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Joe Walsh Vs. Tammy Duckworth: Yelps, ‘Lies’ and Tough Talk in Illinois House Showdown

Lloyd Grove on the entertaining but tough battle between Tea Party pugilist Joe Walsh and war hero Tammy Duckworth for Illinois’s 8th District House seat.

Joe Walsh’s yelp—a noise he emits with startling regularity as he campaigns for reelection to the House of Representatives—is very nearly canine.

“Whooo! Whooo! Whooo!” he yelps before administering a pep talk to volunteers outside his headquarters in Schaumburg, one of the Chicago suburbs where he’s waging his final, feral battle against Democrat Tammy Duckworth for Illinois’ 8th Congressional District, which will be decided Tuesday.

“Whooo! Whooo! Whooo!” Walsh yelped an hour earlier in Palatine Township, where he’d given a fiery speech to the party faithful this past weekend at the local Republican headquarters in a strip mall. It sounded like the underdog’s paw had been caught in a trap.

“I am their congressional Enemy No. 1!” he shouted at the activists. “There is no more prized scalp” he shrieked—and he invested the word “scalp” with blood-curdling intensity—“than mine!”

This is the Joe Walsh familiar to America’s cable television viewers—the Tea Party pugilist who derided Duckworth, a former Army helicopter pilot who in November 2004 lost both legs when Iraqi insurgents fired a rocket-propelled grenade at her UH-60 Black Hawk, as “a woman who, My God, that’s all she talks about;” who implied that “radical” Muslims in Elk Grove, Addison, and other suburbs in the 8th District are “trying to kill Americans every week;” who suggested that President Obama should be “pat[ted] on the head” and told “son, son, son, Mr. President, you were never ready to be president, now go home and work for somebody;” and who claimed, two weeks ago, that abortions are never medically necessary because “advances in science and technology” make it impossible for women to die in childbirth.

Then there’s the charge, repeated in a tough Duckworth television spot released last month, that the divorced-and-remarried Walsh is a “deadbeat dad.” Duckworth refuses to pull the ad (which is based on news reports of his ex-wife’s now-settled lawsuit) even though his three children urged her to, and his 25-year-old son, Joe Jr. is featured in a new commercial defending his “terrific father.”

“That guy Walsh—oh my God! He’s too outspoken! He says things he shouldn’t say! He’s always stepping in it! … He’s way too conservative! There’s no way he can win a district like that. Here’s what you gotta do to win: You’ve gotta reach across the aisle.”

That isn’t one of Walsh’s many critics talking; it’s Walsh’s mocking sendup of them during his pep talk to cheering volunteers. (Still, one of Walsh’s ardent supporters, Bebe Sutton, director of the Palatine Township Republican Organization, says his gaffes, especially the abortion remark, have damaged his campaign. “I told him, ‘Joe, you’re giving us heart attacks.’”) In the parking lot outside his headquarters, wearing a zippered sweater against the autumn chill, the congressman shouts, leaps, and skips over the asphalt—a manic performance that, by turns, has his partisans hooting and laughing.

“Oh! Oh! Look! I have a baby, everybody!” Walsh shouts at one point. And, indeed, he has just snatched a brown-haired infant from the arms of a woman in the crowd. She is smiling as he raises the baby above his head; the child is astonishingly calm. “This is my chief of staff’s and Jill’s first,” Walsh announces, identifying the baby as the son of his chief of staff, Justin Roth, and wife Jill. “If we don’t get this election right, we are delivering to Braden an America less free and less prosperous. You’re walking today for Braden!” Then Walsh, holding baby Braden in front of his nose, makes a funny face. “When was he last changed?”

It is, if nothing else, wildly entertaining.

That, however, is not the Joe Walsh who sits down with me at a coffee shop in Palatine, just before his peroration to the GOP faithful. Instead, I’m greeted by a slightly-built 50-year-old, a self-deprecating, soft-spoken guy who—despite being perpetually roasted on the media’s hottest spit—manages to stay accessible and surprisingly friendly.

“Can I buy you a cup of coffee?” he asks, bringing one to the table. Walsh, a former actor who holds a master’s in public policy from the University of Chicago, won his House seat in a squeaker amid the Tea Party landslide of 2010. “We’ve been doing this since April. It’s an interesting juxtaposition. The district’s been drawn for Duckworth. She’s got big powerful people—David Axelrod, Rahm Emanuel, Dick Durbin—behind her,” he goes on, mentioning Obama’s political guru, Chicago’s mayor, and Illinois’ senior senator. (In his stump speech, he calls them “powerful, mean people.”) “Because of that she basically hasn’t campaigned. She’s traveled the country and raised a lot of money. It must be easy to raise money when you’re running against me. To combat that, I’ve had to campaign my tush off.”

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Walsh’s campaign proper might be raising less money than Duckworth’s, but outside groups supporting him have poured millions of dollars into the race, as they have for his challenger. Recent polls show Duckworth, who lost her 6th District House race to Republican Peter Roskam in 2006, beating Walsh by a comfortable margin in a district redrawn by Democrats in the state legislature to favor one of their own.

“Mr. Walsh lies a lot,” Duckworth tells me irritably when I ask about her opponent’s claim that she hasn’t campaigned and that the newly reconfigured 8th District was drawn for her. Ironically, she’s at a campaign stop—mingling with voters (and making a few purchases) at the Palatine High School Craft Fair. “He thinks that if he says something over and over again, that’ll make ’em true … I had a pretty tough primary [in which Duckworth trounced challenger Raja Krishamoorthi]. This district was not drawn for me. If it was drawn for me, I would not have had the expensive, contentious—well not contentious, we were very respectful of each other—but it was a tough primary.”

Duckworth was installed as head of the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs by then-governor Rod Blagojevich, he of the fabulous hair and felonious deeds, after her failed 2006 House race. [A radio ad from FreedomWorks, a Washington-based Tea Party group that’s generously backing Walsh, portrays her as a politically corrupt Blagojevich crony.] A rising star in the Democratic Party, she was Obama’s choice in 2009 to be an assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

“Mr. Walsh can say whatever he wants,” Duckworth goes on. “He’s insulted everyone in the district. He continues to lie about the actual record out there. I’m not focused on him right now. I’m focused on the people of this district.”

Duckworth, 44, the daughter of a Thai mother and American father, enlisted in the Illinois Army National Guard and chose helicopters because they offered combat opportunities for women. She peers up at me from her wheelchair; titanium prosthetic legs sprout from her skirted thighs.

“I think campaigning is exhausting for anyone. I do have challenges, being disabled,” she says when I ask if the race is physically wearing. “I just have to be smart about what I do. There will be days like today when I’ll be out and walking a lot. And when I don’t have to, I’m in my wheelchair. These are just tools—no different than a hammer or a screwdriver... I think it allows people to relate to me a little bit more … I’m at a lower level, and people are friendlier. They feel that they can talk to me. I’m more approachable.”

Walsh, of course, vehemently disagrees—claiming that Duckworth sees the House seat as something she’s entitled to, never mind that she has been working all weekend and met him last month in a heated public debate.

“The point is, she has not at all campaigned,” he insists. “Axelrod and Emanuel have kept her away from people. She just can’t run away from that.”