If you harbor any doubt about the power of words, just take a look at Greg Walden. Last week the eight-term Republican congressman from Oregon went on CNN and accused Barack Obama of “trying to balance this budget on the backs of seniors”—a reference to the president’s proposed cuts to Social Security. Walden—who recently became chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, meaning he will oversee the GOP’s effort to hold on to the House in 2014—was effectively attacking Obama from the left. And soon enough, conservatives were attacking him.
The Club for Growth, which punishes any Republicans who stray from its small-government orthodoxy, threatened a primary challenge. “We always knew Greg Walden had a liberal record, but he really cemented it with his public opposition to even modest entitlement reform,” said the group’s president, Chris Chocola. Asked about the rogue congressman at a press conference, House Speaker John Boehner replied, “I’ve made it clear that I disagree with what Chairman Walden said”—and added for good measure, “We’ll leave it at that.”
The sudden infamy was a big change for Walden, who prior to last week was not a household name in Washington. The congressman hails from the sprawling flatlands east of Portland, where he routinely garners wins by margins of 30 points or more—something Oregonians attribute to his relentless travel around the eastern part of the state. “People in that part of the world, they want you to take your time to talk with them, and Greg will travel to these small towns and stay until he has heard from everyone,” says Greg Leo, executive director of the Oregon GOP, adding that Walden is one of the most gifted public speakers in state politics. Leo says he doubts local conservatives were much concerned with Walden’s supposed apostasy. “Greg read it in a uniquely accurate way. That is an Oregon quality—we call ’em as we see ’em, no matter what the party line.”
Walden owned radio stations before turning to politics and worked as a campaign grunt on various Oregon races. He made his way to Washington, serving as a press secretary for his predecessor, Congressman Denny Smith, before returning to Oregon, where he followed his father—a politician himself—into the state legislature. He made the jump to Congress in 1998 and over the years has slowly worked his way up the leadership ranks.
Hill staffers say that the genteel Walden doesn’t quite fit the mold of your typical House Republican. The lone Republican in Congress from Oregon, he is known, in the words of one senior House aide, “as a guy who works his ass off, who never raises his voice, who never gets angry.”
Walden was unavailable for comment this week, but a spokesman told Newsweek, “He disagrees with President Obama’s political plan that hurts current seniors just so he can pay for more wasteful spending.” In other words, having placed himself to Obama’s left on Social Security—and alienated his own base in the process—Greg Walden seems perfectly happy to stay right where he is.