Bielat spent $2.5 million and lost by only 10 points, in a district that had gone for Obama by 28 points. He built a massive email list and an online following. Trading Frank for Kennedy meant trading one high-profile race for another high-profile race. Inside his Foxboro, Mass., office, a supporter has dropped off a dog-eared copy of The Kennedy Men: Three Generations of Sex, Scandal and Secrets. That’s totally unofficial. On the wall, there’s a fundraising letter that tells donors “the only thing worse than Frank is another Kennedy!” That’s more official.
“Barney Frank brought 32 years of experience, chairman of House Financial Services, $4 million—obviously qualified for the job,” says Bielat. “This guy brings a name, and some money. If you ask most people around here what they know about Joe Kennedy, they can’t tell you a damn thing. His résumé is three years as a DA and two years in the Peace Corps and the Dominican Republic? There are direct flights from Logan to the Dominican Republic. It’s a tourist destination; he helped build up a tourism company. I don’t bear ill will towards the family. I bear ill will toward the idea that, in America, by virtue of your name, you can get into political office.”
Eventually, Bielat wants to talk policy. So does Kennedy. A few days after my quick visit to the district, I return to watch two candidate forums—Kennedy versus his Democratic primary foes, Bielat versus two other Republicans. Bielat’s race is a bit of a mismatch. Kennedy’s is just hilarious. One of his challengers is Rachel Brown, a Lyndon LaRouche cultist who won brief YouTube fame after she challenged Frank in a Q&A and he asked “what planet” she was from. The other is Herb Robinson, an engineer and blues musician who responds to nettlesome questions by saying, “Pass.”
Kennedy survives. But he doesn’t take chances. I’d asked him previously whether he’d try and move into the financial-services issues that Frank mastered, and whether he’d seek Frank’s committee assignments. Kennedy had pivoted immediately to a preferred issue, education, explaining that a healthy economic picture “starts with education, from early childhood education, access to that, to secondary education.” At the debate, Kennedy hits on the exact same lines. He skillfully evades a question about Citizens United and outside campaign spending by saying—truthfully—that it would be tough to amend the Constitution and change the disclosure standards. When he’s asked to think of a “funny” moment from the campaign trail, he’s legitimately stumped until he jokes that he “probably can’t talk about” whatever might have been funny.
After that, and a few Rachel Brown monologues about the economic benefits of space exploration, Kennedy’s done. He leaves without talking to reporters. Bielat gamely offers to help fill their notebooks.
“I enjoyed when Kennedy was talking about campaign finance reform,” says Bielat, “and with a straight face he said we needed to reform the system. This is a guy who’s out-raised everyone in Congress except John Boehner and Allen West.” The challenger happily feeds the David-vs.-Hyannisport narrative. “It’s like that famous quote that they said in the first race against Ted Kennedy. Change the name on his résumé, change the name on his signs, and nobody’s talking about him right now.”
Hang on, though—the guy who said that, Edward McCormack, looked like a hate-crazed jerk. Kennedy beat him like a drum.
“I know,” deadpans Bielat. “But that was a while ago.”
TODAY IN SLATE
The Ebola Story
How our minds build narratives out of disaster.
The Budget Disaster That Completely Sabotaged the WHO’s Response to Ebola
PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer
The Shooting Tragedies That Forged Canada’s Gun Politics
A Highly Unscientific Ranking of Crazy-Old German Beers
Welcome to 13th Grade!
Some high schools are offering a fifth year. That’s a great idea.
The Actual World
“Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.