After more than three decades of entertaining liberals and tormenting conservatives, US Representative Barney Frank is retiring, opening his long-held Fourth Congressional District seat to a successor. In a district that fielded a spirited challenger two years ago and opened its heart to Senator Scott Brown, one might sense an opening for a Republican — particularly because the district, which stretches from liberal Newton to working-class Fall River, has recently been reconfigured and includes more pockets of conservative voters.
But political analysts are not holding their breath for a Republican revolution. This is still Massachusetts, they note, where Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents far outnumber Republicans. The GOP nationally is not counting on claiming this seat in November.
“I think even Republicans in the state and that district acknowledge it’s an uphill battle to capture that seat,” said Peter Ubertaccio, director of the Martin Institute at Stonehill College, which is located in the district and has sponsored two debates.
Still, the new faces and the open field make the Fourth Congressional District a hot ticket in Thursday’s primary, in which three candidates are competing on each party’s ballot for the nomination.
The most talked-about candidate is Democrat Joseph P. Kennedy III, a son of former US representative Joe Kennedy and the latest from the storied political family to cast his hat into the ring.
Kennedy, who resigned from his post as a Middlesex assistant district attorney to run for office, is the clear front-runner in the race and has raised more than $3 million, crowding out contenders on both ballots.
“It’s very difficult when there’s a Kennedy in the race,” said Ubertaccio. “It’s more than just a function of name. What the name brings with it is access to an organization, access to fund-raising.”
The other Democrats running are Herb Robinson of Newton and Rachel Brown of Brookline. Robinson had been in the running for US Senate until Frank announced his pending retirement. Rachel Brown, who also ran against Frank in 2010, is the Lyndon LaRouche follower whose question about the president’s “Nazi policies” at a town hall meeting prompted Frank to quip, “On what planet do you spend most of your time?”
This year’s race is feisty on the GOP side, where three candidates are offering “competing strands of Republicanism in the state,” Ubertaccio said.
David Steinhof, a Fall River dentist waging his first campaign, is a conservative proponent of gun rights and an opponent of abortion, though he is neutral on gay marriage, considering it a state’s right to set the policy. Sean Bielat, the Norfolk businessman and US Marine who challenged Frank in 2010, is also conservative, with a strong focus on the Constitution, but does not reach as far right with his appeal, Ubertaccio said. Brookline psychiatrist Elizabeth Childs has tried to appeal to voters as a moderate in the model of past successful Massachusetts Republicans and the more recent example of Scott Brown.
Childs, who served as commissioner of mental health under former governor Mitt Romney, has picked up endorsements from such establishment figures as former governor William F. Weld, former acting governor Jane Swift, former lieutenant governor Kerry Healey, and past party chairwoman Jennifer Nassour.
Nassour said she had pledged to support Childs before Bielat got in the race and that she is comfortable with her decision. “I think Sean Bielat is a great guy and he ran a good race last time, but he wasn’t around before Barney Frank decided he was leaving, and Beth was,” she said. “If Kennedy ends up winning his primary, then I think Beth Childs would be a better matchup against him because she doesn’t look and sound like he does.”
But Bielat had gained national attention in 2010 for challenging Frank, a liberal titan. Though he did not come close — losing 54-43 percent — he claimed the attention and endorsements of US Senator John McCain, Sarah Palin, Scott Brown, and Romney.
Bielat holds a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard, an MBA from the Wharton School, and a BA from Georgetown University.
The Republican race has proved contentious, with Bielat and Childs sparring over who has more durable ties to the GOP. Both formerly were Democrats, Childs as recently as last summer.
Childs also went after Bielat in a debate, saying he had a “transparency problem.” He had refused to name his employer or its investors, saying a start-up company should never reveal its investors until going public. He later revealed he works for Oneclickpolitics.com, a website that allows voters to contact members of Congress.
Steinhof asserts that he’s the only lifelong resident of the district, born and raised in Fall River. Bielat had moved to Pennsylvania last year to be closer to relatives during his wife’s second pregnancy, before returning to the district and announcing a candidacy. Childs is a native of Ohio. Kennedy drew criticism for moving to the district — into Newton — to run.