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Can Sean Bielat Channel Scott Brown and Upset Barney Frank? (Hint: No.)


Rep. Barney Frank (left) and Republican challenger Sean Bielat participate in a taping session for a televised debate in Newton, Mass., on Oct. 11, 2010. (Steven Senne / AP)

It's no secret that conservatives love to hate Barney Frank like almost no other Democrat. Even a hint that the outspoken congressman might be beatable is enough to bring them running.

And so it is that the leading lights of right-wing journalism are flocking to Sean Bielat, the 35-year-old Marine Corps veteran who agreed to be the GOP's sacrificial lamb in the 2010 race. But wait! Could Bielat bottle a little of Sen. Scott Brown's magic and defeat an entrenched liberal Democrat in Massachusetts, that bluest of blue states?

Here's Michael Warren of The Weekly Standard, who thinks it might be so:

At first glance, the odds against a Republican in Massachusetts's Fourth Congressional District seem almost impossible ... But ... Scott Brown beat Martha Coakley with 53.5 percent of the vote in this district last January. And a recent internal poll shows Bielat could repeat Brown's feat: the Marine was only ten points behind Frank—38 percent to 48 percent. The fact that Frank had less than half of the vote gives a challenger like Bielat an opportunity to gain from undecided voters.

Warren's article joins similarly fawning profiles by the Washington Examiner's Byron York, National Review's Katrina Trinko, and The Wall Street Journal's James Taranto. While each notes that Bielat's path is uphill at best, Warren and Trinko focus on the fact that Frank—whose backing of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac is something Bielat has sought to highlight—has less than 50 percent of the vote in some polls.

FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver this past weekend debunked the common perception that candidates polling below the halfway mark are particularly endangered. More important, though, those polls still show Bielat trailing well behind his better-known foe; Silver calculates that Bielat has no chance of winning. As in, literally: FiveThirtyEight projects a 100 percent chance of a Frank victory. (By contrast, at a similar point in the Massachusetts special election between Democratic nominee Martha Coakley and Brown, FiveThirtyEight was noting the danger facing Coakley.)

This isn't to discount the fact that Frank is facing the most serious challenge he's had in years. If he wins, he'll be entering his 16th term in the House, a potential red flag during the most anti-incumbent season in years. And Bielat, though he enjoys some Tea Party support, takes a few positions that he hopes might lure disaffected Democrats: he opposed the war in Iraq and supports gay marriage. Republicans also say a campaign stop by former president Bill Clinton is a sign of worry in the Frank camp. The Cook Political Report on Tuesday moved the race to "likely Democratic" from "solid Democratic," and the Tea Party Express is advertising against Frank, with the National Republican Congressional Committee rumored to be considering a similar push.

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But Ralph Whitehead Jr., a professor of journalism who studies press and politics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, says Frank has formidable fundraising potential to blunt any charge. "Barney Frank has been around so long and has been such a distinctive figure that he has a vast fundraising network around the country," he says. "He could make much more use of it than he has."

While cautioning that there's still a chance for the right factors to gel that could make the race a squeaker for Frank, Whitehead says the Fourth District race is probably enticing to the movement media for reasons outside of pragmatic politics. "I think the press is more likely to be drawn to the symbolic meaning of defeating Barney Frank," he says, "but the more hardheaded electoral calculus leads you to other districts."

In particular, the Bay State GOP is hoping for pickups in the Fifth and 10th districts. In the Fifth, Rep. Niki Tsongas—widow of the late liberal senator Paul Tsongas—is wrapping up her first full term in office, after winning a 2007 special election and a full term in 2008. In the 10th, Democrat Bill Keating and Republican Jeff Perry are vying to replace retiring Democratic Rep. Bill Delahunt. While both Keating and Tsongas are favored to win, the campaigns are tight. Those looking for the next Scott Brown might be better served to concentrate on those districts.

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