It’s a Sunday night in early August, and Representative Seth Moulton is sitting inside Nahant’s nearly empty town hall explaining why he ran for president. Of how he wanted to tell his 22-month-old daughter he did everything he could to defeat Donald Trump. Of how he had cachet as the only combat veteran running.
Of how . . .
“Thank you,” Jim Peterson cut in. The moderator in a three-way congressional debate, Peterson batted down Moulton’s polite protest for a longer clock (“Just very quickly,” the Salem Democrat pleaded), and told him he had already been given the extra seconds. “Add it to your closing.”
This is the newest chapter in Moulton’s political life: battling for more time, and far from the political spotlight that’s long shone on his career.
Six years after charging into Congress, Moulton is fending off his first primary fight in the Sixth Congressional District, a sleepy, three-way race that is opening the centrist Democrat’s record to perhaps its fullest public vetting since he first knocked off a nine-term incumbent.
It’s laid bare burbling criticisms that he’s become detached from the district as his oftentimes maverick political star rose — a charge Moulton denies. And it’s pumped oxygen into questions of how far his political ambitions stretch beyond the North Shore towns and cities he represents after he spent a chunk of 2019 pursuing his long-shot, and short-lived, bid for the White House.
“It’s a fair question, I understand why people ask it,” Moulton said of his interest in higher office. “I love being here, I love living in Salem. I love being able to make a difference in the lives of my friends and neighbors.”
And, he said, “I’ve been — my team and I — have been working our asses off.”
Yet, unlike other Democratic primaries, from the heated Senate race to a chaotic contest in western Massachusetts, Moulton’s race hasn’t fit the typical narrative of a longtime incumbent trying to fend off a youthful or decidedly more liberal challenger.
Moulton, at 41, is the youngest candidate on the primary ballot, and while his opponents, two Topsfield Democrats, have sought to pitch themselves as progressive options, on major policy issues, such as health care, there’s little daylight. (One challenger, Jamie Zahlaway Belsito, backed Republican Richard Tisei in his 2014 loss to Moulton, at the time likening it to a crushing Red Sox championship defeat.)
Many prominent North Shore Democrats have shrugged at the race, opting not to wade in. While Belsito and fellow challenger Angus McQuilken have brought what activists consider sharp-elbowed, serious campaigns, they like many candidates have been handicapped by the novel coronavirus in stirring the electorate’s attention, or raising substantial funds to do so.
“I don’t think they’ve got the pocketbook that Seth has, which is another reason why this is a David-and-Goliath situation,” said Matt Murray, chairman of the Gloucester Democratic City Committee.
It wasn’t long ago that it appeared to be a race to watch. As Moulton expanded his profile by helping get other military veterans elected across the country and bucking House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in a high-profile challenge to her leadership, discontent loudly brewed at home. Advocates challenged Moulton at town halls and in news articles, promising to put a Democratic opponent on the 2020 ballot.
State Representative Lori Ehrlich of Marblehead and former state Senator Barbara L’Italien of Andover, both said they were weighing campaigns. John Tierney, the longtime congressman Moulton defeated in 2014, considered a rematch. Lisa Peterson, a Salem city councilor, charged it was clear Moulton “moved on from the district” amid his presidential ambitions in launching her own run.
“His staff is wonderful, but we have’t seen much of the congressman himself,” said James Willis, the Salem Democratic City Committee’s former chairman, who said he isn’t voting for Moulton in the primary.
But Ehrlich, L’Italien, and Tierney ultimately passed, and Peterson dropped out months after Moulton said he’d seek reelection, saying she no longer saw “an appetite for a competitive Congressional race.”
Ultimately two challengers remained: McQuilken, a longtime gun control advocate and economic development official, and Belsito, a mental health advocate and trustee at Salem State University. (John Paul Moran is running for the Republican nomination in the district.)
Both Democrats have not held back in attacking Moulton. Belsito, 46, has criticized the array of political action committees Moulton, a Marine combat veteran, formed to back fellow military veterans, 21 of which won House seats in 2018. “He is serving America instead of serving the district,” she said, playing off the name of his Serve America PAC.
McQuilken, 50, has tried to frame Moulton as hawkish, and has gone after specific legislation, including Moulton’s cosponsorship of a controversial House resolution condemning China’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak. Moulton ultimately withdrew his support of it.
“That’s strike three,” McQuilken said, who also hit Moulton for running for president and challenging Pelosi.
At one debate, McQuilken challenged Moulton’s support for a measure to slow President Trump’s ability to pull troops from Afghanistan, leaving Moulton, who served four tours in Iraq, to bristle, saying he knows what it’s like to “be out there, every single night, with your life on the line.”
“I knew that there would be a lot of political mud thrown at me in this race. It’s not the worst thing that has been shot at me in my life, so that’s OK,” Moulton said. “But there’s a certain level at which it’s incredibly insulting.”
Fellow veterans, too, hold him in high regard, appreciative of his honesty about his own struggles with post-traumatic stress.
“Some people have a narrow vision: ‘Oh, he hasn’t been to my town. I’ve e-mailed him repeatedly and he won’t answer.’ But they can’t expect their elected official to come to their house,” said Christine Tron, a Democratic State Committee member from Peabody and retired US Army First Sergeant. “He knows he can relate to all of us.”
Moulton, unlike in 2014, also has a record he’s happily waved in front of his challengers. He’s touted helping steer more than $1 billion in investments to the city of Lynn. His office’s work for constituents has been recognized in Congress, he pointed out. His work in helping flip the House two years ago is good not just for Democrats, but the district, too, he argued.
“Sometimes you break from the party, sometimes you get in fights you don’t win. But I’m OK with that,” he said. “I go to sleep every night knowing that I’ve done the right thing.”
Matt Stout can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.