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Joe Walsh a new star — for better or worse

at 12:15 PM ET, 07/28/2011

If you’ve been watching the news lately, you’ve probably seen Joe Walsh. He was on CBS’ Early Show Thursday morning. He talked to Wolf Blitzer on CNN Wednesday and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and Martin Bashir on Tuesday. He was on CNN again Thursday morning ago. He was on cable news five times last week too.

The freshman congressman from Illinois has propelled himself to the forefront of the debt debate by going to rhetorical heights few Republicans dare scale. He’s declared the debt limit doesn’t matter, House Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) plan can’t pass, and that President Obama is acting like a spoiled child.

But all that flamethrowing could do as much harm as good when Walsh — who won his seat with less than 50 percent of the vote — runs for re-election next year.

Like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), Walsh has built his fame through the clever use of YouTube.

On July 14th, Walsh posted a web video in which he angrily accused President Obama of lying about a default on the national debt. “You know darn well that if August 2nd comes and goes, there's plenty of money to pay off our debt and cover our -- all of our Social Security obligations,” Walsh said. [H]ave you no shame, sir?”

Soon, Walsh was everywhere, making the case against a debt ceiling increase. While House Republican leaders say that an increase is inevitable and necessary, Walsh speaks for over a dozen House members who disagree.

The fame has come with more scrutiny. On Thursday, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that Walsh’s ex-wife claims he owes her $100,000 in back child support. (In a statement, Walsh responded: “I am the tip of the spear in this current debate, and I will be attacked.”) The paper also editorialized against Walsh yesterday, calling him “what’s wrong with Washington.”

But star power has also brought Walsh tangible rewards. The powerful Club for Growth endorsed Walsh yesterday. But in its endorsement the Club basically asked Walsh to move to another House district — a sign of the dilemma Walsh faces. Like Christie, Walsh is more secure among national conservatives than he is on his home turf.

If not for a Green Party candidate, Walsh might well have lost in the 2010 elections to then-Rep. Melissa Bean (D-Ill.). As it happened, he won by a mere 290 votes.

Democrats control redistricting in Illinois, and they have taken full advantage of that power. Walsh’s current swing seat, the 8th district, is being redrawn to lean Democratic. Becoming the face of the tea party in Washington will only hurt Walsh with his future constituents.

On the other hand, if Walsh runs against fellow freshman Rep. Randy Hultgren (R) in the new 14th district, taking a conservative tack will help him in the primary. And in what will become a more Republican seat, the general should not prove a problem.

But Hultgren is a staunch conservative himself who knows from tough primary battles. He beat Ethan Hastert — the son of former House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) — in a major 2010 upset. He’s also laid low in the debt debate; he would likely get the establishment support. The socially-liberal views Walsh espoused in his 1996 House campaign would likely get greater play.

If Walsh goes all-in against Hultgren, he’s committing himself to an expensive and bitter primary fight. And given the way he’s challenged the GOP establishment, he’ll need all the help national stardom can give him.

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