Cover Story
Joe Walsh
Peter Hoffman /Redux
Joe Walsh

Tea Party tests

Politics | Races in Virginia and Illinois will show how deep the roots of the 2010 House election have gone

Issue: "Race to the finish," Nov. 3, 2012

WASHINGTON—When 85 newly elected Republicans entered the House of Representatives in 2011—the largest GOP freshman class in history, swept into office largely on the power of Tea Party fervor—it was clear that many would be in Democratic crosshairs in 2012. Two of them, Scott Rigell of Virginia and Joe Walsh of Illinois, are sticking with principle while trying to put on political Kevlar.

Rigell, a 52-year-old auto dealer, has bucked party leadership, criticized Congress’ light workload, donated $49,000 of his salary back to the U.S. Treasury, and declined congressional health and retirement benefits. He runs his office at 2008 budget levels. Why? “The only way we’re going to recover is to lead by example,” he told me. 

Rigell’s efforts also include the Fix Congress Now Caucus, a bipartisan group pushing a bill that would suspend congressional pay if lawmakers fail to pass a budget every year by Oct. 1. The caucus has only 12 members so far—eight Republicans and four Democrats—but the No Budget, No Pay Act has more than 100 co-sponsors, and Rigell said its passage will be a top priority in his second term.  

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Another one of Rigell’s priorities is promoting civility (he routinely hosts Democrats at his home) and working across the aisle, a goal he believes runs counter to the anti-tax-hike pledge he signed. He renounced the pledge earlier this year when he found out closing tax loopholes—an idea supported by Paul Ryan—without corresponding spending cuts counted as breaking the commitment. 

Rigell became one of the most outspoken in the growing number opposing the pledge, including Rob Wittman, a third-term Republican from Virginia who never signed it. He says Rigell and others in the freshman class have quickly learned how Washington works: “The process itself can be frustrating, but I think our Founding Fathers had it right in looking at a process that’s very deliberative. You come in wanting to achieve things quickly, [but] there’s only so much that an individual member of Congress controls.”

Rigell, a second-generation Marine who says he will serve no more than four terms, faces a well-financed opponent in a district that has swung back and forth between parties in the last three election cycles. He hopes his constituents will appreciate his reform-minded leadership when they go to the ballot box Nov. 6. 

Rigell early in October led in polls, but he is up against a strong opponent in fellow businessman Paul Hirschbiel, a friend and former business partner of Democratic Sen. Mark Warner. 

In Illinois, Joe Walsh—who with little outside help unseated three-term incumbent Melissa Bean by 291 votes in 2010—has a tough race. Democrats initially thought the seat would be an easy rebound pickup for them, but challenger Tammy Duckworth, a former Army pilot who lost both legs in Iraq, has seen a big lead evaporate in a district that gave Barack Obama 61 percent of its vote in 2008 (he’s polling at 49 percent this year). 

Walsh, a Tea Party Republican, has been outspoken in his criticism of President Barack Obama and was one of 22 Republicans to oppose the Budget Control Act of 2011, the debt deal that created the looming budget sequestration set to take effect Jan. 1, 2013. Walsh had a slight advantage in independent polling in early October, but Duckworth was still claiming a double-digit lead.

Dan Holler, communications director of Heritage Action, an advocacy and funding group formed in 2010, says Walsh’s race is “critical for conservatives” and his organization is “active and engaged” in the race, which has seen millions in outside money. Planned Parenthood and the George Soros–backed House Majority PAC are among the groups supporting Duckworth.  

Democrats need to pick up 25 seats to regain the majority, a feat few on Capitol Hill think will happen. But many more newcomers will arrive in 2013, with 63 House seats already guaranteed to change hands due to retirements, resignations, death, and members pursuing other offices.

