Joe Walsh, who turned a lone term in Congress representing Chicago’s northwest suburbs into a national media platform to further his incendiary political rhetoric, announced Sunday he would challenge President Donald Trump for the 2020 Republican nomination for the White House.
“Today I’m declaring my candidacy for president of the United States because it’s time to be brave,” Walsh said in a video as he announced his campaign on social media.
“We have someone in the White House who we all know is unfit. Someone who lies virtually every time he opens his mouth and someone who places his own interest above the nation’s interest at every single turn. We cannot afford four more years of Donald Trump. No way,” Walsh said.
Walsh, a locally based host of a syndicated radio talk show, has been telegraphing his long-shot bid against Trump for weeks.
He has made regular cable news appearances as well as a visit to “This Week with George Stephanopoulos” on ABC on Sunday after first writing an op-ed in The New York Times earlier this month laying out the case for a challenge to Trump from the right, while saying he regretted the personal Trump-style attacks he leveled in the past.
“I wrote that New York Times piece to get someone in our party to step up,” he told the Tribune on Sunday morning. “In the last week it became clear that no other Republicans were going to step up to declare the president is unfit, so I’m going to do this.”
Walsh, who publicly supported Trump in 2016, rode the wave of the tea party movement in 2010 to win a seat in the House by 290 votes over Democratic incumbent Melissa Bean. With the district redrawn after the 2010 federal census, Walsh was soundly defeated for reelection by now-U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth by nearly 10 percentage points in 2012, leading to his talk radio career.
For the 57-year-old Walsh, his candidacy for president becomes the latest act in a public life that is in many ways befitting for a former student at the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute. Walsh has been a role player looking to fill self-perceived voids in the political scene.
His provocative rhetoric has given him an outsized national platform on cable news outlets despite his cup-of-coffee tenure in the House — once as a fierce critic of former President Barack Obama, then as a staunch supporter of Trump’s election, and now as a political apologist for playing a role in putting Trump in the White House.
But a review of Walsh’s career — his three losing bids for elective office against one win as well as a failed attempt to become Illinois Republican chairman — shows that even as he now assails Trump, he is not so unlike the president, with a history of flip-flopping on a variety of issues over the years while using inflammatory language to gain attention.
Few Republicans, regardless of their feelings toward Trump, give Walsh a chance to defeat the president or even being able to put together the massive infrastructure needed to raise funds and get on primary and caucus ballots in the 50 states.
Matt Mackowiak, a nationally known Republican consultant who also chairs the GOP in Travis County, Texas, called Walsh “a legend in his own mind.”
“He served in Congress for one term. His radio show is failing. He was a Trump-supporting tea party member as recently as two years ago. He’s had significant personal, professional and financial problems,” Mackowiak said.
“It will be the height of irony to see ‘Never Trumpers’, who have talked incessantly about the importance of character, support Joe Walsh over President Trump in a Republican primary. As the Trump campaign said, Walsh’s candidacy will meet ‘certain failure,’” he said.
But William Kristol, the conservative founder and editor of the now-defunct Weekly Standard and a Never Trumper, has backed a challenge to the president and encouraged Walsh and former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld to make primary runs.
“Yes, the challengers to Donald Trump have flaws. But they also have courage,” Kristol tweeted Friday, adding that, “I salute the brave, flawed though they may be.”
It was only days before the 2016 presidential election when Walsh displayed his enthusiasm for Trump, saying in a tweet: “On November 8th, I’m voting for Trump. On November 9th, if Trump loses, I’m grabbing my musket. You in?”
But on Friday, in preparation for his announcement, Walsh tweeted: “Trump is not well. Trump is not stable. Trump is not fit. Trump is a danger to the country and he’s becoming a big danger to your pocketbook.”
Yet the similarities between Walsh and Trump are many.
At first a moderate, Walsh supported abortion rights, a ban on assault weapons and gun buyer background checks in his 1996 and 1998 bids for Congress and the Illinois House. But in his 2010 bid for Congress, he backed a ban on abortion with no exceptions and wrongly claimed that medical advances eliminated the need for women to have life-saving abortions. He also touted his allegiance to Second Amendment rights.
