It’s another “only in 2010” scenario: Massachusetts’s 4th congressional district, home to liberal giant Barney Frank, may be within reach.
His challenger is Sean Bielat, a 35-year-old former Marine and businessman. An internal poll conducted by Bielat’s campaign showed Frank below the crucial 50 percent mark, at 48 percent to Bielat’s 38 percent.
A ten-point gap may seem imposing, but consider that the vote split 68 to 25 in favor of Frank in 2008. In a district where mind-boggling 40-point gaps are not uncommon, a ten-point gap is positively narrow. It’s the most competitive race the nearly 30-year incumbent Frank has faced since 1982.
Then, of course, there is that other factor. This is a post–Scott Brown Massachusetts. For Democrats tired of their party’s complacency, the January special election demonstrated that “Lightning didn’t strike, the world didn’t end,” as Bielat jokes. Brown’s victory not only pulled weary independents and Democrats, but also energized the GOP base, which had been demoralized to the point of thinking that a Republican could never win federal office from Massachusetts again.
“People now believe that they can elect Republicans,” says GOP strategist Holly Robichaud. She talks about the different reception Republicans get now, when they go door-to-door campaigning. They used to get a lack of interest, or a slammed door. This year, she says, one of her candidates said he was a Republican — and got a hug.
One reason might be the economic downturn’s impact on Massachusetts. “Our unemployment is the highest it’s been since the ’90s,” says Jennifer Nassour, chairman of the Massachusetts Republican party, mentioning that 300,000 state residents are out of work. She thinks voters in the heavily Democrat-represented state are beginning to consider electing Republicans as a way “to restore some fiscal balance.”
Tory Mazzola, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, agrees. The NRCC has been pushing economic themes in its advertising. “There’s a lot of reception to Republican policies, and those include lower taxes, limited government, and less spending,” Mazzola says.
But Bielat still faces an uphill battle. No independent poll has yet replicated the results that Bielat’s pollsters found. Frank’s campaign says its polls show Frank up 20 points. Pundits don’t think Frank is in any danger of losing: The Cook Political Report rates the district as “Solid Democratic”; CQ Politics considers it “Safe Democratic.” Neither Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball nor The Rothenberg Political Report considers it a competitive seat.
On Sunday, Bill Clinton came to the district, campaigning for Frank at a rally that drew 2,000 people. Nassour thinks that Clinton’s visit shows Frank is “running scared.” But in an interview with the Boston Globe last week, Frank denied that Clinton’s visit was due to desperation over the election. “Why is it a sign of desperation to bring in a popular figure to say something nice about me?” Frank retorted. “Unless [Bielat’s] view is that I should only be bringing in ineffective campaigners. Maybe next time I should bring in Jimmy Carter.”