RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
One of the most bitterly fought congressional races in this election is in the suburbs of Chicago, where controversial freshman Republican Joe Walsh is fighting to keep a seat he lost as a result of redistricting. Walsh is a Tea Party favorite, but his bombastic rants frequently get him into trouble with members of the Republican Party And Walsh is facing a tough Democratic opponent in Tammy Duckworth, a wounded Iraq War veteran.
From Chicago, NPR's David Schaper reports.
DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: When Republican Congressman Joe Walsh and Democratic challenger Tammy Duckworth get together, it doesn't take long for the fireworks to begin.
REPRESENTATIVE JOE WALSH: Yes or no? That's - I don't mean to be disrespectful.
TAMMY DUCKWORTH: Mr. Walsh - Mr. Walsh continues - Mr. Walsh continues to distract people from the issues at hand...
WALSH: OK, OK, OK...
DUCKWORTH: That's what we're really talking about...
SCHAPER: This exchange in a recent raucous debate was over Duckworth's tenure as Illinois director of Veteran's Affairs. But they've also battled over spending cuts, taxes, Medicare, Social Security, and in this subsequent debate on public television, Walsh's opposition to abortion, without exception.
DUCKWORTH: Not for rape, incest, or life of the mother. He would let a woman die, rather than give her...
WALSH: Now, Ms. Duckworth, that's not fair. That's not fair. That's not fair.
DUCKWORTH: ...than to give the doctor the option to save...
SCHAPER: After that debate, Walsh told reporters that abortion is never necessary to save the life of the mother.
WALSH: There's no such exception. With modern technology and science, you can't find one instance.
SCHAPER: After being called inaccurate by medical groups, Walsh backtracked. To Tammy Duckworth, the comments are part of a pattern.
DUCKWORTH: Unfortunately, this is Mr. Walsh. He has repeatedly said many things that are inappropriate, many things that are not true, and that he continues to say things that are very irresponsible, especially in a sitting congressman.
SCHAPER: Indeed, Walsh stands out among the freshman class of Tea Party-backed Republicans much more for what he's said than for anything he's done. He's called the president a tyrant and idiotic. He suggested Duckworth is not a true war hero because she talks too much about her service. He's even berated constituents at town hall meetings.
WALSH: Don't blame banks and don't blame the marketplace for the mess we're in right now. I am tired of hearing that crap.
SCHAPER: At that recent public television debate, Walsh insisted he is not a loose cannon.
WALSH: No. There are times when I've gotten ahead of myself. And whenever I've felt like I've stepped over the line, I've tried to apologize.
SCHAPER: But Walsh says he has no regrets, adding that most constituents he meets seem to appreciate his brand of straight talk.
WALSH: I think we're all sick of politicians who poll test every single word that comes out of their mouth. This country is broke. This great, good country is dying right now. I'm an odd duck in that I'm not driven by my re-election.
SCHAPER: And in a way, Walsh has nothing to lose. The former political activist is getting only limited support from his own party, while Democrats have targeted Walsh from the start. They carved Walsh and almost three quarters of his old district out of Illinois' 8th, and made it one that not just leans more Democratic, but a district that would favor Duckworth in particular. She ran and narrowly lost six years ago in a neighboring district, much of which is now in this new district.
Conservative superPACs and tax exempt groups have come to Walsh's rescue, airing a steady drumbeat of negative ads attacking Duckworth. But Duckworth has plenty of money on her own side, and has hit back at Walsh hard. The latest Chicago Tribune poll shows Duckworth leading Walsh by 10 points.
Political Scientist Alan Gitelson, at Loyola University of Chicago, says Democrats see a symbolic opportunity in defeating Walsh.
ALAN GITELSON: Knocking him out would certainly be a very strong message that the Tea Party can't hold onto all of the candidates that they hope to hold on to in the House of Representatives.
SCHAPER: Joe Walsh's is one of five Republican congressional seats in Illinois that Democrats hope to pick up. And in a race that has been nasty from the start, constituents should only expect the mudslinging to intensify in its final days.
David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.