Rep. John Tierney greets James Rogers, Lucy Wonson and her son, Guy, at Gula-Gula Cafe in Salem, Mass., last week. The eight-term Democratic lawmaker is now considered the underdog in his re-election fight.
BEVERLY, Mass. — Eight-term Rep. John Tierney campaigned here on Saturday like any other Democratic politician. He talked about fighting for the middle class and knocked the tea party, hewing to the party line. He fired up the friendly crowd, which had come to see Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren. And he thanked the veterans on the stage with him for their service.
But in less than two weeks, Tierney looks poised to be truly unique: the first Democrat to lose a House race in Massachusetts since 1994.
When did events really start to turn against Tierney, a perfectly competent, if uninspiring, Massachusetts pol?
Maybe it was when his wife pleaded guilty in October 2010 to helping to file false tax returns for her federal fugitive brother. The Congressman easily won re-election the next month. But, even though he has not been accused of wrongdoing, Tierney was surrounded by a thickening fog of innuendo about his in-laws’ offshore gambling ring over the next two years.
Maybe it was when former state Sen. Richard Tisei, a socially liberal, fiscally conservative Republican, got in the race in November 2011.
Maybe it was in June, when another one of Tierney’s brothers-in-law, after being sentenced to years in prison on racketeering and other charges, told local reporters that Tierney “knew everything that was going on.” That provided potent fodder for anti-Tierney third-party ads.
Whenever it happened, this much is now clear to voters in the district and to those watching the race: Tierney has a very tough road back to Congress.
Yet in an interview with Roll Call on Friday, he gave an upbeat assessment of his race, quickly brushing off the conventional wisdom that he’s toast.
“The prognostication is based on misjudgment,” he said, walking through the city of Salem on a tour of local businesses.
“We’re going to get our vote out on Election Day,” Tierney said. “We feel comfortable. Our polls show us ahead.”
Tierney said the race was close because of the millions of dollars that have come from outside groups.
“Without the lies and innuendo, and without the $4 million, this wouldn’t be a race at all,” he said.
Indeed, more than $4.5 million in independent expenditure money has already flowed into the contest — though some of it has been for Tierney — and it has helped push the needle toward Tisei. But it’s not just the outside money that has made things difficult for Tierney. He’s helped in that effort.
After his campaign’s reported efforts to limit questions in debates from touching on his family’s legal issues, the Boston Herald led with a huge headline: “ALL BETS ARE OFF.” The subheadline read: “Tierney’s debate demand: No questions on family’s gambling woes.”
On Tuesday, the Boston Globe endorsed Tisei. “Neither his brother-in-law’s involvement in an offshore gambling operation nor the fact that his wife received significant payments for handling his brother-in-law’s money should, by itself, disqualify Tierney from further service,” the Globe editorial board wrote. “Yet his insistence that he knew nothing about the matter strains credulity.”
Although Tierney has raised a reasonable amount of money over the past year, he’s garnered other nonoptimal press about his fundraising. In each of the past four quarters, Tisei has outraised him.
National Republicans have lent support to Tisei and national Democrats to Tierney, but the levels have been different.
In August, the YG Action Fund, a Republican super PAC, launched a scathing ad against Tierney on Boston broadcast television. The ad asked, “What’s the truth about John Tierney?” before outlining his family’s legal troubles.
Neither the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee nor the Democratic-affiliated House Majority PAC responded directly to those ads on broadcast TV at the time.
The National Republican Congressional Committee has spent more than $1.5 million against Tierney, according to Federal Election Commission filings. The DCCC, as of Wednesday, had spent only $183,000 against Tisei. (A Democrat tracking ad buys in the district said the final DCCC number would be more than $300,000.)
That disparity lends itself to the narrative that Tierney is done. And narratives like that can sometimes become self- fulfilling.
Even among Tierney supporters, it’s clear the Congressman is under duress.
“You’ve got my vote,” said a woman behind the counter at a Salem jewelry store. “Don’t worry.”
“Hang in there,” a nearby barber told him.
Tisei, for his part, emphasized Tierney’s partisanship more than his family’s legal issues.
Sitting in a hold room before a rally with Republican Sens. Scott Brown (Mass.) and John McCain (Ariz.) on Saturday, Tisei made it clear he was running not just against Tierney, but also against Washington, D.C.
“I think people are tired of both Democrat and Republican fighting all the time,” he said. “They want people who are problem-solvers.”
Brown, who served with Tisei in the state Senate, spoke briefly about the race earlier.
“Yeah, well,” he said matter-of-factly, “Richard’s going to win that.”
If there’s a chance he doesn’t, it would be because of the robust Democratic turnout operation in the district and across the state. But Tisei has also been working on his ground game and should be boosted by Brown’s re-election effort. The Senator is expected to comfortably carry the 6th district.
Back in Beverly on Saturday, Tierney got an incredibly positive response from a packed church. In interviews, Democrats in the crowd dismissed the nasty ads against him and noted all the ways in which he has helped the district.
Tierney warmed up the crowd for Warren.
“As Elizabeth will join me in saying, it’s not about our families, it’s not about their families, it’s about your families!” Tierney said to big applause.
Except Warren didn’t join him in saying that. In fact, the only mention she made of Tierney was a quick appreciation of his presence.
“I want to thank the Congressman for being here,” she said.
They never appeared onstage together.
Warren got a rockstar reception and, directly after her speech, waded into the adoring crowd for handshakes, hugs and photographs.
Tierney, wearing a pink shirt and dark slacks, engaged in a bit of retail politicking himself.
But then, as Warren continued to campaign inside the church, still swarmed by people, Tierney walked out the back door. He bumped into some union guys, got in a quick picture with them, then left.
A few minutes later, in the front of the venue, two Warren volunteers were looking for the Congressman. “We wanted to give him signs,” said one woman in Warren regalia.