Hultgren, Walsh lay groundwork for primary matchup
At a recent town hall meeting in Geneva, 14th District Congressman Randy Hultgren bounced on the balls of his feet as he gently urged a need for spending restraint and tax reform before a group of concerned -- and vocal -- senior citizens.
"Our tax structure is broken. We need to reform that; we need to adjust that," the bespectacled Winfield Republican said, pulling his hands out of his dark suit pockets to gesticulate with small circular motions, amid boos and heckles.
A few weeks before, another Republican who could become Hultgren's 2012 rival answered the same concerns with a very different style. Eighth District Congressman Joe Walsh responded to criticisms of Republican-backed tax cuts by asking attendees to take a "clap test" to gauge where his audience thought various incomes should be taxed.
"Republican or Democrat, this is your country right now; your country is going through a revolution! Don't be afraid of it! Thank God we're having this discussion!" the McHenry tea partyer shouted, pacing at the base of the Woodstock High School auditorium's stage, his bare ankles peeking out from penny loafers.
Walsh's outspoken manner has catapulted him into the national spotlight in the first year of his first term. Hultgren, a quiet, spiritual father of four, is by far the less flashy of the two freshmen.
He's known for walking the halls of Congress with a backpack slung over one shoulder in lieu of a briefcase and was spotted, recently, asking a group of reporters for directions en route to a meeting in House Speaker John Boehner's office to discuss concerns about the debt-ceiling compromise.
The GOP primary battle for the 14th District seat is still early and unofficial. Walsh, cut out of his own district by Democratic cartographers drawing new Congressional maps, has not declared where he's running. Yet, parade and town hall appearances in the 14th District suggest that he is strongly leaning toward a bid for that seat in the March primary.
Hultgren has begun working away quietly, emphasizing his strengths in background and experience against the charismatic tea partyer, who is battling allegations of late child support payments and a potential backlash from controversial statements that have irked top-ranking members of the GOP.
"I think some people are always confrontational. Others, there's an ability to talk, listen, work with each other without compromising core values," Hultgren said.
The new map, drawn to reflect 2010 census figures, matches up Walsh and Hultgren in a new district that is nearly evenly split between Kane and McHenry counties and areas to the west.
Walsh brings to the table a fervent base of grass-roots support, strong early fundraising and the backing of the influential conservative Club for Growth, along with the recent baggage of a lawsuit by his ex-wife over support for their three children, and fallout from calling President Obama a "liar" and Republican Sen. John McCain a "troll" on network television.
Hultgren, a longtime state lawmaker, says he will build on relationships forged with McHenry County lawmakers in the state House and Senate, including with state Rep. Mike Tryon of Crystal Lake and Sen. Pam Althoff of McHenry.
"Our hope is we'll get people engaged and get groups engaged," Hultgren said, noting that building a base of support in a new district is about "finding the pieces, going through committeemen, conservative groups, business groups, neighborhood groups and tea party groups."
It's also about staking a claim on a conservative base, which Hultgren admits is difficult when two candidates aren't far apart on the issues.
Walsh points to Hultgren's voting record against his party as a copycat move meant to show staunch McHenry County Republicans that he is just as conservative as Walsh.
But Hultgren says that's a coincidence, noting he voted against the party line with a Patriot Act vote and budget votes long before any battle materialized against Walsh.
"I really think this is what I said, who I was in Springfield. I don't know that I ever voted for a budget down there. This is who I am," Hultgren said. Of Walsh, he said, "I think we have different approaches and a similar voting record. We knew coming in that we were probably going to be the two most conservative members of this delegation."
Walsh has a folksy appeal, frequently throwing "gosh darn it" and "kiddo" into conversation. Hultgren, in recent weeks, has also laced his town halls and chamber meetings with personal anecdotes, speaking about his family's early struggles with its funeral home in Winfield and of his and his wife's first one-room home that was "as big as a garage."
While Walsh likes to call himself a radically old kind of representative, hearkening back to the days of the Founding Fathers, Hultgren reminds voters that he, too, is in touch with early American values.
He and wife Christy home-schooled their children and the family frequently traveled to Washington with him when Congress was in session.
Hultgren said he won't "make things personal" but admits, at the same time, "campaigns are where that's the hardest. Especially when there's not that much difference on the issues."
In this case, he says, "There are some qualifications that come into play and the ability to be effective."
He finds a parallel right in the halls of Congress. "As you walk around the rotunda, there's these huge massive paintings from our founding," he tells people at an Elgin Chamber of Commerce breakfast, noting that one of his favorites is of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
"If you look closely, right in front is Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Thomas Jefferson's foot is stepping right on John Adams' foot," Hultgren said.
"It was this ongoing battle between the two of them. Doesn't make it right, doesn't make it productive, but I'm also convinced democracy is messy. But when it crosses that line of being violent and personal, it's gone too far."
Liberal interest groups have focused their opposition on Hultgren, with MoveOn.org protesters out in force at recent town hall meetings, quizzing him on his decisions to sign lobbyist Grover Norquist's anti-taxation pledge.
Walsh's personal issues might make him a potential "persona non grata because of the potential taint on Republicans," Harper College professor emerita Sharon Alter said. That could contribute to money pouring in for Hultgren in the primary race.
Walsh, on the other hand, University of Illinois Springfield professor Kent Redfield said, "can attract tea party money. If he were just dumping on the party leaders and was then going to try to raise money from the normal sources, he'd be in a much more difficult situation. He's got another way to raise money."
For Hultgren, Redfield said, "there's going to be some smart party money on the other side that wants to win the general (election), and that's going to attract money from people that would pragmatically view Hultgren as their choice."
All of that money, ultimately, is diverted away from the November 2012 general election.
"It's frustrating," Hultgren said, referring to the way the map drawn by the Democrats pits Republicans against each other. "It feels like it plays right into the hands of what Springfield wants us to do."
"If we're stuck with this map, it stinks. But the wisest way is to say let's honestly look at the numbers, what makes sense, where it makes sense to spend money. I don't see another option that makes any sense to me."