa Bean of Barrington by 291 votes in November -- has held onto his independence more fiercely than perhaps any of his 86 freshman GOP peers, unafraid to buck the party line inside and outside the halls of Congress.

While Washington, he says he knows, is a place that works with compromise and collaboration, he doesn't think it's yet the time to give in on the fight against government spending.

Walsh was one of 66 Republicans to vote against his party in the debt-ceiling plan backed by House Speaker John Boehner, which Chief Deputy Whip Peter Roskam of Wheaton spent days persuading members, including Walsh, to back. Walsh opposed party-backed measures on the 2011 budget earlier this spring, noting they did not make deep enough cuts.

"He's not a proven Republican in the sense of if Republican leadership has a particular position, he'll back it," Harper College Professor Emerita Sharon Alter said.

Walsh, she said, could be developing into a "thorn in the side of Boehner and the House Republican leadership."

Walsh admits that he's had "senior members" of the House Republican caucus "who, probably at the request of leadership, pulled me aside."

But, even while bucking the party line on votes, he says he attempts never to be openly critical of leadership. "You always want to be seen that you're working with the team, as part of the team," he said.

But big questions remain as to just how well that may be working for Walsh.

Roskam declined to comment for this story.

And Illinois GOP Chair Pat Brady of St. Charles told the Daily Herald July 29 it was "not productive" for Walsh to have called the commander-in-chief a "liar" on the debt ceiling battle.

New allegations by Walsh's ex-wife of $117,437 in missing child support payments, which he denies, on top of a foreclosed condominium in Evanston and a history of tax liens, don't make the picture any rosier as Republicans focus on keeping control of the House in 2012.

In the state's new Congressional map, drawn every 10 years to reflect population growth, Democratic cartographers have placed Walsh's home and much of his strongest base of support in the 14th District with Republican Rep. Randy Hultgren, a quiet, spiritual father of four who spent years building a political track record in DuPage County and state politics. Walsh has not yet committed to running in that district, and said he plans to announce where he will be running by Labor Day. However, signs -- including parade appearances and the location of town hall meetings -- indicate he is very seriously considering a bid in the 14th.

While Walsh has, in recent months, gotten out in front in fundraising -- with more than $400,000 in cash on hand and a key endorsement from the Conservative Club for Growth -- Hultgren could potentially be funneled cash from big-name Republican donors who have eyes on November 2012.

"Part of his liability going forward depends on how things play out in the next six months," Redfield said. "The time frame may be even shorter than that."

In the best of circumstances, Redfield said, having a candidate with a messy financial past run on a platform of fiscal conservatism, "is a huge problem. If you want to you can really make it a metaphor for larger issues," he said.

In order to be a viable candidate, Walsh must, Redfield said, resolve the child support issue.

"What you really need at this point is if you've got the ex-wife on the same stage saying everything is fine, or we worked it out and divorce is hard but he really cares for his kids, etc.," he said.

How effective he is in getting the issue behind him and rebuilding his image is going to have a "huge impact on whether he's going to be able to compete," Redfield said.

For now, Walsh says, he is tackling those problems head on.

Back in the community just days after the debt ceiling vote and news of the child-support suit broke, he announced he'd be holding 10 town halls in 10 days. He began those sessions by inviting the public to ask him about anything, reminding voters that he is just like them and that he overcame immense obstacles in his earlier bid for election against Bean.

"In many ways, I had no business running because my financial house was not in order," Walsh said to the breakfast group in Crystal Lake. "I felt like a simple farmer felt around the (American) Revolution who had five kids running all over the place, farm that was a mess, finances were a mess. ... And do you know what the farmer did? ... He ran off to start a country."

That's what Walsh did too, he tells them, noting that "what you've got is you, in Congress. ... There's no higher compliment to me than that."

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