What Did He Just Say?
Meet Rep. Joe Walsh, the biggest media hound in the freshman class.
Margin of Victory: 261. For God, Family, Country.
Local Democrats were crushed.
"I'm a big believer in 538.com," says Mike Bissett, the chairman of the McHenry County Democrats in the district. "They were showing Bean had something like a 90 percent chance of victory, but predicting she'd only win by one or two points. I said, well, that doesn't make sense. And then he won. If I had to put money on it, though, it would be unlikely that he'd win again."
The reason Democrats think they can get rid of Walsh: Illinois is one of the few states where Democrats control every lever of the redistricting process. It would be incredibly easy for Democrats to redraw the districts in the Chicago suburbs to box out Walsh. The plans will come out soon; the rumor is that Walsh and other Republicans will have to fight it out in primaries for the remaining districts.
How do you survive a situation like that, if you're a freshman who was never supposed to win? It can't hurt to be the freshman who appears on TV more than anyone else. It can't hurt if you're constantly holding town halls—Walsh has done 31 of them, some co-organized by Tea Party groups and Illinois's branch of Americans of Prosperity. It actually doesn't hurt him that he's not introducing many bills. He's introduced three so far, but one is the Balanced Budget Amendment that House conservatives are going to demand as part of a deal to raise the debt ceiling. Walsh might end up carrying the ball on a key Republican priority.
"We all have strengths and weaknesses," he says. "We are all better at certain things than others. I still am someone who doesn't understand the way the legislative process works. I do, but I don't. I can't find my way around the Capitol. I have a hard time with protocol. But advocating for issues and speaking in front of people comes easily. I'm a pretty good advocate, which is probably one reason why people are constantly asking me to be on TV to advocate positions."
If Walsh gets a few more lucky breaks, and he gets a district to campaign in next year, he'll have to confront another problem. President Obama will be on the ticket. Obama has never won less than a landslide in Illinois. He's always carried the Chicago suburbs. I ask Walsh why he thinks that's true.
"Look," he says, "I don't think this is complicated. He doesn't really have a history. I say all of this respectfully—he is the least well-known guy we have ever put in the presidency, and there's no one even close. He's probably got easily the lightest résumé of anybody we've elected."
Walsh leans forward and taps me on the knee with a bumper sticker.
"Why was he elected? Again, it comes back to who he was. He was black, he was historic. And there's nothing racist about this. It is what it is. If he had been a dynamic, white, state senator elected to Congress he wouldn't have gotten in the game this fast. This is what made him different. That, combined with the fact that your profession"—another friendly tap of the bumper sticker—"not you, but your profession, was just absolutely compliant. They made up their minds early that they were in love with him. They were in love with him because they thought he was a good liberal guy and they were in love with him because he pushed that magical button: a black man who was articulate, liberal, the whole white guilt, all of that."
It's jarring to hear a congressman say that, but there are a lot of people who agree with him. Walsh has a gift for saying out loud things that many Republicans believe but won't say, and he says them because he's worried. He'd been hoping Mitch Daniels got into the race. He wanted someone who offered voters the complete opposite of what they'd gotten from Obama.
"I pity the candidate running against him, because it will continue," he says. "That profession will protect him, and they will crucify whoever the Republican nominee is."
Republicans are sure that's what happened in 2008. A lot of Sarah Palin's appeal is based on a revanchist idea that she was blistered by a media that wanted to protect Obama at any Republican's expense. Walsh is the conservative who's absorbed that lesson and figured out that if you talk enough, the spotlight finds you.
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet at him @daveweigel.