Moulton versus Tierney in the sixth: some historical perspective

Referring to Seth Moulton’s challenge to Sixth District Rep. John Tierney, an anonymous quote from yesterday’s Boston Globe caught my attention.: “He [Moulton] doesn’t represent a threat to Tierney, who’s doing everything right to represent his district,” said one Washington-based Democratic strategist. “Someday, he’ll have a bright future.”

This reminds me a bit of 1992, when former Senator Paul Tsongas, endorsed incumbent Rep. Chet Atkins over his upstart challenger Marty Meehan in the 5th District claiming Meehan would have little clout in DC and was too inexperienced.

Atkins then lost Tsongas-country (the city of Lowell) by more than 3-1 in the primary as Meehan went on to unseat him.

But back to our Democratic-Strategist-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named who is surely aware that Massachusetts rarely sees an incumbent member of Congress defeated and when they do go down, there is usually one or more of the following three reasons why:

  1. They are a Republican.
  2. They have fallen out of favor with their constituents either through redistricting or a change in public opinion on one or more significant issues.
  3. There is a whiff of corruption surrounding them.

This explains, in part, why Bristol County District Attorney Sam Sutter’s challenge to Bill Keating in the new 9th fizzled last year.  Keating inherited a good deal of new territory but was not out of step with the concerns of Democrats in his district, though he did lose important parts of Sutter’s base of support in Bristol County.   And Keating was completely free of the type of scandal that has brought down others in the past.

The voting behavior in the 6th District suggests to me that a Tierney-Moulton race is not likely to be a replay of Keating-Sutter.  This race looks more like Atkins-Meehan.

Two years before Meehan beat Atkins, the incumbent won a close race over Republican state Representative John MacGover with 52% of the vote.  Tierney garnered just 48% last fall.

Atkins was plagued by issues concerning his personal finances when Meehan defeated him.  Meehan then handily dismissed former Congressman Paul Cronin by nearly 15 points in the general election and was never again seriously challenged.

Whatever angst Democratic power brokers may have had over Meehan’s entry in the race was wiped away by victory.  Winning helps to smooth things over.  Worth noting that Tsongas endorsed Meehan and campaigned for him.

Consider two other examples when Democrats went with incumbents despite serious storm clouds, both from the same fateful year, 1992:

  • Eight term incumbent Joe Early won a spirited 5 way primary but lost the general election to Republican state Rep. Peter Blute .  Early had been named by the House Ethics Committee as one of the “abusers” of the House bank and took to the House floor to rant against his colleagues, calling members of the Committee “rats.”  Blute held the seat for two terms.
  • Nick Mavroules took 65% of the vote in his 1990 general election and hadn’t faced a primary opponent since his first election.  But 2 years and a 17 count federal indictment later spelled trouble for Mavroules in 1992.  He narrowly turned back state Rep. Barbara Hildt by only 0.7% and went on to lose to former Republican state Rep. Peter Torkildsen who took 55% of the general election vote.

This is the same seat that Moulton is hoping to win in 2014, the seat Tierney held by only 1.2 points with 48%, the lowest percentage of any victorious Massachusetts Democratic incumbent since 1968. And only with a third party diluting Tisei’s vote total, the second time in his career Tierney has been helped by a third candidate on the right.

Our Democratic-Strategist-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named may not find Tierney vulnerable but the vote tallies suggest otherwise.

Consider the four great population centers of the 6th: Beverly, Lynn, Peabody and Salem.  In 2008, Tierney led the Democratic ticket in all four population centers, pulling in more votes than Barack Obama.  In 2012, he trailed Obama in all four.

If you take one further step back to the latest midterm elections, Tierney’s margin of victory in ’10 was down in all four cities from ’06.

2008 General Election


Tierney vote

Obama vote

Tierney Margin
Beverly 14,300 12,247


Lynn 23,747 20,276 +3,471
Peabody 19,072 14,818 + 4,254
Salem 15,192 13,080 + 2,112

 2012 General Election

City Tierney vote Obama vote  Tierney Margin
Beverly 10,453 12,158 – 1705
Lynn 21,778 23,124 – 1346
Peabody 13,491 15,027 -1536
Salem 12,588 13,605 -1017

Difference between Tierney victory in 2006 and Tierney victory in 2010:

Beverly: -453

Lynn: -1565

Peabody: -3287

Salem: -1561

 Those population centers figured prominently in Tierney’s 1994 Democratic primary victory.  If you add up the totals of his three major challengers, Tierney won or lost each city by the following:

Beverly: 118

Lynn: -10, 126

Peabody: -50

Salem: 2,369

Of course, in 1994, Tierney was not an incumbent member of Congress. And despite losing a little ground in each and underperforming Obama in 2012, Tierney’s urban core provided a nice cushion for him.  His vote total in Lynn was more than 3 times greater his overall total in the entire district.

And our Democratic-Strategist-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named is likely correct that Tierney votes largely with his district and that despite his family issues, the district is not ready to throw him out.

Except that they came within 1.2 points of doing just that in a very good year for Democrats in Massachusetts. And voter turnout in Tierney’s areas of strength will be lower in 2014.  In Lynn his vote total in 2010 was only 62% of his 2008 total. In Salem it was 60%.

There are a couple of questions our Democratic-Strategist-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named might ponder:

  1. Do Democratic voters want to take another risk with Tierney whose poor showing in a good year almost handed Republicans their first congressional victory from Massachusetts since 1994?
  2. If Richard Tisei had won in 2012 and Democrats were preparing to challenge him in 2014, how many would put their time, energy, and money behind John Tierney if someone like Seth Moulton was up for the race?  Which candidate would be viewed as most likely to return the seat to Democratic hands?

About Peter Ubertaccio

Peter Ubertaccio is the Director of Joseph Martin Institute for Law & Society at Stonehill College in Easton and Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science & International Studies. His work focuses on political parties, marketing and institutions. He received his Ph.D. in Politics from Brandeis University in Waltham, MA. Professor Ubertaccio and his family live on Cape Cod where he is on the Board of Directors of the OpenCape Corporation and the Sandwich Economic Initiative Corporation.
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