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.”
Bielat remains optimistic. He thinks district voters “like the idea of everyday leaders” and “of people who have worked for a living outside of politics.” His past business experience, he says, could make him a “citizen legislator” who serves in Washington for a few terms and brings to the table a specific type of knowledge. In an atmosphere where voters are concerned about economic growth, spending reduction, and bailouts, he believes his fiscal-conservative message will prove appealing.
Bielat also thinks Frank has major weaknesses. Constituents have complained to him about Frank’s self-assured aloofness. Bielat even repeats a story in which Congressman Frank declines to say hello to a stranger — a constituent — on the street. “Thirty years of doing that adds up,” Bielat says.
Constituents have other reasons to be fed up with Frank. There are the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac bailouts, “a tendency toward profligate spending,” and Frank’s prioritizing of his “social economic agenda ahead of other concerns, like deficit reduction.”
Bielat also says Frank is part of “a culture of soft corruption.” Frank worked to ensure that the earmark Rep. Maxine Waters requested for OneUnited — of which her husband had been a board member and in which he still owned stock — was inserted into the TARP legislation. “I’m not saying it’s something illegal,” Bielat says, “but it’s something that is not right.”
There are two other crucial factors in Bielat’s favor. First, his name recognition is only at 35 percent in the district, suggesting that getting to know more voters might boost his poll numbers. And second, according to his campaign’s polling, independents prefer him to Frank by 17 points, 51 to 34. Independents make up about half of registered voters in the district.
In a year where voters are anti-incumbent, Bielat isn’t just the new candidate — he’s also the candidate determined never to become part of the Washington establishment. “I want to go down, do some good, and if I’m a one-term guy, so be it,” Bielat says. “What I couldn’t live with is going down and spending my time hedging and hawing over different issues because I was concerned about the impact it would have on reelection.”
Nassour, the state party chairman, attributes that kind of independent, constituent-focused mindset to Bielat’s military service — another trait he shares with Senator Brown. “That makes them more willing to put themselves on the front line and stand up for their constituents,” Nassour observes.
At the beginning of this year, Massachusetts voters discovered that they could elect a Republican. If Bielat has his way, the 4th district’s voters will take it a step further, and vote the iconic Barney Frank out of office.
– Katrina Trinko writes for National Review Online’s Battle ’10 blog.