Democrat Tammy Duckworth, an Iraq War veteran who lost both legs in combat before turning to politics, defeated freshman Republican Rep. Joe Walsh on Tuesday night after a bitter and expensive campaign that attracted outsize national attention.
With 93 percent of the unofficial vote counted, Duckworth had 55 percent, with 45 percent for Walsh. Duckworth led in all three counties: suburban Cook, DuPage and Kane.
“I am proud to be your servant in Congress. Together we bring a new attitude to Washington, and starting on my first day I will remind the Congress that we are here to serve, not to obstruct. All Americans should be served by their government,” Duckworth told supporters.
Walsh conceded, congratulating Duckworth on a “tough, tough race.”
“I'm going to cry tonight. ... It wasn't an easy phone call for me to make,” Walsh told supporters. “Cry a little. Then get up. We have a state to save. We have a country to save.”
The campaign was watched nationally because of Walsh's status as a firebrand tea party icon and Duckworth's backing from top Democrats, including President Barack Obama, who did an automated phone call for her.
The contest was marked with scathing attacks from both sides. Duckworth labeled Walsh a “deadbeat” who was too extreme to represent the district. She seized on his personal financial struggles and frequent campaign faux pas, including his claims that medical advances have eliminated the need for women to have life-saving abortions.
Duckworth's strategy throughout the long and bruising campaign was to underscore her stark differences with Walsh, said Duckworth campaign manager Kaitlin Fahey. Walsh's “loud, bombastic” rhetoric made that easy, she said.
“When he took a position that was so counter to the heart and soul of this district, we would highlight that and make the distinction clear between these two candidates,” Fahey said.
Walsh, meanwhile, painted Duckworth as a failed bureaucrat who relied too much on her personal narrative as a war hero instead of her ideas for office. He contended she was more concerned with becoming a national political figure than helping voters in a district drawn by Democratic leaders specifically to elect her.
“From Day One, it was, ‘Justin, get me on the first plane back after every vote, and I don't want to be in D.C. until one hour before I have to vote,'” said Walsh spokesman Justin Roth. “And because of that, there's just a groundswell of people who appreciate the fact that they actually have a member of Congress who actually wants to hear what they say.”
Both candidates enjoyed wide name recognition from the start and wrestled to keep a race that kept venturing into the national spotlight focused on local issues. Given that many knew Duckworth's military story, she sought to get beyond that by portraying herself as a member of the community who would fight to bring jobs and federal dollars back to the district, support immigration changes and embrace its growing diversity.
For his part, Walsh is an outspoken freshman in Congress who touts the fact that he has made few friends while in Washington, even among his Republican counterparts. He campaigned on holding the line on national debt, saying he would not vote for a single program that added to it. Walsh supports an overhaul of the Medicare and Social Security programs while declaring that government needs to “get out of the way” of small businesses struggling under a bad economy and confusing regulations.
In a district that voted 62 percent for Obama in 2008, Duckworth's campaign kept a close eye on independents.
Despite his status as an incumbent, Walsh had cast himself as David while comparing Duckworth to Goliath. Duckworth routinely out-raised Walsh, and she had $4.5 million in her campaign chest as of last month, compared with roughly $1.8 million for Walsh.
But Walsh received major support from conservative political groups that poured more than $5 million into the race on his behalf. Duckworth also got about $500,000 in support from outside groups.
Walsh said his campaign focused on building support on the ground as opposed to the airwaves, noting it was cheaper and more effective when neighbors tried to win over neighbors.
In addition to his statements on abortion, Walsh drew attention for saying Duckworth talked too much about her war service, unlike “true heroes.” He also claimed radical Islam was infiltrating the suburbs and apologized after he called Obama “idiotic.”
The National Republican Congressional Committee sought to tie Duckworth to imprisoned former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who appointed her to lead the state veterans affairs agency.
Tribune reporter Robert McCoppin contributed.