NEWTON, MA -- It’s a dreary, overcast day in Eastern Massachusetts as I pull into the parking lot of a suburban Boston office complex. I hustle from my car to the front door to escape the drizzle, then proceed down a nondescript hallway before arriving at a door marked “Sean Bielat for Congress.” Inside, the New England fall chill melts in a warm, intimate office that’s humming with activity. Roughly a dozen aides and volunteers man telephones and stuff envelopes, fueled by a plentiful supply of donuts and coffee. This hearty band, comprised of disaffected Democrats, independents, and even a few Bay State Republicans, has been placing over 5,000 campaign calls per day and processing countless mailers since the primary election. They’re united behind a simple, common purpose: Retiring Congressman Barney Frank.
A large Marine Corps flag adorns 35-year-old Sean Bielat’s campaign office wall, along with a photograph of Winston Churchill. Each serves as a reminder of the candidate’s impressive biography and personal inspiration. Bielat served on active duty in the US Marine Corps from 1998-2002 and remains a reservist today. He holds degrees from Georgetown, Harvard, and UPenn, and has forged a successful career as a businessman and consultant. Ultimately, though, his credentials will not determine this race. It’s all about Barney Frank.
Not too long ago, Bielat’s campaign to unseat Frank was considered quixotic. Last year, conventional wisdom took shape: Frank was a safe representative, occupying a safe seat, in a safe state. After all, it was argued, Frank is a 14-term incumbent in a gerrymandered, liberal district. Case closed. Then came the warning signs. Scott Brown earned a narrow victory in the district in January, carrying 50 percent of the vote. Months later, a late September poll showed Bielat within ten points of Frank, and the incumbent couldn’t hit the critical 50 percent mark. Within a week, former President Bill Clinton rushed into the district to stump for Frank. In late October, Frank began touting an internal campaign poll pegging his lead over Bielat at 19 points, yet curiously saw it necessary to loan his campaign $200,000 a few days later. Yet to the chagrin of conservatives nationwide, the latest independent voter surveys show a double-digit Frank advantage—despite all the national attention and money pouring into the race. Far from seeming discouraged, however, Bielat says he’s got Frank exactly where he wants him.
“Let’s just say I feel very confident about where we are right now, and the direction we’re going,” Bielat tells me. What does he mean by that, exactly? Bielat begins to describe his campaign’s strong get-out-the-vote efforts and its cultivation of a competitive ground game, but I sense he’s holding something back. “Are there internal polls you can tell me about?” I ask. Bielat smiles broadly, but stays silent. (Note: Since the interview, Bielat internals have leaked out, showing the race within the margin of error). While playing a bit coy, it’s clear this political newcomer and his team truly believe there’s a path to victory in this race, and that they’re on it.
A key element of the victory plan is paid media. Team Bielat has already snapped up airtime in the Providence, Rhode Island television and radio market, which reaches the lower half of the district. Strong October fundraising has allowed the campaign to unleash a major ad blitz in the crucial, and expensive, Boston market over the final week of the race. “Being up [on air] in Boston shows that we’re a very serious campaign and a very serious option,” Bielat says. But all the prestige in the world won’t do the trick by itself. Bielat’s team has honed what they believe will prove to be a strong and compelling message during the final stretch. “We’re closing the campaign with a soft landing,” says Lisa Barstow, the campaign’s Communications Director. “We’re going to give voters a largely positive message, featuring Sean and his family, and we’ll be driving a message of moving in a new direction.”
Unlike many other candidates’ eleventh hour advertising bumps, Barstow says Bielat’s final push can dramatically impact the final result. “People are ready to move on from Barney,” she explains. “His ads have minimal impact because people know him. They’ve known him for 30 years. Sean’s ads register because people see that he’s not a scary Republican. Our research shows that the more people actually see Sean, the more they like him.”
Voters in the 4th District are seeing a lot of Sean. When Scott Brown eked out a win in MA-04 by less than 2,000 votes, he carried 23 of 29 towns in a district that stretches from Brookline to Buzzards Bay. Bielat predicts he’ll outperform Brown in important regions on Tuesday. “We’ll do better than Scott did in [liberal strongholds] Brookline and Newton,” Bielat says, noting that Brown barely set foot in the district during his storybook Senate campaign triumph. “I feel pretty good about winning in Wellesley, and of course the middle of the district, which [Brown] won.” The real prize, according to Bielat campaign manager Brian Phillips, is Taunton—a bellwether town in Bristol county, slightly Northeast of New Bedford. Bielat’s goal in Taunton? “Just win. Even if it’s by one vote, we really want to win there,” Phillips says.
Facing an infamously colorful opponent, what does the Bielat campaign view as its opposition’s biggest vulnerability as Election Day approaches? “I’d say it was [Frank’s] personality, but with just a few days left, he’s been more controlled,” Bielat says. “Right now, it’s all about his record, especially concerning Fannie and Freddie. Voters need to evaluate that record and come to a conclusion.”
But it’s not just the issues that will play into voters’ choices in this election, and Bielat’s campaign knows it. “Barney has been in this seat for decades, and he’s not running a strong race,” Barstow says. “It’s been lousy, quite frankly, because he’s unaccustomed to a vigorous challenge. He’s often defensive and angry, and sometimes seems incapable of even faking a kinder and gentler side of himself.” Lousy, defensive, and angry. If Bielat is to pull of the upset of the year, that’s precisely the image of Barney Frank voters will need to envisage when they step into the voting booth next week.