Mass. Incumbent Faces Serious Primary Threats in 6th Congressional District

Author: Glenn Davis
Created: 27 May, 2014
Updated: 14 October, 2022
5 min read

John Tierney, who narrowly held his Massachusetts congressional seat in 2012, is facing another difficult challenge in the 2014 election season. Tierney, a Democrat, has represented the 6th Congressional District in northeastern Massachusetts since 1997. In his last re-election, he won by less than 5,000 votes in a bitter fight with Republican opponent Richard Tisei.

According to CNN, MA-6 is one of the top 5 races to watch in the 2014 election cycle. So, what makes the race such an interesting one?

In 2012, Tierney was put on the defensive by the Republican Party after his wife, Patrice, pleaded guilty to financial wrongdoings involving illegal gambling and tax fraud. Republicans worked hard to connect Tierney himself to knowledge of his wife's federal violations, and it took its toll on his popularity.

Tisei, an openly gay, moderate Republican, ultimately lost his bid to unseat Tierney in 2012, but is vying for another chance this year.

But first, Tierney must get past Democratic primary challenges from Seth Moulton, an ex-marine and Harvard graduate, and Marisa DeFranco, an immigration attorney who battled Elizabeth Warren in the 2012 Senate race.

In a poll conducted by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) in April, Tierney led over Moulton by a wide margin (64% to 17%) with 20 percent undecided. DeFranco’s name was not included in the DCCC poll.

In another poll conducted around the same time by Emerson College, DeFranco was roughly equal in support to Moulton at about 10 percent each. A third Democratic challenger, John Devine, was favored by less than 2 percent of likely voters in the Emerson poll.

Yet the official Democratic organization seems to want to avoid any suggestion of mixed support for the incumbent Tierney before the general election. Christina Coloroso, DCCC’s Targeting and Analytics Director, concluded in a memo released in April:

“In sum, Tierney’s commanding lead, combined with his strong, positive profile, signify that he is the clear choice among likely primary voters in Massachusetts’ 6th Congressional District.”

Upsetting a longtime incumbent like Tierney in the party primary is a rare occurrence. Yet, Seth Moulton claims his bid will be successful.

In an interview last month with WBUR’s Radio Boston, Moulton explained how his appeal is not so much on where he stands versus Tierney on the issues, but in how effective he can be at leading and making a difference. He claims he is the type of leader who can bring together different coalitions to get legislation passed. He says Tierney has been ineffectual in this regard.

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In that interview, Moulton said that “the story of a young pragmatic veteran taking on an entrenched partisan incumbent is exactly the type of change we need to get Congress back on track.”

Moulton attended the prestigious Phillips Academy Andover, and then went on to Harvard University. But the rest of his background is not that of your typical politician. Upon his graduation from Harvard, Moulton joined the Marine Corps and ultimately served four tours of duty in Iraq.

For his fourth and final deployment, Moulton deferred graduate school to serve in a counter-insurgency role as a special assistant to General David Petraeus. Returning from Iraq, Moulton completed graduate degrees from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and Harvard Business School.

Moulton has the support of high profile figures such as David Gergen, senior political adviser to three presidents and a CNN correspondent. His strong connections and fellow Harvard alumni have helped him raise over $1 million since he formally declared in July 2013, an impressive showing for a newcomer to the political scene. His fundraising rivals that of even John Tierney’s efforts during the same period.

Marisa DeFranco’s campaign cannot boast the same fundraising success. Through the first quarter of 2014, her campaign brought in only $66,000, a small fraction of the funds raised by Tierney and Moulton.

However, DeFranco has been vocal. She has openly criticized Tierney’s performance in Congress, and has also broken ranks with the Democratic Party on health care reform, immigration, and other issues.

In a recent interview with Fox News, DeFranco sharply censured the Democratic organization for “waging war on women” in its efforts to mute her candidacy, primarily in response to her name being left off the DCCC poll in April. She said in that interview:

“I speak my mind, and they don't want people who speak their mind in either party. They just want people to follow the leader, and that's not me.”

Campaign spokesperson Margaret Mulvihill commented via email: “DeFranco stands head and shoulders above the other candidates, with her strong social, academic, and political roots in Massachusetts.”

Mulvihill added that DeFranco is a coalition builder, and suggests that Moulton, who speaks of having this quality, has no real experience to back it up.

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“DeFranco will work with conservatives, liberals, and progressives of all parties who are serious about passing legislation,” she said.

In her law practice, DeFranco works with immigrants, as well as businesses, families and survivors of violence. She claims to advocate for “everyday people” and pledges to continue to do so if elected to Congress. Her campaign defines her as a fighter for equality for women, and for economic opportunity and justice for all.

DeFranco's career has been largely about providing access to the American Dream, and to “be a voice for everyday people who have no voice.” She prefers to see herself as an “FDR Democrat” rather than being labeled as a left-leaning progressive. Semantics, perhaps, but this distinction may work to create a message which resonates with voters.

DeFranco’s challenge, given her limited budget, will be in getting her message heard. Her campaign suggests she has good name recognition locally and is gaining headway nationally. Her success will be largely dependent on her strength in debating to garner the support she needs in the relatively short time remaining.

The primary will be held on September 9, 2014, followed by the general election only eight weeks later. The primary will be critical for the party to put forward the strongest candidate against a viable Republican challenger. The lingering question is whether or not the primary race will unify or divide Democrats so close to the general election.

Photo Source: U.S. Representative John Tierney / Facebook