WASHINGTON – For 20
years, Rep. Curt Weldon has been a political icon in his
suburban Philadelphia district, bolstered by his
aggressive support for local defense-related jobs.
MATT ROURKE / Associated Press
Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., (right) is facing a strong
challenge from Democrat Joseph Sestak, a retired
Navy three-star admiral. They debated in
Springfield, Pa., last week.
But the Pennsylvania Republican is fighting for
political survival this election year, mainly because of
the challenge he faces from Joseph Sestak, a retired Navy
three-star admiral. Sestak, a political novice, ignored
the advice of national Democratic leaders and made
opposition to President Bush's conduct of the Iraq war his
Sestak's unexpectedly serious threat to an entrenched
Republican is just one ripple in a flood of veterans
running for Congress, most of them focusing on the
mounting violence in Iraq and Afghanistan. Voters' unease
with the war is blunting the usual Republican advantage on
national security issues and is fueling growing
expectations that not only will Democrats win control of
the House in the Nov. 7 election, but also have a chance
at claiming the Senate.
In addition to anti-war sentiment, Republicans are
burdened by several scandals, including one involving
Weldon, whose ties to his daughter's lobbying work is
being investigated. Polls also show a widespread
perception that the country is on the wrong track and that
the ruling party is incapable of turning things around.
Nonpartisan political analyst Charlie Cook said this
month that if the focus remains on Iraq and the
congressional scandals, the Republicans “could lose 20 to
30 seats or perhaps more” in the House. If attention
shifts to issues more favorable to the GOP, such as the
war on terrorism, lower gas prices and overall national
security, Cook said, “the losses could be limited to seven
Democrats need to gain 15 seats in the House and six in
the Senate to regain control. The Republicans have held
power in both houses since 1995 except for a brief period
in 2001-02 when the Democrats held a slim advantage in the
An unusual feature of
this campaign is the presence of veterans running for
office in numbers not seen since the post-World War II
era, and the involvement of perhaps a dozen organizations
representing veterans and military family members. Most of
the groups claim to be nonpartisan, but the majority of
the 90 veterans who were on primary ballots this year were
At a recent news conference with Rep. John Murtha,
D-Pa., one of those groups, VETPAC, said 50 veterans,
mostly Democrats, survived the primaries to run in the
Nov. 7 general election.
Murtha, a Marine Corps veteran of the Korean and
Vietnam wars, has been a catalyst for opposition to Iraq
and a strong supporter of other veterans seeking office.
Noting that he was elected to Congress when he first ran
in 1974 during the height of the opposition to the Vietnam
War, Murtha said: “I see the same intensity.”
However, polls indicate that only about a dozen of the
veterans, including one Republican, are in position to win
Even that would reverse the decline in the number of
veterans in Congress from the decades after World War II,
when nonveterans were a minority. Today, 109 of the 535
members of Congress are veterans.
Sestak is one of the veterans in contention to win.
Weldon's strong support for Bush and the U.S.-led invasion
of Iraq eroded his support among Republicans and
independents in a district that has been leaning
Democratic for years.
Weldon, a senior member of the House Armed Services
Committee, also has been hurt by recent reports that he is
being investigated by the FBI for allegedly using his
influence to attract large consulting contracts for his
Although Weldon won re-election two years ago with 59
percent, recent polls indicated he was in a virtual tie
Also in Pennsylvania, Chris Carney, a Navy Reserve
lieutenant commander who favors pulling out one battalion
of U.S. troops from Iraq for every Iraqi battalion that
has been trained, is capitalizing on an adultery scandal
to unseat four-term Republican Rep. Don Sherwood, whose
longtime mistress dialed 911 to say the congressman was
In a race that has drawn national attention, Republican
Sen. George Allen of Virginia, a former governor and
two-term incumbent who was considered a 2008 presidential
contender, is fighting for his political life against
Democrat James Webb, another political novice but
well-known as an author and veteran.
Allen hurt himself with comments that critics said were
racially and ethnically insensitive. But Allen, who never
served in the military, also is being dragged down by
voter opposition to the war and anger at Bush,
particularly in the northern Virginia suburbs of
Webb, a decorated Marine veteran of Vietnam who served
as Navy secretary under President Reagan, opposed the
invasion of Iraq and has been critical of the way the war
has been run.
Allen had adopted Bush's “stay the course” mantra. But
recently, he shifted his language from the slogan – as the
president did recently. “We cannot continue doing the same
things and expect different results,” The Associated Press
quoted Allen as saying. “We have to adapt our operations,
adapt our tactics.”
In 1991, Webb cautioned against the Persian Gulf War
because of the negative impact of being seen as an
occupier of a Muslim nation. Now he says that “all you
have to do is see what happened when we did go to Baghdad”
to understand his concern.
Webb has been endorsed by a number of retired senior
Marine officers – including retired Marine Gen. Anthony
Zinni, the former commander of the U.S. Central Command
and a staunch critic of the Iraq war. He has a large cadre
of veterans working in his campaign. A much smaller group
of veterans supports Allen.
One of the most aggressive of the veterans' political
organizations, VoteVets.org, is running TV ads against
Allen and three other vulnerable GOP senators, claiming
they voted against a proposal to increase funding for
improved body armor for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In suburban Chicago, former Army National Guard major
Tammy Duckworth is a strong Democratic contender for the
solidly Republican district being vacated by retiring Rep.
Henry Hyde. Duckworth, who lost both legs when her
helicopter was shot down in Iraq, has made opposition to
the war a major part of her campaign against the
Republican candidate, state Rep. Peter Roskam.
There also are Republican veterans running, including
Rep. Heather Wilson of New Mexico, an Air Force Academy
graduate who is in a tight race for re-election.
Dissatisfaction with the war and congressional scandals
have helped the Democratic challenger, state Attorney
General Patricia Madrid.
In the usually liberal state of Vermont, Republican
Martha Rainville, the former head of the state's National
Guard, is in a competitive race for an open House seat
against state Senate President Peter Welch, a Democrat.
Rainville does not support the Bush administration on the