Sherwood Faces Unexpected Race in Pennsylvania

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The seat in the 10th Congressional District of Pennsylvania should have been a sure bet for the GOP. The incumbent won with more than 90 percent of the vote in each of the last two elections. But this is 2006 and Republican Rep. Don Sherwood is facing a real challenge, partly of his own making.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

President Bush campaigns today for a pair of Republicans who hardly expected to need his help. Virginia Senator George Allen once seemed so secure in this fall's election that people mostly talked about his next campaign. He was seen as a possible White House contender. Now he's under pressure.

INSKEEP: And so is the other lawmaker the president supports today. Congressman Don Sherwood represents part of northeast Pennsylvania and he is one of many Republicans seen as surprisingly vulnerable this fall.

NPR's Robert Smith explains just what Sherwood did to make himself a target.

ROBERT SMITH: Congressman Sherwood had such a safe Republican district that the Democrats often didn't put up a challenger.

SMITH: The voters here are rural and conservative.

LILLY GORPSTEFF(ph) (Olyphant, Pennsylvania): I'll say it like this: they do believe in God.

SMITH: Lilly Gorpsteff is shopping on the tiny Main Street of Olyphant, Pennsylvania. She always votes Republican, but not this year, not for Don Sherwood.

Ms. GORPSTEFF: He should know better than to do what he did.

SMITH: It's hard to find anyone out here that doesn't know what Sherwood did. Last year, he confessed to cheating on his wife, and that wasn't even the scandalous part. It was how the long affair ended. His mistress locked herself in the congressman's bathroom and called 911, claming that he had strangled her. Sherwood wasn't charged with a crime, but the woman sued and the details became public. They later settled out of court. Sherwood bought commercial time to apologize.

(Soundbite of TV commercial)

Representative DON SHERWOOD (Republican, Pennsylvania): I made a mistake that nearly cost me the love of my wife, Carol, and our daughters. As a family, we've worked through this. Because of my deep regret, our love and the fact that the allegation of abuse was never true.

SMITH: All of a sudden this safe district was looking like a battlefield. Sherwood's Democratic opponent, Chris Carney, started his own ad blitz, with lots of talk about family values. Just in case that was too subtle for the voters, Carney put out this ad.

(Soundbite of TV ad)

Unidentified Woman: Don Sherwood's mistress made a 911 call alleging that he had choked her.

Unidentified Man #1: Don Sherwood campaigned on family values. He has no family values.

Unidentified Man #2: I'm a lifelong Republican...

SMITH: I met with Carney at what he calls his second office, the back booth at the Sunrise Café in Clarks Summit.

Mr. CHRIS CARNEY (Democratic Candidate for Congress, Pennsylvania): I'll have an orange juice and a coffee.

SMITH: He looks like a laid-back political science professor, which he is, at Penn State Scranton. And then I mentioned that ad about Sherwood's personal problems.

Mr. CARNEY: Oh, hold on. We didn't talk about his personal problems. We talked about his public problems. When 911 was called in Washington on Capitol Hill, it became a public issue.

SMITH: Watching your ads, there seems to be a subtext. It seems that you're saying, look at me, I have a happy family and my opponent doesn't.

Mr. CARNEY: Well, sure. I mean, I do have a happy family, and I work very hard to do that, as does my wife. I don't know about the happiness of Mr. Sherwood's family, frankly. But it does draw a contrast between, I think, Mr. Sherwood and myself.

SMITH: Happy or not, Representative Sherwood has been trying to change the subject. Yesterday he was cutting the ribbon on a new flood control project along the Lackawanna River.

Rep. SHERWOOD: All right.

(Soundbite of applause)

SMITH: After the ceremony, Sherwood was reluctant to talk about the scandal, but he had plenty to say about his opponent.

Rep. SHERWOOD: He has nothing else to run on, so he's going to try and run on my personal life. What we're trying to make sure everybody understands is that he's far too liberal for this district. I understand what makes this district tick, and I think people want me to represent it again.

SMITH: And some are willing to forgive, if not forget. Mark Eisenlohr(ph) is a welder who works along the river, and says he wishes these guys would talk about more important things, like the deficit or immigration. He's a Republican and was hesitating about supporting Sherwood, until the ads got nasty.

Mr. MARK EISENLOHR (Welder): It's that Carney commercial where he has that woman saying she allegedly was - it's alleged. How can you even put that in your political campaign? To me, that right there, in that one sentence turned me totally off to Carney right there.

SMITH: Today's visit from the president may help Sherwood, but it's not likely to change the subject here in northeast Pennsylvania. When asked about the congressman, White House spokesman Tony Snow said that the president, quote, "Believes we're all sinners. We all seek forgiveness."

Robert Smith, NPR News.

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