By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 13, 2006
BRYN MAWR, Pa. -- For 20 years, Rep. Curt Weldon has lived the charmed life of a member of Congress from a safe district.
Instead of traveling home every recess, the Pennsylvania Republican flew to hot spots such as Libya, North Korea and Russia. He brashly rapped Republican and Democratic administrations alike on foreign affairs. He raised minimal campaign cash and rarely had to explain his House votes to constituents. Speaking to a recent Main Line Kiwanis Club luncheon, Weldon recalled that he won his first term handily in 1986, and "that's pretty much been the case all along."
But this year, whenever the House takes a break, Weldon will head home to march in parades and host town meetings, and tout local development initiatives instead of missile defense. The combination of shifting demographics, angry voters and a feisty, well-funded Democratic opponent, retired Navy Vice Adm. Joseph A. Sestak Jr., is forcing Weldon to campaign hard for an 11th term. A recent Democratic poll showed Weldon leading Sestak by 51 percent to 41 percent -- a much smaller gap than the veteran lawmaker's previous general election margins.
For Democrats to take control of the House this November, they need a net gain of 15 seats. But with only seven open GOP seats considered competitive, Democrats must knock off at least eight Republican incumbents to achieve a political comeback.
Some of those Republican veterans include Reps. E. Clay Shaw Jr. (Fla.), Christopher Shays (Conn.) and Heather A. Wilson (N.M.), who represent marginally GOP districts, but who have repeatedly weathered tough challenges. The others, such as Weldon, are from traditionally solid Republican districts, but for a variety of reasons -- including ethical and demographic -- are considered vulnerable this year. The list also includes Reps. J.D. Hayworth (Ariz.), Richard W. Pombo (Calif.), Deborah Pryce (Ohio) and John E. Sweeney (N.Y.).
These races are the toughest to gauge, some political observers say, because the incumbents have not been rigorously tested in years -- in some cases since they first came to Congress. "There is no track record," said Amy Walter, who monitors House races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
A strong-willed former small-town mayor, Weldon, 58, insists his reelection campaign has energized him. "I'm not rusty, I'm a tireless pit bull," he said during a driving tour of his district last week. "I know what it takes to win."
Pennsylvania's 7th District stretches from the wealthy suburbs of Philadelphia's Main Line, south to the scrappy refinery town of Marcus Hook, where Weldon grew up as the youngest of nine children. Long a Republican stronghold, the 7th has veered moderate in recent years, as working-class residents move out of Philadelphia and wealthier suburbanites stray from the GOP as it becomes more socially conservative.
Democratic presidential candidates Al Gore and John F. Kerry carried Weldon's district, and Democrat Edward G. Rendell -- who is on the ballot again this year -- swept it when he was elected governor four years ago. In 2004, Weldon won with 59 percent of the vote, his weakest showing ever, against a Democrat who spent just $24,000.
When Sestak announced his candidacy in February, Weldon said he thought, "Okay, they're going to give me a race," and started laying the groundwork for his first serious campaign since the Reagan administration.
That means raising money and galvanizing the local GOP operation. But Weldon also must confront an irritable Pennsylvania electorate. Seventeen incumbents in the state legislature lost in the recent primary, and local political analysts think a certain percentage of general-election voters may continue the pattern by opposing Sen. Rick Santorum (R), who is facing the toughest race of his career, and at least three other House incumbents -- Reps. Michael G. Fitzpatrick, Jim Gerlach and Don Sherwood.
Despite his many years in Washington, Weldon proudly identifies with his working-class roots. He began his career as a teacher, and like his father, he was a volunteer firefighter. In 1977, Weldon became mayor of Marcus Hook, and in 1984, he ran his first House race, losing to Rep. Bob Edgar (D) by 412 votes. He won the seat two years later when Edgar retired.
Idling in front of a baseball field named for James Barton "Mickey" Vernon, a Marcus Hook native who became a Washington Senators star in the 1940s and '50s, Weldon pointed to the lights he had erected in the park. As he reminisced, a group of children chased one another around the field, a refinery flame glowing in the district.
"For 36 years, I've lived and breathed this district," said Weldon. "Yeah, you can have national moods, but these people know I'll be there for them."
But Weldon, the vice chairman of the Armed Services Committee, is best known for his faraway interests. A fluent Russian speaker who majored in Russian studies, he has made more than two dozen trips to the former Soviet Union and initiated a Duma-Congress Study Group.
He is fearless in challenging conventions, alleging for instance that a secret government program known as Able Danger had identified lead hijacker Mohamed Atta more than a year before Sept. 11, 2001. That assertion was disputed by the Pentagon and members of the commission that investigated the terrorist attacks and the government's response.
Weldon riveted the Kiwanis Club audience with tales of his run-ins with the Bush administration, including a 2003 fight with then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice over a congressional delegation to North Korea. Rice opposed the idea, but Weldon complained to Bush and took his trip.
The stories impressed Charles Cutshall, a Republican who had liked Sestak when the Democrat had addressed the club. "He has such diverse responsibility," Cutshall said of Weldon.
Not all voters take that view. "There was a time when he seemed on top of it, but he's been away a while," Clarissa Dillon, a retired first-grade teacher, said of Weldon. Her friend Toni Sciallo said she wished Weldon, a former teacher, were more active in pushing education causes. "He did not get us to where I would like to be," she said.
Said G. Terry Madonna, a Franklin and Marshall College political science professor and pollster: "When a district is real safe, you can take the luxury of being exotic." But in suburban districts such as Weldon's, "there is change going on, and Republicans aren't on the right side of it."
The congressman said he treks to global hot spots because his "overriding priority" in Congress is to "avoid war." But he supported the Iraq invasion, and his continued defense of the conflict makes local Republican officials nervous. "Some people are concerned he's too close to Bush," said Haverford Town Commissioner Fred Moran.
Jerry Gavin, an Army veteran, is the type of voter who could spell trouble for Weldon. He supported Bush and Weldon in 2004, but said he has "really soured big-time" on Republicans over the war. Gavin's frustration led him to attend a meeting of local veterans at the Sestak campaign headquarters.
Sestak, 54, grew up in the district as one of eight children. He served in the Navy for nearly 31 years, including a stint on President Bill Clinton's national security staff. Weldon attempts to portray him as a carpetbagger, but Sestak describes himself as a native son who is returning home.
As a politician, he's still a little green. Speaking at the Broomall Presbyterian Village nursing home one afternoon, Sestak launched into a somewhat rambling discourse on how Weldon is out of touch with district concerns. Leaning on a woman's walker, he lambasted the GOP-led House for ignoring big, looming problems, including health care, energy conservation and affordable college.
"National security begins here at home," Sestak shouted for the benefit of the hearing impaired. "Our national treasure is our people."
"Please tell Mr. Weldon to retire," resident Anne Anastasiou shouted back from the crowd. "We've had enough of him."