Democratic candidate Joe Sestak may no longer be Rep. Curt Weldon’s (R-Pa.) biggest obstacle to winning re-election Nov. 7.
The contest between the two men in the suburban Philadelphia 7th district already was competitive before the news broke Monday that the FBI had conducted six raids as part of an expanding probe into whether Weldon used his office to steer lobbying and consulting contracts to his daughter.
The FBI raided the Philadelphia-area homes of Karen Weldon and Charlie Sexton, a longtime Weldon friend and business associate, as well as two other locations in the Philadelphia area and two in Jacksonville, Fla. Neither the Congressman’s home nor office was searched.
Federal investigators are examining whether Weldon in 2002 and 2004 helped steer contracts worth $1 million from foreign agents to Solutions North America Inc., a company run by Karen Weldon and Sexton.
News of the FBI investigation first broke last Friday, and the raids were conducted just 22 days out from a midterm election in which Weldon already was faced with a tough challenge from Sestak, a retired Navy admiral.
Ryan Rudominer, a spokesman for Sestak’s campaign, demurred Monday when asked about the FBI investigation. “These allegations and today’s raids are very serious, but beyond that we don’t have any comment,” he said, characterizing the reports only as “troubling.”
Regardless of the FBI investigation, Rudominer said the Sestak campaign has seen a burst of momentum in recent weeks, with recent polls showing the two men in a dead heat. A late September Keystone poll had Sestak leading Weldon 45 percent to 44 percent among likely voters, and an automated phone poll conducted by RT Strategies last week gave Sestak an 8-point advantage among likely voters.
The latest Federal Election Commission reports also show Sestak with a slight cash advantage, with nearly $1.2 million raised in the third quarter and more than $1.5 million in cash on hand as of Sept. 30. Weldon raised $894,000 in the same period, with more than $1.1 million in cash on hand.
“Our campaign could not be doing any better,” Rudominer said.
Sestak was boosted by a recent visit from former President Bill Clinton, and former Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) is scheduled to appear at a campaign rally on Thursday.
Rudominer said it was unclear if Sestak would use the FBI raids against Weldon in political ads. “It’s definitely too early to make any strategy decisions on this,” he said.
A spokesman for Weldon’s campaign had not returned calls at press time.
Weldon has denied any wrongdoing and questioned the timing of the investigation. His daughter’s lobbying contacts were first reported in the Los Angeles Times in 2004 and have been examined by the House ethics committee.
“What I find ironic, if there is an investigation, is that no one would tell me until three weeks before the election,” Weldon told The Associated Press on Monday. “This incident was two and a half years ago.”
One House Democratic operative said it was too soon to predict the FBI investigation’s effect on the race. “It’s not just Sestak v. Weldon anymore, it’s also Weldon v. FBI,” the operative said.
“This is one of the volatile places right now for Republicans,” the operative added, noting that Pennsylvania GOP Reps. Michael Fitzpatrick, Jim Gerlach and Don Sherwood all face competitive challenges.
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