Here are two numbers that show the depth of the Democrats' problems this year. The first is $40,248. That's how much Rep. Barney Frank's Republican opponent raised in 2008. The second is $200,000. That's how much Barney Frank just loaned his current campaign for re-election.
Frank's opponent is Sean Bielat, a first-time candidate half Frank's age, and if he doesn't win this race it hardly matters. As of Sept. 30 he had raised $613,419. He's built local and national fan bases. He's pinned Frank down, when in a typical year Frank could do a quick threat assessment, realize just how safe he is in his suburban Massachusetts district, and dole out money to fellow Democrats.
"It's lights out as far as [Frank] helping other candidates," said Lisa Barstow, Bielat's campaign spokesperson. "Democrats have relied on him for largesse to help them in their own races. He hasn't had a serious challenge in 20 years. So this is going to have a significant effect on Republican races." Oh, and on Frank's personal loan: "Nothing could be more delightful!"
Bielat's something of a special case—Frank, who has held the seat since 1981, is closely identified with TARP. The district voted narrowly for Scott Brown in the January special election for U.S. Senate, and Republicans actually see an opportunity for an upset here. In plenty of other "safe" Democratic races, Republicans are fielding candidates that not even the party expects to win. The hope is that they campaign hard enough and get enough support from national groups, to pin the Democrats down.
The possibilities are endless. Republicans have had no problem raising money to target Democrats this year. Would-be fringe candidates have plugged into the Tea Party in order to raise their profiles and haul in cash. Sparkling new PACs and 501(c)(4)s have turned on the fire hoses: The "Western Representation PAC," based in Nevada, is spending about $200,000 against Frank and the even-more-secure Rep. Jim McGovern in the next district over. Last week American Crossroads, the Godzilla-sized GOP-backing group co-founded by Karl Rove, started talking about a "House surge" to fund ads in districts that Democrats weren't in position to defend properly.
In another year, this wouldn't really work. There's a reason why these people are usually safe.
"There are certain election cycles," says American Crossroads spokesman Jonathan Collegio, "where the dynamics are such that an all-out assault beyond the conventional battleground would yield no results whatsoever. Six years ago, voters would tell you they valued experience over a candidate who'd change the direction of the country. And right now where are voters? They are hellbent focused on change."
That gives the big and small donors a reason to throw money at an impossible race. It also helps when people are dazzled by the candidates they've heard on Sean Hannity's daily candidate interviews or on Fox News or at Tea Party events.