What If Barney Loses?

As bad as things look for the Democrats in this election, a loss of a liberal icon—in Massachusetts—would add to the worst night for the party in years. Samuel P. Jacobs on a powerful House Democrat in trouble.

10.25.10 11:51 PM ET

As bad as things look for the Democrats in this election, a loss of a liberal icon—in Massachusetts—would add to the worst night for the party in years. Samuel P. Jacobs on a powerful House Democrat in trouble. Plus, midterm predictions from the Election Oracle.

If one candidate portends what may be in store for Democrats in the upcoming election, it is Barney Frank.

The voluble 15-term congressman, and influential chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, has gone from having a lock on his seat to becoming part of this season’s endangered species as Republicans and Tea Party groups are ramping up their efforts. Even foot doctors are targeting Frank.

Conservative money and ads are pouring into Massachusetts’ 4th District, which was captured by Republican Scott Brown in the special election this January. In a telltale sign of Democratic anxiety, Bill Clinton came into town to support Frank, a rare foray for a former president into a House district during crunch time.

Now—granted—Frank is expected to win. But a new poll out this week shows that Frank’s opponent, Republican Sean Bielat, is trailing by just 13 points among likely voters, putting the Democrat in the closest fight of his long, political life.

In past, it’s been easy pickings for Frank. He won his last election by more than 40 points. In the previous three campaigns, Republicans declined even to challenge him. In 1990, when he appeared vulnerable following revelations about a relationship with a male prostitute, Frank still trounced the Republican gadfly John Soto by 28 points. As Salon noted, Frank has never won by fewer than 20 points.

Such a record at the polls may give rise to a certain swagger.

“I’m not worried at all—honestly,” says Frank spokesman Harry Gural.

But then again, when candidates and their handlers start tagging on “honestly” to a sentence, perhaps that is reason for pause. Especially considering it’s not that long ago that Scott Brown knocked the Massachusetts Dems on their tails.

Since then, they’ve been busy saying they are ready for all Republican comers—and Frank, ever the political pugilist, is no exception. He recently announced he was giving his campaign a $200,000 loan, taken out of his personal retirement savings, and he’s telling anyone who’s willing to listen that he’s the Tea Party’s No. 1 target—apparently one thing he can agree on with his opponents. (“He is a prime target,” confirms Tea Party Express spokesman Levi Russell.)

For the first time in his career, the powerful House Democrat is in trouble.

Going up against Bielat, Frank has raised more than $3 million during this cycle—much of the money coming from the insurance and financial industries that depend upon legislation made in his committee. He has also taken $40,000 from bank executives, after promising that he wouldn’t touch campaign money tied to those who benefited from the federal bailout.

And that’s just grist for conservative mills. Republicans and Tea Partiers would like to tar the 70-year-old Democrat as standing in the way of fixing insurance giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. A radio ad put together by the Iowa-based America Future Fund centers on that exact complaint.

For the first time in his career, the powerful House Democrat is in trouble.

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Frank, it is clear, faces some tough battles in the final days of the campaign. In less than two days, the Tea Party Express, a group behind a number of conservative upset victories, raised more than $38,000 to fight Frank. And a bus tour will arrive in Massachusetts before the election with the goal of drawing attention to Bielat’s campaign.

Still, the National Republican Congressional Committee itself is holding on to its money—at least for now.

“It’s wait and see. It’s a decision that we keep an eye on. We are watching the polls. We do realize while trending in our favor, it’s still Barney Frank and Massachusetts,” says committee spokesman, Tory Mazzola.

But other—less predictable—groups are piling it on.

The American Victory Fund, which seems to rely principally on the donations of orthopedic surgeons and other physicians, has cut an ad, attacking Frank’s role in the Fannie-Freddie fiasco.

(“I have no idea,” Gural said when asked about why foot docs would be opposing his boss.)

Other funders foreign to Massachusetts include a Nevada-based political action committee called Western Representation, which has gone after Majority Leader Harry Reid and Lisa Murkowski in Alaska. That group has plowed $200,000 into Massachusetts races, including Frank’s.

Meanwhile, the gay Republican group, GOProud, cut their own ad, describing Frank as a “catty.”

Add to that an online video by his opponent’s campaign, showing Frank dancing like a disco queen and the race has acquired a thin layer of anti-gay innuendo aimed at the country’s most prominent gay elected official.

Running against Frank, the 35-year-old Bielat, who served as a Marine officer for four years and is still active in the reserves, brings Ivy League credentials (stops at Harvard and Wharton) as well as business props (consulting stints at McKinsey & Co. and a defense contractor). With that background, Bielat convincingly unites the Scott Brown and Bill Weld strands of the Massachusetts Republican Party, and has received friendly treatment in the conservative journals of record.

In short, Bielat, a former registered Democrat who opposed the Iraq invasion and who favors gay marriage, does New England political iconoclasm well.

Also in his favor: The Republican candidate is running in a district where Scott Brown beat the high-profile Attorney General Martha Coakley with 53.5 percent of the vote. (The 4th District, thanks to some clever gerrymandering, is a hash of different communities from the wealthy progressive suburbs outside of Boston—Frank’s backyard—to the Republican-leaning bedroom communities—think, Scott Brown—to the blue-collar cities of Fall River and New Bedford.)

Pollster Andrew E. Smith of the University of New Hampshire says that the Democrats have reasons to worry about turnout in the working-class communities of the South Shore. What hammered Coakley in her race against Brown was the fact that turnout was so low in places like Fall River, where she won.

And many Democrats worry about the ground game, including former state Democratic Party Chairman Phil Johnston.

“I am concerned about the field organization. It is not as strong as it could be,” he says.

With a year promising to be a major Republican shakeup, in other words, Frank should be worried.

“Republicans love a trophy,” says Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh. “Barney Frank is a trophy.”

Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.