The Illinois Republican just doesn't care what you think. And he's not the only member willing to speak his mind at any cost.
Many people disagree with many things that Illinois Republican Rep. Joe Walsh says. But it's not all controversy with the fiery freshman. "There's not much subtle about me," Walsh told National Journal recently. Few people would disagree with that, or with this: "I think this is one of the easiest elections in a while. The difference between Obama's America and Joe Walsh's America is so different, no one should be confused."
The problem for Walsh is that his suburban Chicago district sits right in the heart of what you might call "Obama's America." After he rode the Tea Party wave past Democrat Melissa Bean in 2010, winning by a scant 290 votes, Democratic state legislators crammed more Democrats into his 8th Congressional District during redistricting. Under the new lines, Obama would have taken more than 61 percent of the vote there, and the district is a cosmopolitan 45 percent non-white.
That hasn't stopped Walsh from compiling a very conservative voting record, lashing out at the president or making controversial statements, though, even as he acknowledges he'll need crossover votes to win a second term. "There are still plenty of people in this district who will vote for Obama," Walsh said -- though he predicted the president "will be hugging 50 percent" in his district. "But there are plenty of people worried about giving him a blank check with Nancy Pelosi," Walsh continued. "I've heard from a number of independents and Democrats who want a check on him in Washington."
In June, Walsh called Obama a tyrant, and then took it back -- sort of -- saying of the president that he didn't "think he's smart enough" to know what the term meant. In July, he said his Democratic opponent, veteran Tammy Duckworth, was using her service to distract from issues and suggested "true heroes" aren't as forthcoming.
Walsh is the clearest current representative of what you could call the House Honey Badger Caucus, a product of wave elections featuring legislators who, faced with tough reelection scenarios, seemingly don't care. They just do what they want.
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Take New York Republican Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle, for example, another freshman who came to Washington with a very narrow margin of victory. Her district isn't quite as forbidding for the GOP as Walsh's, but she still might have avoided saying that the "Fast and Furious" investigation was "the issue first and foremost on the minds of her constituents" in a House floor speech last month. More importantly, she's been a solidly conservative vote, earning a 92 percent vote rating from the Club for Growth in 2011. Though Buerkle has a difficult rematch against the Democrat she beat in 2010, former Rep. Dan Maffei, she hasn't made much effort to move from the right after convincing voters two years ago that Maffei was too far to the left for the district.
This year's group of honey badgers could have been larger, but redistricting ended up boosting a number of GOP freshmen representing vulnerable seats under the old lines. Rep. Allen West, R-Fla., for one, delighted in infuriating Democrats even when they made up a big chunk of his old district. Now he's running in an evenly split swing seat. And there are plenty of freshmen out there using the more time-tested political strategy of tacking to the center. Walsh's neighbor to the northeast, fellow GOP freshman Rep. Robert Dold, touts moderate credentials as he fights to hold an even more Democratic-leaning seat.
It's just not a strategy for everyone. "Bob's a great guy, we're good friends, but we're two very different political animals and two different Republicans," Walsh said. "He does what he has to do to win. I'm known as a Tea Party conservative, and I'm still convinced that most people in this country, whether they admit it or know it or not, are Tea Party people sympathetic to the movement and what it is."
The Honey Badger Caucus isn't a Republican phenomenon; it's a natural result of big waves. The same thing happened to Democrats after 2008. Former Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy won with just 46 percent of the vote in 2008, but she voted down the line for the major Democratic policies of her tenure, including cap-and-trade and the health-care and financial overhauls, while members in similarly tenuous situations backed away from one or more bills. Now-Rep. Steve Stivers beat her with 54 percent of the vote in 2010. (Kilroy tried to make a comeback in a safe Democratic seat this year, but she lost in the primary.)
Former Rep. Alan Grayson, also in the midst of a comeback attempt in a safer seat, was last cycle's poster child. Despite representing a bona fide swing seat in the Orlando area, Grayson stayed in the news as one of Democrats' most fiery surrogates for the health care bill, including his infamous comment that the Republican health care plan was for sick people to "die quickly." As Republicans made him one of their top targets and signs of a Republican wave began to form in 2010, Grayson stayed on offense with provocatively titled bills like the "Thou Shalt Not Kill Thy Customers Act" aimed at the health-insurance industry.
But the only part of his reelection effort this helped was his fundraising; GOP Rep. Daniel Webster beat Grayson by 18 percentage points in 2010. Grayson saw the writing on the wall and decided he should just make the most of what time he had in Congress. "Some years it doesn't matter what you do, it's just the way it goes," Grayson said. "Bobby Bright in Alabama made it sound like he was John Boehner's best friend; didn't do him any good." Grayson continued: "I was going to lose no matter what."
It's not all bad news for the members who stick with their gut over electoral implications. Grayson's comeback bid is likely to succeed, and Kilroy now runs a group launching a pro-same-sex marriage referendum in Ohio. Barring another shocking surprise in Illinois, Walsh's days in Congress might be numbered, but he'll likely have something good to look forward to afterward.
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