BOSTON — Political analysts say one of the top races to watch in the country this election season is the Massachusetts 6th Congressional District, along the North Shore.
Democratic U.S. Rep. John Tierney has held the seat for 17 years, but some say the district is ripe for change.
Republican Richard Tisei is challenging the incumbent congressman again. Tierney only narrowly beat him in 2012.
But even before that rematch, Tierney first would need to survive a primary threat from Seth Moulton, a Harvard-educated veteran and first-time politician.
Tierney circles through his home district about every week. On a recent morning, he checked in with Ovedia, a chocolate shop in Amesbury.
His visit was a sort-of listening tour with a paternal touch.
“Every time I come, you’re busier and busier and bigger and bigger,” he told Barbra Vogel, the owner of Ovedia.
Tierney is a polished career politician with a congressional pin on the left lapel of his pin-striped suit. He whittled off his list of accomplishments in Washington jargon.
“Well we’ve done a lot of work in education,” he said. “Workforce Investment Act. The Higher Education Opportunity Act. And the SAFRA and ACRA — the other bills that we’ve passed on that.”
He insists he’s running for office again because he wants to do more.
“Look, we’ve still got work to do,” he said. “The whole idea is to bring prosperity to every American. You know, we have to do something about student loans, we still have to do something about getting people back to work.”
Vogel says she’s a huge fan of the congressman.
“I think John has done a whole lot for our area,” she said. “He’s here, he’s accessible. I would vote for John no matter what he was running for.”
But around the district, a lot of people don’t feel the same way.
At a senior center in Peabody recently, plenty of old ladies said it’s time for a change.
“I wouldn’t vote for Tierney if he was the only man running,” one woman said.
“I think he lies, he’s in trouble, he lies,” another said.
Moulton worked the room, hobnobbing and shaking hands with the ladies, telling them he would be “honored” to have their votes in September.
But he’s a complete stranger to them.
Kaye Ryan, 89, asked the eager 35-year-old for a business card.
“You want the last one?” Moulton asked her.
“Well, I just want to see what your name is,” she told him.
Moulton suffers from a problem of no name recognition. “The hardest part about running against an incumbent is simply getting your name out there,” he said.
Moulton majored in physics at Harvard. He then signed up for the Marines and was part of the first company into Baghdad. In total, he did four tours in Iraq, and served as an aide to Gen. David Petraeus.
“I was in a war where Congress didn’t know what they were doing when they sent us to war, and didn’t have our backs when we were there,” Moulton said.
He says during the war, he saw firsthand the consequences of bad leadership in Washington.
“I showed up to Iraq in my second deployment and was given a Humvee in Kuwait that had had a sheet metal cutout for an armored door,” he said. “So you couldn’t lean forward, or you might get shot. That’s not supporting the troops.”
In some ways, the war’s failures shaped his political ambitions.
“There was a time in 2004 where a Marine in my platoon looked up at me and said, ‘You know, sir, you ought to run for Congress so this doesn’t happen again.’ ”
Those words stuck with him.
Moulton came back to the U.S., got two more degrees from Harvard, and went to work for a high-speed rail project in Texas.
Then he got a call from a new group that’s trying to recruit veterans for political office.
“They asked me to take a look at this race in my home district, and honestly it wasn’t even something I was considering, it wasn’t even on my radar screen,” he said.
But he jumped into the ring. He joins Democrats John Devine and Marisa DeFranco, who have filed their candidate paperwork with the Federal Election Commission.
A Rare Democratic Challenge
Steve Koczela, from The MassINC Polling Group, says Moulton’s decision was odd.
“There’s not a lot of precedent to this,” Koczela said. “It’s a very unusual thing that he’s doing … when you see an incumbent get challenged typically it’s by some person who thinks the incumbent is not sufficiently ideological. In this case, that’s not really what’s going on.”
Koczela says you won’t see Moulton out there decrying Tierney for being “insufficiently liberal.” Instead, Moulton criticizes the congressman’s record.
When he talks, Moulton has that naivete of a rookie politician — his suit a tad too big, his words not always calculated.
Moulton says he sees himself as the young, pragmatic veteran taking on the entrenched, partisan politician.
“[Tierney] has passed one bill in 17 years, and I think we can do better than that,” he said.
Tierney obviously sees the picture very differently. He says he’s introduced countless addendums to bills, and that Moulton doesn’t understand how the legislative process works.
He refers to Moulton as the “so-called Democrat.”
“Mr. Moulton was not really a Democrat until he registered for this campaign,” Tierney said. “So, I think there’s some question about whether he’s a Democrat or not and what kind of Democrat.”
In 2012, Moulton considered running as an independent. He insists ideologically, he’s been blue his whole life, even if he once checked the unenrolled box on the voter registration rolls.
Moulton also claims he has a better chance of beating the Republican Tisei in the general election. But Tierney says that’s not true.
“You know, I think he’s making up a lot of comments and statements,” Tierney said. “He’s gotta somehow, I suppose, try to justify why he’s in this race as a Democrat.”
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) is backing Tierney. Elizabeth Warren is fundraising for him.
But there’s also a strong sense that he’s politically vulnerable.
Tierney’s reputation took a hit a couple years ago after his family’s ties to an illegal gambling business surfaced. The congressman himself was never found guilty of any wrongdoing.
Moulton doesn’t focus on the scandal. Instead, he focuses on the congressman’s accomplishments. And, he says, Tierney just hasn’t done much for the district.
He says the people he meets want a Democratic alternative.
“I wouldn’t have gotten in this election if I didn’t see a path to victory,” Moulton said. “This is a winnable race.”
For Tierney, that’s nothing more than wishful thinking.
“It’s certainly fantasy that he’s got better numbers and could possibly win this race,” he said.
A survey last month by the DCCC showed Tierney with a 47 percent lead over Moulton.
Moulton’s campaign says the reason he’s down in the polls is because people don’t know him yet. That same DCCC poll showed only 15 percent of likely voters had heard of Seth Moulton.
But even being virtually unknown, he is bringing in big money. In the first quarter of this year, he raised more than Tierney — nearly $470,000.
Tierney, though, has more money stockpiled in the bank.
Regardless of how the facts are interpreted, this Democratic sparring is merely round one of the political fight in the 6th Congressional District.
Whoever wins will face Tisei, who, in this fiercely independent district, is already picking up voters from across the aisle.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this report, which focuses on two congressional candidates, omitted the third and fourth Democratic candidates. According to the Federal Election Commission, John Devine and Marisa DeFranco have filed their candidate paperwork. We regret the omission.