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For Mass. GOP, most races for Congress still uphill

By Stephanie Ebbert
Globe Staff / September 16, 2010

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Republicans have long viewed the open 10th Congressional District as their best hope of picking up a seat in Massachusetts this fall, with an independent electorate that embraced Scott Brown last January in his Senate bid and now a telegenic, conservative candidate advancing in the primary.

But beyond that South Shore district, Republican prospects become murkier, despite a thick field of GOP hopefuls waging battles against all but one of the Democratic incumbents.

The eight other Republican candidates lag far behind in fund-raising, with an average of $46,000 on hand per campaign, compared with $1.5 million on average for Democratic incumbents. The national Republican Party, while providing advice and campaign support such as phone banks, has so far directed their financial resources elsewhere.

And Democrats dismiss many of the GOP contenders as also-rans or candidates of the moment. William Gunn, the Ware Republican who wants to unseat US Representative John Olver, was arrested in Washington, D.C., in March for disturbing the House by yelling “kill the bill’’ during the health care debate.

Still, in an election year that proved anything is possible in Massachusetts, Democrats aren’t taking reelection for granted. The number of GOP congressional contenders is unusual in Massachusetts, where Democratic congressmen frequently coasted to reelection unopposed, and Republicans are hoping to tap voters’ anti-incumbent anger and ride the national backlash straight to Nov. 2.

“There’s no arguing that Massachusetts is certainly a steep uphill climb. I think the fact that we have new candidates jumping into politics is indicative of the time that we’re in. People want change. People want politicians who are not career politicians like Barney Frank,’’ said Tory Mazzola, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “That’s why you’re seeing so many grass-roots campaigns pick up momentum.’’

The biggest hopes lie with state Representative Jeffrey Perry, who’s running against Democratic Norfolk District Attorney William Keating for the open seat in the 10th Congressional District. The NRCC is also closely watching the Fifth Congressional seat held by US Representative Niki Tsongas, the most junior representative, and is eyeing the candidates who hope to unseat US Representatives Jim McGovern and Barney Frank.

Republican Sean Bielat’s race against Frank, a polarizing figure who was at the center of last year’s bank bailouts, is expected to draw national attention, if only as a way to galvanize Republicans here and elsewhere. Bielat is a major in the US Marine Corps Reserve and a business consultant who previously worked as a program manager for iRobot on defense equipment.

“Not only is he not Barney Frank, he’s a strong candidate,’’ said Tarah Breed, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Republican Party.

In an interview, Bielat said he expects that independent groups will launch ad campaigns against Frank. “I want nothing to do with it. The last thing I need is some sort of impropriety,’’ Bielat said, though he added, “I do expect that sort of thing given his role in the financial collapse and what people thought of his leadership over the years.’’

Bielat also suggested there were signs of discontent with Frank in Tuesday’s primary results. Twenty percent of the Democratic votes went to Frank’s challenger, Rachel Brown, a Lyndon Larouche supporter who advocates transport to Mars.

Dan Payne, a Democratic consultant who works with Frank, expressed no concern over the results, saying, “I don’t think it’s a sign of anything but a crushing victory for Barney. I was surprised at how big a margin it was.’’

Still, Frank is launching an ad campaign on boston.com today, inviting viewers to visit his campaign website. Though he would not specify his TV ad campaign strategy, Payne said, “Barney never leaves any stone unturned. We’ll use everything at our disposal.’’

Likewise, the other Democratic incumbents have been energized by the challenges, said Democratic Party spokesman John Walsh.

He pointed to the criticism the party faced for allowing Brown to claim the Senate seat long held by US Senator Edward M. Kennedy. “While some people said one of the problems in January was maybe we took things for granted — maybe we were caught flat-footed or unawares — that problem is not going to be seen’’ this fall, Walsh said. “We’re geared and ready.’’

Whether another Scott Brown sits among the field of Republican congressional candidates is an open question. The nine Republicans running for Congress include several first-time candidates who had no organization before this year. And some of them face political liabilities from the get-go.

Bill Hudak, a Boxford lawyer who won the Republican nomination to face Democrat US Representative John Tierney in November, has been criticized about a yard sign that compared President Obama to Osama bin Laden, and questions he raised about Obama’s citizenship.

Perry, who was elected to the House in 2002, has faced scrutiny for his record as a Wareham police sergeant and supervisor of an officer who illegally strip-searched two teenage girls.

Walsh noted that the Republicans’ new standard-bearer, gubernatorial nominee Charlie Baker, has distanced himself from both Hudak and Perry and suggested the Democratic ticket would be better unified.

“There is no candidate that anybody is hesitant to support,’’ Walsh said. “We don’t have the same problem Charlie Baker does to decide who it’s OK to pal around with.’’

A Baker spokeswoman said last night that he is supporting the Republican ticket.

Republicans are hoping to highlight Democrats’ voting records as liabilities.

“Voters are tired of partisan politics from Democrats in Congress. A lot of these incumbent Democrats are voting with their leadership almost 100 percent of the time,’’ Breed, the state Republican Party spokeswoman, said. “Sending another Democrat to Washington is only a recipe for more partisanship and more spending and more taxes.’’

Jon Golnik, the Republican who outpaced three other candidates for the nomination to run against Tsongas, said he plans to highlight Tsongas’s voting record, including votes for health care reform, financial reform and cap-and-trade regulations to limit businesses’ carbon output.

“All these bills are job-killers and they’ve basically expanded the federal government,’’ Golnik said.

Still, Golnik, a Carlisle small business owner who got early support from the NRCC, knows what he is up against. “We’ll probably be outraised and outspent,’’ he said. “But no one will work harder than we will.’’

Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at ebbert@globe.com

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