Joe Walsh wants to make amends. Elected in 2010 to Illinois's 8th Congressional District, Walsh was once one of the most prominent, combative voices from the far-right Tea Party wing of the Republican Party. And he was on TV constantly.
In 2012, he called President Obama "a tyrant" and Jesse Jackson "a race hustler." He said Muslims were "trying to kill Americans every week" and that American Jews "aren't as pro-Israel as they should be." Even out of office, he tweeted jokes about the president's birth certificate and repeatedly declared: "Obama is a Muslim. In his head & in his heart." (He is not.) And days ahead of the 2016 presidential election, Walsh tweeted: "If Trump loses, I'm grabbing my musket."
Walsh looks back with some regret about all that now, a dozen years after he, former Rep. Allen West (R-Florida) and other freshman insurgents were first elected to Congress during Obama's first term. They were regular guests on CNN and Fox News, always good for an incendiary comment wherever there was a microphone, but accomplished little as legislators. They were also prototypes for a new generation of Republican agitators now in office: Reps. Matt Gaetz, Lauren Boebert, Madison Cawthorn and Marjorie Taylor Greene.
"I've got to live with that the rest of my life," Walsh says now. "I was one of the angry Tea Party guys, and I really helped inflame the base. There's a direct line from people like me riling the base up to Donald Trump in 2016, and then to the Marjorie Taylor Greenes of the world."
They were outsiders then, on the fringes of a Grand Old Party that tolerated them at best, even if no Republican office-holder enjoyed more fire-breathing airtime than Walsh and West. While their many television appearances as Obama's most ruthless critics fed their notoriety and excited the base, they also galvanized the opposition and alienated moderates who wanted less conflict in national politics, not more.
So just as quickly as they were swept into office, these proudly obnoxious members of the Tea Party wave were pushed out, one after another. In districts most vulnerable to switching parties, moderate voters grew tired of the noise. (Surviving Tea Party members, like Rep. Paul Gosar, were later absorbed into Trump's "Make America Great Again" faction.) And while that earlier movement imploded over time, the most divisive House members of the Freedom Caucus don't appear to be headed for the same fate during the midterm election on Nov. 8.
The only exception so far this election cycle is Cawthorn, defeated in his primary after party leadership and voters turned on the young congressman for his own misbehavior. Even that was a close election. What's different now is that attitudes within the GOP have changed, says Walsh, who served under House Speaker John Boehner, a mainstream Republican often frustrated by members he later called "far-right kooks."
In 2023, House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy will need their votes to become speaker, if Democrats lose the majority. And in districts where GOP partisanship has only hardened, the posturing and extreme rhetoric is welcome. The Freedom Caucus seats appear safe, and the gadflies only grow stronger. "They know they've got most Republican voters behind them, certainly in their district," says Walsh. "So there's no penalty for them to be as extremist, ignorant and cruel as they want to be. They'll be rewarded."
In the Tea Party era, they were outliers in the party. Now the GOP's leading troll and gadfly is Trump himself, a twice-impeached former president and likely 2024 candidate. He's led the personal attacks not only on Democrats but so-called "RINOs" (i.e., Republicans In Name Only). Ironically, Trump registered as a Democrat for nearly a decade, beginning in 2001.
"Trump really dismantled that norm in terms of the acceptability of politicians being able to say and do things that were considered just a faux pas, abnormal, unbelievable — lying, tearing down the system without solutions," says Chris Haynes, an associate professor of political science at the University of New Haven (Connecticut), who has studied the collision of social media and the presidency. "Trump made it OK to literally tear down the system and not care about what the solutions were going to be."
By contrast, Haynes adds, the tea party movement lacked "an identifiable, charismatic and salient leader."
In addition, Walsh's time in office came before the pervasive use of social media in campaigns. For Trump and the Freedom Caucus, Twitter became a weapon. "It's all about advancing and growing their own brand," Walsh says. "We were just in the infancy of that with my class with Allen West."
