Illinois Rep. Joe Walsh, a rising star in the Tea Party movement best known for his blistering lectures of President Obama for "spending like a drunken sailor," is now being peppered with questions about his own financial responsibility after reports surfaced that he's being sued for more than $100,000 in unpaid child support.
Experts say whatever political star power the 49-year-old Republican previously emanated has been dimmed, if not extinguished, because for at least the immediate future it will be impossible for him to talk about anything other than his personal problems.
"Whenever he wants to go out and talk about the debt limit, they are going to want to talk about whether (he) is a deadbeat dad," said Kent Redfield, a professor emeritus of politics at the University of Illinois-Springfield. "His individual problems become the story and he never gets to another issue."
That means that whenever he appears on cable and network television shows to talk about the increasingly rancorous debt ceiling debate, the hosts now will invariably want to know about what is in his thick divorce file, Redfield said.
Redfield and others say it is all but impossible for politician to shake questions about whether or not they've provided for their families once a story like the one in Thursday's Chicago Sun-Times is published.
"Child support is always devastating to politicians when it (such a story) comes out, because the public says, `How can you manage our finances when you can't manage your own?"' said Larry Sabato, a political scientist and director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.
One Tea Party activist, though, said the story will not hurt Walsh in the movement because they will simply see it as a politically motivated attack.
"The public understands this, they see Joe Walsh stick up for people and now all of a sudden this appears in a newspaper," said Catherina Wojtowicz, of the Chicago Tea Patriots. "It's a smear piece because he's speaking out on behalf of the people."
That was Walsh's point when in a prepared statement he characterized the story about his ex-wife's effort seeking $117,437 in back child support and interest as a "hit piece."
He suggested it was no accident that the paper would run the story about a marriage that ended eight years ago and a court case filed nearly eight months ago just as lawmakers are in the middle of contentious debate over the debt ceiling.
"I am the tip of the spear in this current debate, and I will be attacked," he wrote in a statement issued Thursday morning.
Walsh, whose campaign was marked by allegations of financial mismanagement, said he thought he and his ex-wife were coming to an agreement on the money owed, according to a February court filing. And in the statement, he said he has been "trying to resolve this issue since January in a court of law ..."
The statement does not include any mention of how much he has paid in child support, only that he has "always given everything I have to meet my financial obligations to my children ..."
Nor does Walsh, whose website includes a video in which he accuses Obama of spending money "like a drunken sailor for three years," address allegations made by his ex-wife that at the time Walsh was not keeping up with his child support he took two international vacations with his girlfriend.
Walsh's attorney, R. Steven Polachek, denied that the congressman owed $117,437 in back child support and interest and said the amount was much less.
"I dispute that he owes the child support that she's claiming or anywhere near that amount," Polachek told the paper. "Joe Walsh hasn't been a big-time wage-earner politician until recently -- he's had no more problems with child support than any other average guy."
But Laura Walsh's attorney, Jack Coladarci, said that Walsh was paying about $1,000 less than he was ordered to between November 2005 and March 2008, and then stopped paying the entire $2,135 he owed every month from April 2008 until December 2010.
He said once Walsh began serving in Congress, earning $175,000 a year, he started making payments of $2,164 a month -- after Coladarci contacted the congressional office to advise the office of a court order to withhold that amount from his paycheck.
How this all plays out when Walsh runs for re-election remains to be seen. Despite disclosures about a 2008 home foreclosure, his divorce, traffic citations for not having car insurance, bounced checks and a lawsuit by a former campaign manager who alleged Walsh owed him $,20,000, Walsh was elected to Congress.
But Walsh was not all that popular among moderate Republicans, who often referred to himself as a "tea partier first and a Republican second."
Today, Republican officials in Illinois say they still support Walsh. At the same time, they are critical of some of the things he's said -- particularly when in his video he scolded Obama to "quit lying" about the debt issue.
"We don't need that kind of rhetoric with the president of the United States," said Pat Brady, the GOP state party chairman.
And Sabato said that it may not matter what he's said and what's been reported about his divorce the next time around. Thanks to the redrawing of congressional boundaries in Illinois by Democrats -- since been challenged with a lawsuit by Republicans -- Walsh was mapped out of his district.
"He was an endangered Tea Party freshman in anybody's book," he said.