SALEM, N.H. ― Taking on an incumbent president from your own party is a tough enough job already, but Joe Walsh starts with an even more basic problem.
“Who?” wonders John Randlett, a selectman from Plymouth, New Hampshire, a tiny town 45 miles north of the state capital Concord, and an active-enough Republican to have come to a $100-a-ticket social to raise money for state House Republican candidates. “I never heard of him.”
Even during an appearance on conservative talk radio ― Walsh’s own most recent job ― WGIR host Jack Heath feels compelled to introduce Walsh as “not the musician, but the former congressman.”
If Walsh feels snubbed, he does not show it and instead spends his half-hour doing what he has mainly been doing for the better part of a year, particularly since he announced his longshot campaign to take the 2020 GOP nomination away from President Donald Trump.
“He deserves to be impeached,” Walsh says on-air, remarks that are apostasy for listeners who later in the day will hear from right-wing media stars Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. “Trump tried to cheat in the 2020 election.”
Bill from Maine calls in to complain: “You’re bad-mouthing our president!”
While Heath brought him on, Walsh’s background as one of the original tea party congressmen may not be enough for entree onto the loudest platform for Trump fandom, Fox News ― thereby hurting his ability to boost his name recognition among the likeliest GOP voters in New Hampshire’s Feb. 11 primary. As HuffPost followed him around the state this past week, Walsh said he has been banned from appearing on Fox News programs, where so many Republicans get their information, because he refuses to tone down his criticism of Trump and the network wants to protect the president.
(Fox News spokeswoman Caley Cronin denied this in a statement: “A simple Google search would show there is zero truth in these claims made by Joe Walsh.” A cursory Google search, however, appears to corroborate Walsh’s assertion, with no television appearances on the network since a contentious Aug. 30 interview on Fox Business in which he goaded host Stuart Varney into claiming that Trump does not lie.)
At the same time, Walsh knows he has a tough climb to win over Democrats and liberal independents, who might otherwise be persuaded to cast ballots in open primaries like New Hampshire’s, because of his lengthy record of bashing former President Barack Obama, both during Walsh’s single term in Congress and afterward as an AM radio talk show host in Chicago.
In 2015, when a gunman killed four Marines in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Walsh accused Obama of refusing to call the act Islamic terrorism because he claimed “Obama is Muslim.” In 2017, he contended that Americans had “lowered the bar” for Obama “to a lower standard cuz he was black.” Two weeks before the 2016 election, Walsh said he would be voting for Trump on Nov. 8 and added, “On November 9th, if Trump loses, I’m grabbing my musket.”
For months now, Walsh has found himself frequently apologizing for his past incendiary and at times racist remarks. His talk show was on a conservative radio network, and such fodder was what the audience wanted to hear, he says by way of explanation.
“I went after Obama hard. Sometimes I went after Obama too hard,” he says. “I engaged in ugly personal attacks. I’m done doing that.”
The worst, he says, was calling Obama a Muslim ― not because there’s anything wrong with being Muslim, but because since Obama frequently said he was Christian, Walsh was calling Obama a liar without cause.
“All I can do is apologize,” he says. “I am a reformed outlaw.”
With his words and ubiquitous tweets, Walsh has publicly turned a page. When Trump declared the city of Baltimore rat-infested this summer and posted that “no human being would want to live there,” Walsh called him a racist. And when Trump told four congresswomen ― two Muslim, one Black and one Latina ― to go back to their countries, Walsh wrote: “It’s so ugly. It’s so un-American.”
The shift, while dramatic, may have left Walsh politically homeless.
“I feel like a man without a country,” he says. “There are a lot of people who will never trust me. And I don’t have a base anymore.”
Walsh, who will turn 58 later this month, was a former social worker and a former community college history teacher turned conservative think tank fundraiser in suburban Chicago until Obama’s election persuaded him to run for Congress. Being the first tea party candidate in the country to win a congressional primary in 2010 won him some fame. So did getting sued by the other Joe Walsh, the former Eagles guitarist, for using the musician’s songs at his campaign events.