In 2012, Walsh lost his reelection bid to Democrat Tammy Duckworth, a disabled veteran of the Iraq War and now a U.S. senator. Rep. West also lost, in spite of a campaign fund of $17 million and the loud support of conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh. West's pollster had the congressman ahead by a comfortable five points, but the race ended with a recount favoring Democrat and first-time candidate Patrick Murphy, then 29.
West was one of the most divisive voices in Congress, and his failure to appeal beyond the GOP grassroots and tone down his rhetoric proved fatal. Redistricting was also a factor, putting more Democratic voters into West's district, so he chose to run instead in a neighboring district. Tellingly, his GOP primary opponent, a local sheriff, endorsed the Democrat.
West is very much on board with the current MAGA tilt of the party but hasn't got much traction in returning to elective office. This year, he challenged Texas Gov. Greg Abbott in the Republican primary and lost.
"Allen West became a Trumper," says Walsh. "Jim Jordan and I were best friends. He became a Trumper. A lot of the hardcore conservatives who I served with in philosophy and principle, they couldn't stand Trump, but they all did what they had to do and they sold their souls to stay in power."
Not all Republicans are on board with the most media-savvy members of the Freedom Caucus, though only a minority of office-holders are openly critical. Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas), himself a conservative Trump supporter, dismissed all members of the Freedom Caucus as "grifters" and "performance artists" while speaking at a candidate event in Houston. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), writing in The Atlantic, condemned the "carefully constructed, prejudice-confirming arguments from the usual gang of sophists, grifters, and truth-deniers" around him.
In 2020, Walsh launched a doomed, quixotic race against Trump in the Republican primary for president, one of three long-shot never-Trumpers running. He left the contest after his overwhelming defeat in the Iowa caucuses.
Meanwhile, the noisiest, most-televised Republican House members have only grown in influence, as they lead a growing extremist crowd of election deniers and QAnon believers. The partisan attacks are becoming crazier and nastier. Greene has blamed California wildfires on a "Jewish space laser," and in February she spoke at a conference of white nationalists hosted by far-right extremist Nick Fuentes in Orlando, Florida. Now Greene is being talked up as a potential Trump running mate in 2024.
"Marjorie Taylor Greene is not fringe," says Walsh. "These people are no longer fringe. They're the party."
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In North Carolina's 11th Congressional District, Rep. Cawthorn was a MAGA hero, and one of Trump's most devoted supporters in Congress. He made a speech at the president's Stop the Steal rally on Jan. 6, where he declared: "When I look out into this crowd, I can confidently say this crowd has the voice of lions."
But his support even within the House Freedom Caucus nosedived after making several bizarre comments. In a podcast interview, Cawthorn suggested the bad behavior depicted in the Netflix series House of Cards was more reality than fiction, and said he'd been invited to orgies by other House members in their 60s and 70s, and witnessed others use cocaine.
On the eve of the primary, Trump sent out a letter of support for his 26-year-old disciple: "Recently, he made some foolish mistakes, which I don't believe he'll make again … let's give Madison a second chance!" But the damage was done.
Cawthorn was the first prominent Freedom Caucus member to fall in 2022, though he still came within a few thousand votes of winning. "It didn't seem like there's any limit, but he found it," says Seth Masket, a professor of political science and director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver. "He just went a little too far, and they had no interest in defending him."
On the eve of the Jan. 6 insurrection, Rep. Boebert tweeted, "Today is 1776," and this year she heckled President Biden during his State of the Union address. In her first term in office, she's been among the loudest freshman Republicans, if also the most incoherent. "I'm tired of this separation of church and state junk – that's not in the Constitution," Boebert said ahead of her June primary. (The first clause of the Bill of Rights, of course, says: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.")
Her attention-getting cafe, Shooters Grill in Rifle, Colorado, where waitresses were armed as they served diners — as well as her campaign office next door — lost their lease in July. When the cafe closed, a sign was left out front with a MAGA-friendly message: "Thanks for the support … #covfefe."
Her Democratic challenger for Colorado's 3rd Congressional District is Adam Frisch, a former Aspen City Council member running as a moderate, criticizing Boebert's central activity in Congress as meaningless "angertainment." His attacks on the incumbent are less about policy than style.
