A Tea Party Test Case

A headstrong conservative faces an Iraq-war heroine in a pivotal House race

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Illustration by Oliver Munday for TIME

I hate meetings like this!" illinois Congressman Joe Walsh shouted in frustration. A small-business man named Ted Kozlowski, a defense contractor, was explaining how he'd had to lay off nearly half his workforce because funding for one of his products, a machine-gun cradle, had been mysteriously suspended in February. "It's ridiculous what Washington is doing to you," Walsh went on to say. "They change the rules of the road every six months." A small problem here, though: Walsh, one of the more flagrant members of the Tea Party caucus, lives at ground zero of the congressional mess. He has proudly opposed every attempt at a budget compromise that would clarify the status of Kozlowski's funding. He told me he would continue to vote against any deal that raises tax rates. If he is re-elected.

That could be a problem too. After he was elected in 2010, Walsh embraced the notion that he was a poster boy for the Tea Party, and there was a fair amount of truth to that: he had won a shocking victory over a Democratic incumbent in the Chicago suburbs, in the heart of blue-state Illinois. He proceeded to make a lot of noise, with an untoward candor that was less outrageous than that of another Tea Party poster child, Representative Allen West of Florida (who is also in trouble this year) but still offensive enough to women, homosexuals and Muslims to make national headlines. The question is, Will Walsh be a Tea Party exemplar of a different sort this year? If he and West and some other high-profile Tea Partyers lose, will the Republican Party take a moderating lesson from that--even if, as is likely, it retains control of the House?

The deck is certainly stacked against Walsh. His district has been redrawn by the heavily Democratic Illinois legislature. It now includes a significant minority population. And he has a formidable opponent: Tammy Duckworth, an Iraq-war veteran who lost both her legs when the Black Hawk helicopter she was piloting was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. Walsh has continued to make a fool of himself during the campaign, at one point saying Duckworth wasn't a "true hero" because she talked about her service all the time and real heroes don't do that. He also warned that Muslim terrorists were in the district--he specified three towns--looking to kill Americans. He told me he was talking about a national problem, but there were several attacks on local Muslim sites in the days after he made his comments. "When you say radical things," Duckworth says, "radical things can happen."

Walsh does have a few advantages, though. He has become a superstar of super PACs in this race, four of which have put up ads supporting him, and together they are outspending Duckworth significantly. He's also a natural politician, fearless and gregarious, with the courage of his extreme convictions--and a few policy surprises. He told me, for example, that while he would oppose any budget deal that raises tax rates, he does support the complete elimination of such popular tax loopholes as the mortgage-interest and charity deductions. He has also favored cutting the Pentagon budget and wants an immediate end to the war in Afghanistan. "He's a very charismatic and appealing guy," Duckworth told me.

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