PALATINE, Ill. — Freshman Rep. Joe Walsh (R) and Iraq War veteran Tammy Duckworth (D) have polar opposite personalities and politics. But they have one unusual similarity in this House race: They are both battling their national profiles to win this northwestern suburban Chicago House seat.
An unlikely victor last cycle, Walsh embodies the feisty tea party spirit of 2010 but made headlines on cable news for his rookie gaffes. Duckworth, a double amputee, is a Democratic darling who missed an opportunity to win a 2006 Congressional race at the height of the country’s anti-war frustration.
This cycle’s contest would have been a clash of two political movements if all signs didn’t point to a Democratic victory. But Duckworth picked up a few campaign tricks in the past six years, becoming a better candidate since she lost to now-Rep. Peter Roskam (R) by 2 points. Her fan base extends downstate to Democrats in Springfield, who redrew the 8th district to be more favorable to the party and to include her Hoffman Estates home.
Publicly, Republicans insist Walsh is still in this race. Top Republican leaders, such as Roskam, shout it from the stair top landing at Durty Nellie’s, a clean “West Irish pub” serving patrons in the quaint center of this suburb since 1973.
“We’re going to send Joe Walsh back to Congress,” Roskam told a breakfast for local Republicans. “And you know what? The left is going to become unglued!”
But privately, Republicans concede their internal polls echo a recent Chicago Tribune survey that showed Duckworth with a 10-point lead. They confess a Walsh victory would be the upset of the cycle.
A couple of months ago, Republicans saw a narrow window of opportunity for Walsh. After a few internal surveys showed him within striking distance of Duckworth, Now or Never PAC swooped in during September, spending almost $2 million on the race over three weeks. But by Saturday morning, the GOP-aligned super PAC pulled out of the race — to Duckworth’s glee.
“They didn’t bury me in Iraq, and they won’t bury me now,” Duckworth told the crowd at a get-out-the-vote rally in Arlington Heights on Thursday morning.
Both candidates have national followings, as indicated by the more than $10 million that's been spent on this race between the candidates and super PACs. While money isn’t an issue for Walsh or Duckworth, or their allies, in the pricey Chicago TV market, both candidates must prove their local bona fides to win.
For Duckworth, that means touting her portfolio as director of the Illinois Department of Veterans' Affairs and as an assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Duckworth's recent position was based in Washington, D.C., but she boasts about how her working relationship with U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood, a former Illinois Republican Congressman, will help build the Elgin-O'Hare Expressway.
“I think I’ve changed as a person since 2006,” Duckworth said in an interview at her campaign office. “I have a lot more experience at all levels of government. I spent a tough couple of years down in Springfield at the state capital, working state-level politics, working with counties.”
Walsh must try activating and improving the ground game that delivered his unlikely 2010 victory on a shoestring budget. On Saturday morning, the salt-and-pepper-haired Republican gathered his supporters to knock on doors during the first chilly weekend of the imminent Chicagoland winter.
“He has the same beliefs that we believe in, and I believe in, personally,” said Karen Loring, a supporter from Roselle. “I didn’t know him two years ago. I just learned of him this past election.”
Many people have heard about Walsh since the last election. He’s earned a reputation for speaking too freely and raising his voice at constituents, often causing some consternation among his peers in Congress.
Two weeks ago, Walsh proclaimed abortion is no longer medically necessary to save the life of a woman because of “modern technology and science."
“You know I’ve been a big mouth,” Walsh told supporters over breakfast, raising the room’s decibel level by at least a few points. “You know sometimes I’ve stepped over it. You know sometimes I’ve stepped into it. You know sometimes I’ve stepped where I shouldn’t step.”
Walsh later walked back the abortion comment, adding there should be exceptions for life of the woman, but not before Duckworth's campaign pounced on them. She brought in Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), who described her life-saving abortion on the House floor earlier this year, to campaign for her.
For Walsh, the damage was already done. His only path to victory was predicated on being able to appeal to moderate independent and Democratic-leaning voters. That doesn’t appear likely.
Instead, voters such as John Sents, a 33-year-old father from Buffalo Grove, have been turned off to Walsh because he seems like “just another one” of the tea party freshmen. Sents voted for Duckworth.
“I kind of tend to agree with more of her positions on the issues,” he said after voting early in Arlington Heights, with his 5-moth-old son, William, strapped to his chest in a carrier. “Joe Walsh kind of rubs me a little bit the wrong way.”