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Iraq Vet Takes On Tea-Party Incumbent In Fiery Illinois House Race

Republican U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh  and challenger Democrat Tammy Duckworth before a televised debate at the WTTW studios on Oct. 18, 2012, in Chicago.
Charles Rex Arbogast
Republican U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh and challenger Democrat Tammy Duckworth before a televised debate at the WTTW studios on Oct. 18, 2012, in Chicago.

One of the most bitter congressional races is in the suburbs of Chicago, where controversial freshman Republican Joe Walsh is fighting to keep a seat he was actually drawn out of.

The Tea Party favorite's bombastic rants frequently get him into trouble, even with members of his own party, and Walsh is facing a tough Democratic opponent in Iraq war veteran Tammy Duckworth, who lost both of her legs in combat.

When the two political opponents get together, it doesn't take long for the fireworks to begin. They've battled over spending cuts, taxes, Medicare, social security, and in a recent debate on public television, Walsh's opposition to abortion, without exception.

"Not for rape, incest, or life of the mother," Duckworth said of her opponent. "He would let a woman die, rather than give her—"

"Now Ms. Duckworth, that's not fair," Walsh interjected.

After that debate, Walsh told reporters that abortion is never necessary to save the life of the mother.

"There's no such exception. With modern technology and science, you can't find one instance," he said.

After being called inaccurate by medical groups, Walsh backtracked. To Tammy Duckworth, the comments are part of a pattern.

"Unfortunately, this is Mr. Walsh," Duckworth says. "He has repeatedly said many things that are inappropriate, many things that are not true, and that he continues to say things that are very irresponsible, especially in a sitting congressman."

Indeed, Walsh stands out among the freshman class of Tea Party-backed Republicans much more for what he's said than for anything he's done.

Walsh has called the president a tyrant and idiotic, and he's suggested Duckworth is not a true war hero because she talks too much about her service. He's even berated constituents at town hall meetings.

Walsh has insisted he is not a loose cannon. "There are times when I've gotten ahead of myself and whenever I've felt like I've stepped over the line, I've tried to apologize," he said at a debate.

But Walsh says he has no regrets, adding that most constituents he meets appreciate his brand of straight talk.

"I think we're all sick of politicians who poll test every single word that comes out of their mouth," he says. "This country is broke. This great, good country is dying right now. I'm an odd duck in that I'm not driven by my re-election."

In a way, Walsh has nothing to lose. The former political activist is getting only limited support from his own party, and Democrats have targeted Walsh from the start.

They carved Walsh and almost three quarters of his old district out of Illinois' Eighth, and made it one that not just leans more Democratic, but a district that would favor Duckworth in particular. She ran and narrowly lost six years ago in a neighboring district, much of which is now in this new district.

Conservative superPACs and tax exempt groups have come to Walsh's rescue, however, airing a steady drumbeat of negative ads attacking Duckworth.

Duckworth has plenty of money on her own side, and has hit back at Walsh — hard.

The latest Chicago Tribune poll shows Duckworth leading Walsh by 10 points.

Political scientist Alan Gitelson at Loyola University of Chicago says Democrats see a symbolic opportunity in defeating Walsh.

"Knocking him out would certainly be a very strong message that the Tea Party can't hold onto all of the candidates they hope to hold onto in the House of Representatives," Gitelson says.

Joe Walsh's seat is one of five Republican congressional seats in Illinois that Democrats hope to pick up, and in a race that has been nasty from the start, constituents should only expect the mudslinging to intensify in its final days.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.