Democrat With Military Credentials Takes on Republican Hawk in Pennsylvania

For Democrats in Pennsylvania's 7th Congressional District, a candidate like Joe Sestak only comes along once in 20 years.

A Harvard PhD and a retired two-star admiral who commanded an aircraft carrier battle group in Operation Enduring Freedom, Sestak has been raising money furiously, so much money that national party Democrats have taken notice. They are now saying he has a chance at beating incumbent Rep. Curt Weldon, a Republican who has been representing the district since 1986.

"Curt Weldon … at this point after 20 years in Congress, is out of touch with the needs of the people," said Jen Psaki, spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "I think there is no question we see the Philadelphia suburbs as a key battleground."

Sestak made national headlines in late July when it was reported he had raised $704,000 in this year's second quarter, compared to $692,000 raised by Weldon in the same quarter.

Sestak had $993,746 on hand as of June 30, compared to Weldon, who had $1.1 million in the bank, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Analysts say Sestak is one of the highest fundraisers for House challengers this election cycle.

"It is somewhat of a surprise," said Terry Madonna, professor and director of the Keystone Poll at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania. "It looks like it could end up being a fairly competitive race."

A surprise, Madonna and others say, because Weldon has not had real competition since he was first elected to Congress. Up until 2002, his margins of victory have been extremely comfortable and no candidate has raised substantial funds against him.

But in 2002, Democrat Paul Scoles raised only $24,000 and managed to get 40 percent of the vote, compared to 59 percent for Weldon. Analysts say this was the first window of opportunity through which Democrats saw a ray of light.

"At one time [Weldon] was considered an immovable incumbent," said Abe Amoros, spokesman for the Democratic Party of Pennsylvania, adding that after almost two decades in Congress, Weldon has "lost his way" in Washington.

Weldon and his Republican supporters consider that a lot of bunk. Democrats have been hyping Sestak as part of a broader effort to present a potential statewide front against Republicans this November. Pennsylvania Reps. Jim Gerlach and Mike Fitzpatrick also face tough challengers as does Sen. Rick Santorum.

"They can say what they want, in the end, we will do our thing and I think we will do just fine," Weldon told

Weldon acknowledged that he has been paying more attention to this year's race.

"Last election, I didn't spend any money on myself, I spent my money to re-elect George Bush and it didn't help me," he said. "I didn't run an aggressive campaign last year — this year I'm running an aggressive campaign and we are doing what we need to do."

Mike Barley, spokesman for the Republican Party of Pennsylvania, said that the district is happy with their hometown son.

"I can tell you that Curt Weldon is very popular," Barley added. "I haven't seen anything from Joe Sestak that is going to change anyone's minds."

The 7th District comprises much of the western Philadelphia suburbs, including most of Delaware County and small portions of Montgomery and Chester counties. Despite a proclivity to elect Republicans to local office, voters here tend to vote Democratic statewide and have voted for Democrats in the last three presidential campaigns.

President Bush lost this district to Democratic Sen. John Kerry, 53 percent to 47 percent in 2004.

"Obviously we are keeping a close eye on this race," said Barley. "I'm not particularly worried about Curt Weldon — his record speaks for itself."

Weldon, a teacher who served on the Delaware County Council before going to Congress, is vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and a hawk on robust military and homeland security spending and the War on Terror.

He has also been a strong advocate for U.S.-Russian relations, while at the same time, a supporter of missile defense and impeding the flow of nuclear material and weapons of mass destruction from counties like Russia to terrorists and their state sponsors.

Widely supported by labor unions in his district, Weldon has opposed free trade policies favored by the Bush administration. Nonetheless, he has been a consistent supporter of the war in Iraq, Bush's tax policies and key social conservative positions.

But with growing concern about the war in Iraq, Weldon's insistence that weapons of mass destruction were in that country despite the lack of evidence has emboldened Democratic criticisms of Weldon's approach to the war.

"[Weldon] has this tendency to hurt himself," said Cliff Wilson, chairman of the Delaware County Democrats.

Retired last year from a 31-year career in the Navy, Sestak served under President Clinton as director of Defense Policy, and in the current administration as a deputy chief of naval operations. He is urging the redeployment of U.S. troops out of Iraq by the end of 2007.

Sestak said he wants to apply the military model of well-being to all citizens — ensuring affordable health care and economic security for everyone so they are more willing to "sacrifice for the common cause."

"I understand that at the top of [constituents'] list, is the concern for family, which Curt Weldon hasn't addressed at all. I want to present how to fix these challenges," he said in an interview.

"[Weldon] has been permitted to drift away from the district," he continued, "his interest has gone elsewhere and that is unfortunate for our citizens."

Sestak said he approached county and state Democrats about returning to his home and running for Congress after his four-year-old daughter survived a brain tumor in 2005.

"I just finished 31 years of public service to my country … I wanted to continue my service," he said.

Sestak does not face a primary challenge, and is more appealing to than any other Democrat in recent history, said Delaware County Democrat Wilson.

"More and more people are saying, 'Gee, who is this guy and what is this all about?'" he said, adding, "This is a heavy hitter."

But Shelley McLoud, executive director of the Chester County GOP, isn't buying it.

"We love Curt," she said. "He's his own person and that's a good thing."

Democrats say they are hoping to bank on Bush's poor approval ratings in the state. But Republican Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Ed Patru said he's heard that tune before.

"Democrats think every Republican is within striking distance," he said. "I don't think they believe their own rhetoric."