A new WBUR poll shows Democrat Seth Moulton leading Republican Richard Tisei 47-39 in the race to succeed Massachusetts U.S. Rep. John Tierney in the state's 6th Congressional District.
Both men ran as "agents of change" against Congressman Tierney, but with their common foe no longer in the fight, the tenor of the North Shore race is changing.
These days, Moulton, a former U.S. Marine, who beat 18-year incumbent Tierney in the September Democratic primary, is trying to win over the Democratic establishment, courting activists, unions and politicians.
Last weekend, he visited the Cape Ann Democratic headquarters in Gloucester. And, as the Democratic nominee for governor Martha Coakley stood beside him to help rally the troops, Moulton said he would strive to earn the votes of Democrats who had not voted for him.
"I know that many of you did support Congressman Tierney in the primary, and I respect that, and I'm gonna work hard to earn your support … But, the one thing I would ask is that you help me earn it quickly, because we don't have a lot of time," he told the crowd of Democratic enthusiasts, who laughed in response.
Democratic Party Loyalty Critical To Moulton's Cause
Moulton is trying to quickly win over the Democratic base. He's already received support from Gov. Deval Patrick, and this weekend, he'll team up with Sen. Elizabeth Warren to campaign in Lynn (Warren had previously endorsed Tierney during the primary).
But, while Democratic politicians may easily convert to Moulton's cause, some Democratic voters need more persuasion.
When Moulton visited a senior center in Lynn, Rich Smith stopped him and questioned his record.
"I think you and Richard Tisei are one in the same animal," he told Moulton.
"Why is that?" Moulton asked.
"John Tierney spoke on issues. You didn't speak on any issues," Smith said, explaining that he had supported Congressman Tierney, and he's worried about the future of Medicare and Social Security.
"Well, I've talked about the importance of preserving Social Security and how we need to remove the payroll tax cap," Moulton told Smith. On many issues, though not all, Moulton says he aligns with Congressman Tierney's voting record.
After 2 minutes and 45 seconds of back-and-forth banter, Smith suddenly seemed to have a change of heart.
"I wish you luck," he told Moulton. "You're a Democrat. I will not vote red. Never."
That Democratic party loyalty Smith mentioned is crucial for Moulton and problematic for former state Sen. Richard Tisei.
The new WBUR poll suggests Democrats are much more committed to their own candidate than Republicans, with 54 percent agreeing by a 2 to 1 margin with the idea that "one of the candidates is far better than the other." Republicans, on the other hand, are evenly split between thinking one candidate is better than the other, and thinking either would make a good congressman.
Tisei: 'Who Can Be The Biggest Change Agent In Washington'
Tisei is in a more difficult battle than he expected, says Jeff Berry, who teaches political science at Tufts University.
"The very foundation of the Tisei candidacy was as an alternative to a Democrat who a lot of people regarded as very flawed because of an ineffectiveness and a family scandal," Berry said, referring to Tierney. "Without that, Tisei is having a tough time articulating why it is he needs to be sent down to Washington."
But Tisei insists his message has been consistent from the beginning of this campaign - he wants to be an agent of change, and an independent voice who will help end partisan gridlock.
"I think really what this boils down to is who can be the biggest change agent in Washington," Tisei said. "You know, Seth has pretty much said he'll vote the same way John Tierney did, which is straight party line."
At the Brooksby Village retirement community in Peabody, Tisei touted another possible advantage to his candidacy, as he met with voters.
"In our congressional delegation right now, all the members are part of the minority party in Washington," he said. "And when issues come up that affect Massachusetts in Washington, we don't really have anyone in the room saying, 'Hey, fuel assistance is really important to this area.'"
Tisei's message resonated with some folks in the crowd, like 90-year-old Jim Silva, who said he voted for Moulton in the primary because he wanted Tierney out, but, now in November, he'll vote for Tisei.
"Richard's been in the state government for a long time. He knows how governments work, committees work, and this sort of thing," Silva said,
He said the 6th district needs a change, and, theoretically, both Moulton and Tisei would be a fresh face compared to the nine-term incumbent, but, Silva said, Moulton lacks political experience.
"He's banking a lot on his military experience and the backing of generals and stuff, and he probably did a good job there, but that's not the same," Silva said.
Silva praised Moulton, even while saying he would back Tisei in the general election.
Comparing #MA6 candidates, R's more likely to hedge on who they see as better. http://t.co/mffgxJWEoJ pic.twitter.com/4mKAPoc0aH— Steve Koczela (@skoczela) September 26, 2014
An Upbeat Campaign Between Two Well-Liked Opponents
And, according to the WBUR poll, Silva's sentiments weren't unusual. The survey showed both candidates are well-liked. And, most poll respondents said both men are running a "positive" campaign.
But such an upbeat campaign could actually be a disadvantage for Tisei, according to Steve Koczela, president of The MassINC Polling Group, the organization that conducted the 6th district poll for WBUR.
"The thing that would make me worried if I were him is that there's an acceptance of his opponent," said Koczela. "People who Richard Tisei would need to be victorious are OK with Seth Moulton."
In fact, the WBUR poll showed that in the 6th district, Republican Charlie Baker leads Democrat Martha Coakley in the governor's race by 13 points, but about a quarter of Baker's supporters said they would vote for Moulton, which suggests even though Baker and Tisei were running mates in 2010, Baker's influence isn't trickling down to Tisei this election season — at least yet.
The survey of 400 voters was conducted Sept. 22-24 and has margin of error of 4.9 percent.
This segment aired on September 26, 2014.