By the end of the day tonight, Thursday, Dec. 8, the biggest of all political mysteries for Republicans in Illinois will be solved: whether Rep. Joe Walsh, easily the most visible (and most interviewed) voice of the Tea Party movement among the 87 Republican freshmen in the House, is willing to run against fellow freshman Republican Rep. Randy Hultgren in the newly redistricted 14th District, or whether he will seek reelection in the open (but less securely Republican) 8th District.
Walsh himself wasn’t talking yesterday. The fiery freshman lawmaker is scheduled to announce his decision tonight before (no surprise here) the Chicago Tea Party. Reporters, television cameras and bloggers are certain to jam the Cubby Bear restaurant in Chicago and, anticipating an overflow crowd, the Tea Partiers advise that “Parking is free for the first 70 cars.”
The redistricting plan enacted by the Democrat-ruled state legislature and signed by Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn slashed up the districts of more than half the Prairie State’s GOP House members. Walsh’s 8th District (once held by conservative Rep. Phil Crane from 1969 to 2002, and before that by future Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld) was among the hardest hit, and the freshman conservative found his McHenry home in the new 14th District—just as Hultgren found his St. Charles home.
Walsh and Hultgren could compete for the 14th in the March primary, the winner to have a safe district for at least another decade (until the next redistricting process in 2021). This may not have as much of an impact on term-limit enthusiast Walsh, who has pledged to retire from Congress after three terms.
Or Walsh could move to the neighboring new 8th District, in which Democrats have a small voter registration advantage, but where there is no incumbent congressman. Republicans in the 8th are reportedly encouraging Walsh to run from their turf (which includes about 30% of voters from his former 8th District), and there are signs that the most significant announced GOP candidate, DuPage County Superintendent of Education Darlene Ruscitti, would defer to the congressman. Walsh would then face liberal Democrat Tammy Duckworth, an Iraq War veteran and former assistant secretary of Veterans Affairs, who lost a close ’06 race in the old 6th District to Republican Peter Roskam.
Obviously, state and national GOP leaders would breathe a sigh of relief if two Republican House members did not run against one another and there were a Republican incumbent with a vociferous following in an open district. All of this, however, will be irrelevant if a three-judge federal panel strikes down the redistricting plan and orders the redrawing of new lines for Illinois’ 18 U.S. House districts. Already, the panel has extended the filing deadline from Dec. 5 to Dec. 23-27—a sign that it may rule this month in favor of scrapping the plan.
For now, Joe Walsh is giving no hints as to what he will do when he addresses his fellow Tea Party members tonight. One thing is certain, however: Political eyes everywhere are on him.