"He's mostly running on the idea that she doesn't take this job seriously — that she is just there to throw bombs and be a blowhard and isn't really interested in governing," says Masket. He notes that Frisch is trying to appeal to any "Republicans in his district that don't really like her because of that. That's probably the smart way to run this race."
Notably, her unsuccessful Republican primary opponent, state Sen. Don Coram, has endorsed Frisch. The challenger has also been slightly ahead of Boebert in fundraising.
While Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight poll analysis site predicts an easy victory for Boebert, one recent poll from Keating Research showed her only two points ahead of her opponent. That might put the Democrat within striking distance of an upset if an uncertain bump in Democratic support occurs because of continued voter alarm over threats to abortion rights and the Supreme Court striking down of Roe v. Wade.
"I think it's wishful thinking, to be quite honest," says Haynes, who adds that extreme manipulation of the redistricting process has only increased the GOP advantage in certain states. In Boebert's redrawn district, Republicans now outnumber Democrats 150,000 to 115,000, though unaffiliated voters make up the largest bloc with 44% of the electorate.
Frisch is "presenting himself as a fairly conservative Democrat," adds Masket. "He's someone that, under more normal conditions, a Republican would probably be comfortable voting for."
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When Greene first ran for her House seat from Georgia's 14th District in 2020, she was kept at arm's length by GOP leaders in Washington, D.C. After videos were discovered online showing Greene making comments that were racist, antisemitic and Islamophobic, congressional Republicans spoke against her during the primary. "The comments made by Ms. Greene are disgusting and don't reflect the values of equality and decency that make our country great," Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), a former Tea Partier, told the Washington Post. Greene still won her primary runoff. Then her Democratic opponent dropped out, and she easily glided into office.
Now she's a MAGA star, with major feature articles in the New York Times and elsewhere, and all predictions are that she will sail to reelection.
This time the Democrat is Marcus Flowers, an Army veteran and former government contractor who spent most of his life as a committed nonpartisan. He last ran for office when he was in the 10th grade, vying for class president. (He won.) But his position changed during the unrest of the Trump years, and the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.
After the attack on the Capitol, he decided to run for Congress against Greene. "Marjorie Taylor Greene is dangerous and a threat to democracy itself," says Flowers. "I see 2022 as being a dry run for an authoritarian takeover in 2024, if we don't do the work."
Among other issues, Flowers says Greene fails the district repeatedly, with little in the way of providing constituent services or bringing federal money to its 11 counties in northwest Georgia. "She's always out of the district traveling around campaigning and doing media hits, doing her video podcasts, or out with Matt Gaetz," Flowers says.
As a measure of the desire of Democrats across the U.S. to eject Greene from her seat, the race is one of the year's most expensive, with $15 million coming into his campaign from individual donors around the country. While critics on the Democratic side have warned that throwing money at longshot candidacies is a mistake when closer races need the funds, Flowers argues that he's building a foundation to last beyond his own race.
"Historically, it's been a district that hasn't gotten a whole lot of focus from Democrats," he says. "I'm a soldier, and we were taught to run towards the sound of gunfire — you cede no ground. Let's be honest about it: Everything that this campaign is doing here in northwest Georgia, by setting up the infrastructure and making that investment in the district, is helping Democrats up and down the ballot."
Flowers remains an extreme longshot. On Oct. 4, a Washington Post reader posted this comment on the paper's website: "As a Georgian who resides in MTG's district, I can tell you that Satan could run for office in many parts of this state and be elected. The devotion to hatred of Democrats is the only political motivation of many here."
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After leaving office, Walsh became a conservative talk radio host. He lost his most recent terrestrial on-air gig for his outspoken criticism of Trump and the modern Republican Party. He now hosts a podcast called "White Flag." On his Facebook page, he frequently fields ugly comments from listeners and fans, former constituents and MAGA faithful.
"In a sense they think I'm a traitor because I was part of their family and I left the family. So it's very personal," Walsh says of the interactions.
"Even more disappointing, all of these voters of mine, the Tea Party folks out there in America, they all abandoned everything they believed in to support Trump. It's just been crushing."