Trump also previously supported abortion rights, once declaring, “I am very pro-choice.” In his 2000 book, “The America We Deserve,” Trump supported a ban on assault weapons before declaring to the National Rifle Association in 2015 that the Second Amendment would be “totally protected” if he ran and won the presidency. More recently, in the wake of mass shootings, Trump has vacillated on the issue of background checks.
During Trump’s presidential campaign, he gained notoriety for saying the late U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona was “not a war hero” because he had been captured in the Vietnam War.
In his failed 2012 re-election bid, Walsh said his Democratic opponent, now-U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, was not one of the nation’s “true heroes” — though as a U.S. Army helicopter pilot, she lost both her legs when her aircraft was shot down during the Iraq War in 2004.
Walsh contended at the time that McCain was a hero because he did not speak often about his past military service. But Walsh also had harsh words for the senator, who died in August 2018, saying to a tea party group in 2012 that he understood those who didn’t vote for McCain for president against Obama because, “McCain was what, about 132 years old?”
While in Congress, reacting to McCain’s comparison of tea party followers to “hobbits,” Walsh called the senator an “old troll.” When McCain died, Walsh acknowledged in a tweet, “damn, I respected him.” By then, Walsh began promoting anti-Trump sentiments.
Trump has come under criticism for repeatedly using racist language, such as when he recently said four new Democratic members of Congress who are of color should “go back” to the “corrupt” countries he said they are from. Three of them were born in the United States. A fourth, Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, left Somalia when she was 8 and settled in the U.S. when she was 12.
In June 2014, Walsh was briefly taken off the air when he used racial epithets, including a racial slur in discussing the controversy over the name of the Washington Redskins NFL team.
A year earlier, on the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Walsh recited his own version on his radio show and told listeners that he had a dream that “young black males and females graduate from high school,” and that “young black men don’t become daddies until after they’re married, and until after they have a job.”
During a May 2011 interview with online publication Slate, the then-congressman said Obama was elected because of his race.
“He was black, he was historic. … They were in love with him because they thought he was a good liberal guy and they were in love with him because he pushed that magical button: a black man who was articulate, liberal, the whole white guilt, all of that,” he said.
And in July 2016, following the shootings in Dallas in which five police officers were killed, Walsh issued a tweet that said: “This is now war. Watch out Obama. Watch out black lives matter punks. Real America is coming after you.”
He later deleted that tweet but in December 2016, Walsh tweeted: “Obama is a Muslim. Happy New Year!”
During his 1996 campaign for Congress, Walsh expressed support for immigration reforms. By 2010, though, he opposed construction of a border fence, calling for the use of technology and potentially U.S. troops to secure the border with Mexico.
Trump in 2012 criticized losing GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney for a “crazy policy of self-deportation, which was maniacal.” He credited Democrats, saying that while they “didn’t have a policy for dealing with illegal immigrants” they “weren’t mean-spirited about it.”
But in his campaign and in his presidency, Trump has taken a hardline approach to illegal immigration and has worked to reduce legal immigration.
Aside from the Trump comparisons, Walsh has had several financial problems over the years, including now-resolved liens and a condo foreclosure as well as a controversy over child support.
Shortly after his election to Congress, Walsh’s ex-wife filed suit claiming he owed $117,437 in unpaid child support. Walsh denied owing the money. In 2012, he issued a joint statement with his ex-wife announcing an undisclosed settlement, part of which declared, “We now agree that Joe is not and was not a ‘deadbeat dad’ and does not owe child support.”
For Walsh, it has been a constant evolution of political roles.
In his failed challenge to Rep. Sidney Yates in 1996, Walsh said he was “the kind of Republican who can win because I’m open and tolerant. I’m not some right-wing conservative.”
By 2010 he was courting the right wing, and in 2012 he said of his desire of a Republican to defeat Obama: “We don’t need a savior. I don’t want a savior. A lot of this country thought they elected a savior three years ago.”
On Friday, readying his challenge to take on Trump, Walsh offered this tweet: “I’d rather be the man who apologizes for the mistakes he’s made than the man who’s incapable of apologizing for the mistakes he’s made.”
Chicago Tribune’s Lisa Donovan contributed.