Walberg's 2008 loss in a costly and hard-fought contest with Schauer was "certainly a bitter defeat for him," said Rep. Candice Miller, a fellow Michigan Republican who's known Walberg since his days in the Legislature. "I think that he is all the more resolved now that he is returned to office. I think he recognizes, as most of us do, how precarious these seats can be."
Not that Walberg has moved a centimeter toward the middle. If anything, he now flaunts his conservatism a little more boldly.
"My decorating has changed a bit," he admitted, explaining that the "first principles" wall of his office reflects his view that the nation stands at a philosophical and political crossroads. There hang super-sized reproductions of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. On another wall hangs a flag featuring a snake and the words "Don't Tread on Me," a symbol that has been appropriated by the tea party movement.
All of this has made Walberg a target for liberals, who assail his allegiance with the "birther" movement that has challenged President Barack Obama's citizenship. People for the American Way dubbed Walberg one of the "Ten Scariest Republicans Heading to Congress" after the 2010 elections, based on his opposition to gay rights, abortion and environmental regulations and his support for entitlement reform.
But Walberg's gracious and even grandfatherly charm belies his reputation as a hard-liner. Relaxing in his office on one of the leather chairs grouped around a coffee table plastered with snapshots of his grandchildren, Walberg stressed that his policy differences with House Democrats are never personal.
"We do have good friends on both sides of the aisle, and we do carry on in an amicable fashion, whether it be in the gym locker room in the morning or whether it be on the floor of the House," Walberg said, adding that he frequently sits down with longtime Michigan Rep. John Dingell (D).
At a recent subcommittee hearing, Walberg grilled a Labor Department official over stepped-up enforcement of fair-labor standards rules that he warned could "have a chilling effect on job creators." But before calling the hearing to order, Walberg turned with a smile to Rep. Lynn Woolsey, the panel's ranking member, who was celebrating a special day.
"Happy Birthday, and many more," Walberg told the California Democrat before turning back to pepper witnesses with questions about what he cast as over-aggressive workplace safety regulations.
Back in his economically hard-hit state, Walberg's focus is less ideological. He hosts job fairs and walks the streets to chat with constituents about unemployment and the economy. Walberg's legislative agenda includes support for numerous jobs-oriented bills, including those aimed at freeing up capital for small businesses and entrepreneurs.
"I've never seen Tim mad or expressing frustration with people," said Jim Barrett, the former president and CEO of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce. "He's a great listener. And he just has a great way of asking questions, joking with people, being serious when it's appropriate, trying to be helpful."