Controversial former Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.) is talking up a Tea Party challenge to Sen. Mark KirkMark KirkDuckworth: VA secretary's Disneyland comment 'tone-deaf' GOP lawmaker: 'Republicans were wrong’ to block Garland VA secretary comes under fire for comparing wait times to Disneyland MORE (R-Ill.).
“I am very seriously considering challenging him in a primary,” Walsh told The Hill on Thursday. “Mark Kirk has got to be challenged.”
Walsh was elected in the 2010 Tea Party wave and become one of the movement’s loudest voices during his single stint in Congress before losing to Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) in 2012. Duckworth is now weighing a general election challenge to Kirk.
Walsh has since built a local following in the Chicago area with his conservative talk show — and if anything has upped the controversy level with a string of racially charged comments in the past few years.
In a 2013 column about the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, Walsh wrote that he hopes "one day black America will cease their dependency on the government plantation, which has enslaved them to lives of poverty, and instead depend on themselves, their families, their churches, and their communities.”
He didn't stop there.
“Found out if I said Redskins or Cracker or Redneck Bible Thumper, I could stay on. But if I said N----- or Spick, they cut me off,” he tweeted last May after being briefly suspended from his radio show because he kept trying to use racially charged terms on air to prove a point about the Washington Redskins team name.
The former congressman defended his habit of making inflammatory comments to The Hill.
“Independents and even moderates in this state have gotten to a point where they really like and respect the fact that a politician says it like it is. All these things that Joe Walsh says that are controversial, privately and even publicly a lot of voters like what I like to say,” Walsh said.
“When I say things like ‘Democrats purposely have made blacks dependent on government,’ a lot of blacks think that's true, even a lot of African Americans in Illinois I've talked to resent the fact that Democrats have taken them for granted,” he continued.
Despite Kirk’s somewhat frequent splits with conservative, Walsh is the only Republican threatening a challenge —a longshot one, at that.
Both GOP and nonpartisan strategists in Illinois say no one who could give Kirk a tough primary race is even looking at one.
Observers speculate that Walsh is likely looking to stir controversy to boost ratings. Many think that he’s ultimately unlikely to run and is a longshot, at best, if he does.
“I really have not heard any rumblings at all in terms of a serious primary challenge [to Kirk],” said former University of Illinois-Springfield Prof. Kent Redfield. “What Former Congressman Walsh does these days is sustain his career as a talk show host and political gadfly… It's about him and promoting himself and promoting his positions. He's just not viable.”
Walsh argued that Kirk’s 2012 stroke, which has left him with slightly slurred speech and forced him to use a wheelchair much of the time, was scaring off other potential primary foes. But he said that the senator’s health is part of the reason he shouldn’t win another term.
“I think because of his overall physical condition I don't know anyone else would consider challenging him and that's just plain wrong,” he said. “If you privately talk to people who would ordinarily primary him, they'd all say ‘he's got no business running, but I can't challenge him, look at who he is, people are going to say I'm mean spirited because I'm challenging him.’ Because of sympathy for Mark Kirk I don't know of a serious candidate who would challenge him besides me.”
Kirk, a top Democratic target in liberal-leaning Illinois, hasn’t had the best week. Last Wednesday, he blamed Democrats for the current standoff over Department of Homeland Security funds, saying “all the dead Americans from that should be laid at the feet of the Democratic caucus” in the event of a terrorist attack.
He was signing a different tune by Thursday after taking heat from Democrats.
“I generally agree with the Democratic position here, I think we should have never fought this battle on DHS funding,” he later told reporters. “Had I been consulted which I wasn't, I don't think we should have ever attached these issues to DHS funding. I always thought that DHS — the burden of being the majority is the burden of governing.
Kirk has long used much harsher rhetoric on foreign policy than other topics, and those familiar with the senator’s thinking say he likely overstepped with the comments and wasn’t aiming to bolster his conservative credentials.
“I think he realized he came on a bit too strong, and made an unfortunate comment,” said one Republican close to Kirk. “He was just really fired up. It might have just been a bad second.”
And Kirk, who insists he's definitely running despite his health issues, doesn’t seem particularly worried about a primary challenge.
“I always thought that when I ran for Senate I would get a challenge from the left and the right. In Illinois you have to thread the ultimate needle,” he told The Hill. “Based on the polling, I'd say a Republican candidate would be very foolish to come up against me… that'd be a pretty stupid move.”
Kevin Cirilli contributed.