Walsh says he was driven by Obama’s liberal policies and, particularly, his push for the Affordable Care Act. To this day, Walsh says he believes that most tea party voters similarly opposed the first Black president over issues like the national debt, not because of the color of his skin.
Walsh’s Capitol Hill career, though, was a short one. Illinois lost two congressional seats in the 2010 Census, and the Democrats who controlled the statehouse made sure that Walsh’s was one of them when they drew the new map. The swing seat he had won by 0.2 percentage points became the one he lost by 9 points two years later.
Walsh slid into AM talk radio in early 2013, starting with a station in Chicago and eventually becoming nationally syndicated through Salem Radio Network. Continuing to attack Obama as he had in Congress was easy, and in 2016 Walsh became a supporter of Trump because of how the reality TV host appeared to take joy in flouting “political correctness.”
The former congressman asserts now he didn’t love or even like Trump, but wound up backing the man because he was not Hillary Clinton, a decadeslong villain in the world of right-wing politics. Soon enough, though, he says he began seeing troubling signs in the new president and started criticizing those actions while still praising Trump for the efforts he agreed with, such as the 2017 tax cut legislation.
That started changing, he says, when Trump began trade wars, started running up increasingly hefty budget deficits despite a strong economy and cozied up to Russian leader Vladimir Putin and other dictators ― policies once anathema to the Republican Party’s platforms ― all while lying nearly constantly, about just about everything.
But the epiphany came at the Helsinki summit with Putin in the summer of 2018, when Trump told the world that he believed the Russian strongman over his own intelligence services. “When he did that, that was the final straw for me. I went on the radio and said I was never going to support him again. He’s a traitor,” Walsh says, adding that even more depressing was watching members of his own party fail to offer a word of criticism. “Now the party is not a party. Now the party is purely a personality cult for Donald Trump.”
Of course, Walsh is not the only Republican, or even the first, to think that Trump needs to be challenged from within his own party. Former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, who previously ran the Justice Department’s Criminal Division under President Ronald Reagan, announced his presidential candidacy in April. Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford also entered the GOP primary race, only to drop out after three months when his worry-about-the-debt-but-not-attack-Trump strategy gained little traction.
Yet in the past year, Walsh has been among the relatively small universe of Republicans eager to attack Trump openly and vociferously on any number of topics, from his willingness to profit off his presidency to his trade wars to his temperament to his treatment of women and people of color.
In terms of pure vitriol, Walsh’s criticism of Trump rivals that of the most outspoken Democrats. He calls Trump unfit for office, divisive, racist, openly corrupt and, in Walsh’s view worst of all, a serial liar.
“We can’t as a people accept a president who lies every time he opens his mouth,” Walsh tells C-SPAN during a taping at St. Anselm’s College in Manchester, New Hampshire.
“As a conservative Republican, I’d rather have a socialist in the White House than a dictator,” he tells WMUR’s Adam Sexton for a segment on Sexton’s weekend politics show.
This past week was Walsh’s sixth trip to New Hampshire since getting into the race in late August, with a return visit planned this coming week. He says he has been to Iowa eight times and has also visited Virginia, Tennessee, Texas, Florida, California and Pennsylvania.
“Every state I go, 70 to 80% of the Republicans I speak with really all do say a variation of the same thing: ‘Joe, I like some of the things Trump’s done, but I’m sick and tired of all of his bullshit. I’m exhausted. I can’t imagine going through four more years of Trump. But, Joe, what am I going to do? The Democrats are socialist. What other alternative do I have?’” Walsh says. “Now I hear that, and I think, well, that’s an opportunity for somebody.”
But given Trump’s strong approval numbers within the Republican Party, it’s unclear whether Walsh’s message is traveling beyond a relatively small minority of Republicans and independents.
