After being entirely shut out of New England in 2008, House Republicans are making the traditionally liberal region competitive this year — so much so that liberal icon Rep. Barney Frank is facing his strongest challenge in years and had to call former President Bill Clinton in to stump for him on the campaign trail.
Indeed, while the Boston-area Democrat and chairman of the powerful Financial Services Committee still enjoys a double-digit lead in the polls, he's unlikely to see the 43-point victory he enjoyed in 2008 with Barack Obama at the top of the ticket. Instead, Republicans this year say they will capitalize on the same "tea party" anger and anti-Washington sentiment that catapulted Sen. Scott Brown to a surprise special election victory in January.
"Democrats right now, whatever else you hear, they're having trouble getting their people out," said former Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, who headed the House Republicans' campaign committee through the heady days of the early years of the presidency of George W. Bush. "When you take a look at this, and you've seen as much polling as I've seen, it's pretty bleak out there. Even Massachusetts, even Connecticut, even Rhode Island."
With less than three weeks until Election Day, GOP House candidates lead in the polls in both New Hampshire races and political handicappers give Republicans a shot in races in Connecticut, Rhode Island and even Massachusetts, where all 10 House districts are held by Democrats — the largest single-party delegation in Congress.
Still, it's not clear that predictions of a post-Scott Brown resurgence will materialize, especially with Mr. Obama himself heading to the region to rally some of the most reliably Democratic voters in the country.
"It's important to realize [President] Obama hasn't fallen to the degree in that region he has in the whole country," said Isaac Wood, House race editor for University of Virginia political analyst Larry Sabato's Crystal Ball.
"Scott Brown's victory was the result of a fair amount of special circumstances. ... I think the real problem Republican candidates could have is they have to motivate the tea party and conservative voters to come out, and keep them as fired up as they are, but at the same time there's so many moderate Republicans and moderate-to-liberal independents who they have to win."
Of course, having any presence in the Democratic stronghold of New England would be an improvement for a party that saw its lone House member, former Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut, defeated in 2008. Republicans' best chances this time are in New Hampshire, where polls show former Manchester Mayor Frank Guinta leading incumbent Rep. Carol Shea-Porter by double digits and former Rep. Charlie Bass with a razor-thin edge over Democratic opponent Annie Kuster.
"New Hampshire has undergone the biggest sea change of any state in the country over the last three cycles," said state Republican Party spokesman Ryan Williams, who described the Granite State as "an island of fiscal conservatism" in the liberal Northeast. "This year, the national issues are playing into our favor - what President Obama is doing on a national level and what government is doing on a local level are getting Republican activists active; they're convincing independents to come over to our side and vote for the party of fiscal responsibility."
But state Democrats note that the Bass-Kuster race is tightening — a poll by the Hill newspaper this week had the former lawmaker just 3 points ahead — and said they hope to close the gap with Mr. Guinta by emphasizing questions over why he initially failed to report a bank account worth at least $250,000 on his personal financial-disclosure forms. Mike Brunelle, executive director of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, said both men are too conservative for the famously independent state.
"What I think the tea party has done is shape both of the candidates on the Republican side in a negative way," Mr. Brunelle said, quipping, "Frank Guinta has run so far to the right that I think he crossed the Maine border the other day."
Political analysts rate both New Hampshire races as tossups. Elsewhere in New England, the closest races are open seats in Massachusetts and Rhode Island and the seat of Connecticut freshman Rep. Jim Himes, who knocked off Mr. Shays in 2008. The Cook Political Report recently downgraded the seat of Connecticut incumbent Rep. Christopher S. Murphy from "likely Democratic" to "lean Democratic" as his opponent, Republican state Sen. Sam Caligiuri, climbs in the polls.
National Democrats say they expect to hold those seats.
"Republicans are delusional if they think they're going to make big gains across New England this November," said Shripal Shah, spokesman for the House Democrats' campaign arm. "Republican candidates are limping towards the finish line and being exposed for their flaws along the way, so they shouldn't be surprised when they're rejected at the ballot box in just over two weeks."
In Massachusetts, bloggers who crunched the numbers said Mr. Brown won in five, and possibly six, of the state's 10 congressional districts, racking up his biggest margin in the 10th district, making it the GOP's clearest target as Republican Jeff Perry battles Democrat Bill Keating to replace retiring Rep. Bill Delahunt there.
Mr. Brown ran about even with his Democratic opponent in Mr. Frank's seat in the 4th District. In both that district and the 5th District, Cook analysts downgraded the races from "solid Democratic" to "likely Democratic," though Mr. Wood still rates both Mr. Frank and incumbent Rep. Niki Tsongas as safe.
"We are running candidates that are a serious and viable alternative to the cast of characters that we have in Congress," said Jennifer Nassour, executive director of the Massachusetts GOP, citing Mr. Frank's upstart Republican opponent, 35-year-old Marine reservist Maj. Sean Bielat. "We're going to see these races tighten up even more."
Ms. Nassour argued that people in the Bay State are "sick and tired of one-party rule," and said more than 50 percent of voters are unaffiliated and up for grabs.
Mr. Bielat's surprise challenge has led Mr. Frank, who as head of the House financial services panel was a chief author of Democrats' Wall Street overhaul bill, to cut back on his campaign assistance to other Democrats. This year, the 15-term lawmaker has given just $35,000 to a dozen candidates compared, with $240,000 to 86 candidates in 2008, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of campaign-finance statistics compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
A Republican source with knowledge of the campaign described that reality as a victory in and of itself, along with the fact that the party was able to recruit challengers in nine of the 10 Massachusetts House races this year after fielding only four candidates in 2008.
The Massachusetts Democratic Party did not return messages seeking comment.
• Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.
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