Unproductive for a purpose

Judging by legislation passed, the 112th Congress has been one of the least productive in decades, but GOP freshman James Lankford of Oklahoma says it has “stopped the hemorrhaging.” Lankford noted that spending increases are down from Obama’s first two years in office, which netted the Affordable Care Act, the Dodd-Frank financial overhaul, Cash for Clunkers, and other debt-spiking measures: “That’s what they [the Democratic-majority House] did when they were ‘productive,’” Lankford said. 

Still, the 112th House of Representatives has not been able to keep the flow of red ink under $1 trillion annually. Lankford said he and his freshman colleagues are serious about fiscal responsibility: “The freshman class is very diverse with one exception: We all have this common disdain for debt.”

The biggest spending cuts—and the most lasting impact—of the 112th Congress could happen after it ends. A combination of expiring tax cuts, unrenewed business tax breaks, and the budget sequestration have created what the Congressional Budget Office dubs a “fiscal cliff”: It projects that the 2013 deficit would drop to $641 billion, but a recession would occur. —J.C.D.

Ten House races to watch

Utah-4 

Mia Love is trying to unseat Democratic incumbent Jim Matheson to become the first Republican African-American woman in Congress. Recent polling suggests Love, who trailed by double digits in the summer, now holds close to a double-digit lead in a district Mitt Romney expects to carry by 50 points.

California-7 

Democrats already hold a 2-to-1 seat advantage in House representation from California, and District 7 is one of three more that could turn blue in November. Four-term GOP incumbent Dan Lungren faces a challenge from Democrat Ami Bera, who is attempting to build on a strong run in 2010.

Arizona-1 

Redistricting pushed the voter needle toward Democrats and convinced incumbent GOP freshman Paul Gosar to run in another district. The desertion could allow EMILY’s List–approved Ann Kirkpatrick to regain her old seat for Democrats, although Republican voters still make up half the district.

New York-24 

Republican Ann Marie Buerkle caught the 2010 GOP wave into Congress, but redistricting could spell a quick exit. In a rematch from two years ago, former Rep. Dan Maffei is trying to take advantage of the district’s new Democratic tilt to unseat Buerkle, to whom Family Research Council has given a perfect 100 voting record.

Massachusetts-6

Democratic incumbent John Tierney’s reelection bid has been sabotaged by his wife’s involvement in an illegal gambling venture, opening the door for challenger Richard Tisei, a 26-year veteran of the state legislature. How much help conservatives would get from a moderate, openly gay Republican is unclear, but Tisei could steal a typically Democratic seat for the GOP.

Florida-18

High-profile freshman Allen West is running for a new seat after redistricting stirred voter demographics in Florida. West has plenty of money and GOP muscle backing him, but faces a formidable foe in youthful Democrat Patrick Murphy.

Arkansas-4

Republican Tom Cotton looks poised to take a seat being vacated by retiring Democrat Mike Ross. A Cotton victory would give Bill Clinton’s home state an all-GOP House delegation for the first time since the reign of Queen Victoria.

Colorado-6

Five-term conservative Tom Tancredo passed this seat four years ago to Mike Coffman, who struggled to keep it in 2010. The district includes Littleton and Aurora, and changing demographics have helped Democrat Joe Miklosi pull into a dead heat in October polling.

Indiana-2 

Former state Rep. Jackie Walorski narrowly lost her 2010 bid to unseat incumbent Democrat Joe Donnelly, who is now running for the Senate. The open seat gives Walorski, a Tea Party favorite, a clear shot against Democrat Brendan Mullen.

North Carolina-8 

Despite breaking with his party on issues such as the Affordable Care Act, Democrat Larry Kissell faces an uphill battle after redistricting turned his district decidedly more Republican. Challenger Richard Hudson has never run for office, but has the backing of GOP heavyweights, including Mike Huckabee and Paul Ryan.

J.C. Derrick
J.C. Derrick

J.C. is a reporter in WORLD's Washington Bureau. He spent 10 years covering sports, higher education, and politics for the Longview News-Journal and other newspapers in Texas before joining WORLD in 2012. Follow J.C. on Twitter @jcderrick1.

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