At the New Hampshire House fundraiser in Bedford this past week, Randlett says he is willing to tolerate the aspects of Trump that even he finds offensive. “I don’t like a lot of the things he says. But I think he’s getting the job done,” the Plymouth selectman says. “I’m going to take the 70 or 80% that’s good and live with the rest.”
The following night, at a Rockingham County Republican Christmas Party (and ugly sweater contest) in Portsmouth, former New Hampshire House Speaker and current U.S. Senate candidate Bill O’Brien says he is not likely to invite Walsh to his local Americans for Tax Reform group. “We’re not very favorable for someone to be running against the president,” O’Brien explains.
Lindsay Murphy, who stepped away from a human resources career to raise young children, says that she sees both Walsh’s and Weld’s bids as “running against the wind” and that she will support Trump, despite his flaws. “I’m a Republican. You have to stick up for your team,” she adds.
Walsh says those types of views present him with a daunting challenge ― but adds that what keeps him going is the knowledge that with Trump, pretty much anything can happen.
“The facts on the ground could change again,” he tells HuffPost as he steers a rented Infinity SUV along a New Hampshire highway. “Twenty Republican senators would give their middle finger to Donald Trump in a heartbeat if the facts warranted it because they don’t like him. They want him gone. So John Bolton testifies in January and says here’s the deal, here’s what really happened. Or Lev Parnas has tapes where Trump is saying, ‘Fuck it, I want dirt on Biden or I’m not giving him the aid.’ Who knows what might come out? So it’s extremely possible that the Senate could convict this guy, or this guy who’s a bully and a coward will just say, ‘I’m gone.’”
In either of those cases, with qualifying deadlines passed, a newly elevated President Mike Pence would not be able to get on primary ballots, Walsh points out, but adds that party leaders would likely change rules at the summer convention to make sure Pence got the nomination.
Playing that scenario out, Walsh says he’s not sure he’d go along, even though his primary objective of getting Trump out of the White House would have been accomplished. “I find it hard to believe that Mike Pence wasn’t aware of Trump’s abuse of power. So he could be tarnished as well,” Walsh says. “I may run against Pence if Pence is involved in this.”
For now, the strategy is simple: Work hard to persuade enough Iowa Republicans and independents to caucus for him on Feb. 3 and win an unexpectedly large showing to take into the New Hampshire primary. “That has to be the story coming out of Iowa,” he says. “We’re going to try to accumulate as many delegates as we can in order to force a contested convention.”
At Mary Ann’s Diner in Salem, Walsh drapes his maroon Patagonia jacket over his chair before approaching a young man wearing a Ralph Lauren shirt and sporting a sticker with the Massachusetts state seal on his laptop. Walsh senses a possible Republican and engages, quickly getting deep into the weeds of his views on the drug war and the justice system.
Back at the table where the candidate’s wife, Helene, and two campaign aides are seated comes a sharp reminder of his biggest difficulty. The waitress approaches and whispers, “Can I ask who that is?”
As campaigns go, Walsh’s still has rough edges. Two diner visits advertised in a news release for Thursday were hastily rescheduled for different locations at the last minute. A third was canceled entirely.
Money is a constant concern, with heavyweight Republican donors unwilling to anger the notoriously vindictive Trump by helping Walsh. “They don’t want to piss him off,” he shrugs.
He also acknowledges that he hasn’t yet mastered the art of keeping a conversation with potential supporters brief. He spends a good 20 minutes with the young man with the drug war concerns ― Paul is his name ― and returns with a phone number. Success. A possible volunteer.
Back at the table, Walsh and his wife agree to split a pastrami sandwich. Then he gets to work on the waitress, Darlene Paradise, eventually asking her: “Donald Trump ― what are the first words that come to your mind?”
“He stinks,” she says. “I don’t like him.”
Walsh gives her a half hug: “I love you! Now what’s my name?”