San Diego Union Tribune

October 26, 2006

Veterans shake up races for Congress

Ex-military personnel crowding Nov. 7 ballot

COPLEY NEWS SERVICE

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 key issue.

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 or so.”

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 Senate.

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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 Democrats.

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 their races.

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 daughter.

Although Weldon won re-election two years ago with 59 percent, recent polls indicated he was in a virtual tie with Sestak.

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 choking her.

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 Washington.

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 war.

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