Showdown Showcases Different GOP Facets
Opposite Styles of Walsh, Hultgren Will Be On Display in Illinois
On the quiet fourth floor of the Cannon House Office Building, Rep. Randy Hultgren is in a rather uncomfortable situation with his neighbor, Rep. Joe Walsh.
The two freshman Republicans are likely to square off in a fierce Illinois primary in 2012 in a newly drawn Congressional district. And even though they hail from the same party, calling them polar opposites might be an understatement.
“I’m never going to be the national media guy,” Hultgren told Roll Call. “That’s not my desire. I don’t think it really helps my district that much.”
Walsh is the national media guy — and told Roll Call that he came to Congress to “literally scream from the mountaintop.”
“That’s why everybody knows who Joe Walsh is, because I have been doing that from day one,” Walsh said in an interview from his office in 432 Cannon. It’s just down the hall from Hultgren in 427, but the inside is a bit different.
Walsh’s office doubles as a Washington apartment, and he sets up an air mattress to sleep each night amid piles of paperwork.
He’s gotten a lot of attention for a freshman from a Democratic-leaning state, in part because of an ongoing legal dispute with his ex-wife, who says he owes $100,000 in child-support back payments.
He’s also grabbed headlines as a frequent commenter on television and as a sharp critic of the president who embraces the tea party label.
The soft-spoken Hultgren blends in with his colleagues and has a more mainstream legislating style.
To achieve his Congressional priorities — improving Illinois infrastructure, maintaining scientific research funding and looking out for farmers’ needs — Hultgren says he doesn’t “care who gets the credit, let’s just get it done.”
Walsh, on the other hand, aims to host more town hall meetings than any other Member.
Data on town halls kept by CQ Roll Call’s Knowlegis found that Walsh is the leader among the Illinois delegation and ranked 17th in Congress, with about 24 town halls as of last week. Hultgren has had eight, according to the Knowlegis approximate count.
Walsh said it doesn’t matter to him necessarily what committees he is on, as long as he can work toward his goal of reducing federal spending and reducing the size of government. Those issues prompted Walsh to run for office under a tea party banner in 2010.
Hultgren, who also counts reducing spending a goal, turns to his three committee posts to address parochial needs.
Hultgren is seeking an issue to define his service, saying he believes the most effective Members have areas of specialty, and, “I really do want to have some expertise that people can look to me for really making a difference on an issue.”
He represents a fast-growing region containing suburban Chicago sprawl, farmland and the world-famous Fermilab, or the Fermi National Accelerator Lab, which looks at high-energy particle physics. Hultgren — who takes his younger boys to bike and jog on the trails of the Fermilab campus — wants to maintain funding for the research done there.
“I just absolutely believe, as a conservative Republican, there are things that we as government should do and there are things that we shouldn’t do,” he said. “Basic scientific research is something that we should do. … We don’t even know what we’re going to find, but if we don’t do it, someone else will.”
Different Paths to Washington
Hultgren said he has made friends with Republicans and Democrats, and he even counts Rep. Reid Ribble (R-Wis.) as a pal, despite Ribble being a Green Bay Packers fan. (“He rubs it in every time I see him,” Hultgren said, laughing.)
Republican Rep. Judy Biggert, whose district neighbors Hultgren’s, called him “hardworking” and “pretty cheery.” They sit on the Science, Space and Technology Committee, and she said she has found him to be off to a quick start. “He’s a Member that really knows how legislation works and knows the rules, really knows procedure,” she said.
Perhaps that’s because he spent years working his way up in Illinois state politics — starting with a paid internship in the office of former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R), eventually rising to be Hastert’s district representative. Hultgren also served as a county board member, state House Representative and a state Senator before running for Congress.
Hultgren bested the former Speaker’s son, Ethan Hastert, in a GOP primary and then narrowly unseated Rep. Bill Foster (D) with just more than 51 percent of the vote thanks to the GOP wave.
No one gave Walsh, who lost a House race in 1996 and a state House race in 1998, a chance last November. But Walsh, who lists investment banker, college instructor and nonprofit director on his résumé, defeated former Rep. Melissa Bean (D) by fewer than 300 votes.
Since he arrived, Walsh has chosen to be more independent and has pledged to serve just three terms in the House.
“It doesn’t necessarily matter to me how the leadership or the establishment views me; I consider myself more of an advocate,” he said.
State Democrats who drew the new Illinois map created chaos for Republicans, a crucial element of the party strategy to try to reclaim the House next year. The redistricting left Walsh and Hultgren living within the boundaries of the new 14th district in suburban Chicago.
Hultgren called the map, still tied up in the courts after a GOP lawsuit, “disappointing,” but he said his team would be prepared to seek re-election against Walsh.
But when it’s a Member-vs.-Member clash, the dynamics of the race become difficult to predict. Leaders often feel like they have to take sides, though the line from official Washington and the National Republican Congressional Committee is a promise of neutrality.
The men kept fairly even in third-quarter fundraising, but as of Sept. 30, Hultgren had $276,000 in cash on hand while Walsh had $466,000 in the bank. As far as the new lines go, Hultgren has the upper hand because he’s represented about 40 percent of the district. Walsh has represented only about 30 percent.
But Walsh has been underestimated before. There’s no telling what kind of campaign he’ll run now that he’s a Member and can raise more money for his race.
Paul Green, director of the Institute for Politics at Roosevelt University, believes the personalities of the Congressmen will be paramount in this race.
“Issues will be less important than who these gentlemen are,” he said.
And Walsh agrees.
“Randy and I are both very different Republicans,” Walsh said. “So it should be a wonderfully engaging — it’s a March primary — five months and the district will get to decide which type of Republican they want.”
He laughed as he added, “It should be a great educational exercise.”
Shira Toeplitz contributed to this report.
Clarification: Nov. 1, 2011
An earlier version of this article should have more clearly stated the nature of Rep. Joe Walsh’s legal battle with his ex-wife. Walsh’s ex-wife says he owes her $100,000 in unpaid child support. Walsh says he does not owe the money and the matter is pending in court.