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Yvonne Abraham

Tricky race for John Tierney

US Representative John Tierney spoke Monday during the Greater Boston Labor Council Labor Day Breakfast.

Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

US Representative John Tierney spoke Monday during the Greater Boston Labor Council Labor Day Breakfast.

SALEM — “The Democrats could have trotted out an orangutan this time and I’d vote for him.”

Behold, Seth Moulton’s biggest asset in his campaign to unseat longtime incumbent Congressman John Tierney: that even if this challenger were an ape, Salem resident Don Armell would still vote for him.

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That’s the way it is in the Sixth District these days. Tuesday’s primary isn’t really about the upstarts running to unseat Tierney, impressive though they may be. It is a referendum on Tierney himself.

Sitting outside his house Wednesday, sipping coffee with friends, Armell, 70 and progressive, summed up the dynamic. “I held my nose and voted for Tierney last time,” he said. “I will not do it again. I don’t even know this guy Moulton yet, but it doesn’t matter.”

What we’re seeing in the Sixth is rare, especially in Massachusetts. For years, polls have shown that even when voters take a dim view of Congress, they love their own reps. But that has changed lately: In a recent Washington Post poll, a majority of respondents disapproved of Congress and their own congressmen and women.

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“I will definitely be looking at whoever is running against him,” said Bernard Martineau, 67. “I’m a Republican, but I voted for [Tierney] for many terms. I’m so fed up with all of them [in Washington], nothing is getting done, they all blame each other.”

With Tierney, though, the disaffection goes beyond D.C. gridlock. There is the matter of the illegal, offshore gambling operation run by his brothers-in-law. His wife, Patrice, served 30 days for her role in managing some of her brothers’ dirty money. Tierney and his wife say the congressman was not involved in any way, but his slimy brother-in-law says otherwise.

Moulton, 35, takes great pains to avoid mentioning the scandal on the trail. It’s easier to maintain the image of the boyish reformer offering an alternative to politics-as-usual that way. Others leap right in. At an event on Salem Common on Wednesday, a Moulton supporter went off the reservation, accusing Tierney himself of profiting from the gambling enterprise. Moulton stood beside her, looking supremely uncomfortable.

Moulton’s campaign, and that of a fellow challenger, accomplished Middleton attorney Marisa DeFranco, centers instead on Tierney’s ineffectiveness in Congress. They criticize him for authoring just one bill in his 18 years in office. Tierney has countered that being effective is about more than whether your name is first on a bill.

There is some truth to that. But talk to political veterans and those who deal with the congressional delegation regularly, and a picture emerges that better explains Tierney’s vulnerability. Tierney votes the right way on their issues, they say privately, but he isn’t proactive, like a Jim McGovern, or a fighter, like a Barney Frank. He appears in the district, but seems impatient with retail politics and with cultivating allies.

That leaves an opening for candidates like Moulton, a Harvard grad and Marine who did four tours in Iraq, was a close aide to General David Petraeus, and has an MBA and ambitions to deliver for his district like the late, legendary Paul Tsongas did for Lowell.

Is that opening big enough for Moulton to walk through? It’s hard to tell, though there are signs Tierney is worried. On Tuesday, his campaign released an ad accusing Moulton of being a secret Republican because he accepted a donation from a PAC that supports GOP candidates. Moulton returned the donation soon after receiving it. He called the ad “absurd” in Salem on Wednesday.

“He can’t defend his record, so he attacks a fellow Democrat,” Moulton said.

No incumbent entirely confident of winning would approve that unfair ad. But Moulton and DeFranco remain long shots. While voters in the Sixth are more likely than others to throw the bums out (Tierney’s two predecessors lost reelection bids), many are still partial to this particular bum.

“I like what he’s done,” said Janel Keough. Though she could not be specific about Tierney’s accomplishments, she pronounced Moulton “more of a Republican.” That will give the incumbent’s team joy.

They’d better hope there are enough Keoughs to overcome the orangutan effect.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com.
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