When pundits saw Richard Tisei on the verge of knocking US Representative John Tierney from Congress, the union members working phone banks at the home of Local 201 in Lynn noticed something different.
As they started making 26,690 calls to affiliates of the unions in the North Shore Labor Council, they recorded a roughly 3-to-1 edge for Tierney, no surprise given his long alliance with labor. But as the election neared, Tierney's union edge widened to 5 to 1.
Not only that, but many seemed to take personally the blizzard of mailers and TV ads attacking Tierney's credibility over the illegal gambling ring run by his wife's family, motivating them to volunteer, said Peter Capano, vice president of IUE-CWA Local 201.
"You could see it, it actually made them want to fight," said Capano, who is also a Lynn city councilor. Union members knocked on more than 45,000 doors, part of a concerted effort by the Tierney campaign, the Democratic Party, and surrogates to retain the Sixth District for the incumbent.
Tierney's 1-point win over Tisei, his narrowest since his first election in 1996, owed something to President Obama's landslide across Massachusetts and to the presence of a Libertarian candidate who appeared to siphon some votes from Tisei, a Republican.
But it was about more than Democratic coattails or a third-party spoiler. In many North Shore communities, Tierney fared better than Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren, if not quite as well as Obama.
Tierney and his supporters say they benefited from a backlash against attacks on his character — fueled by $3.5 million in outside spending, atop nearly $2 million invested by the Tisei campaign — and from voters looking past that matter to compare candidates on issues.
On Wednesday, Tierney acknowledged that opposition advertising, and the shadow of the federal investigation that sent his wife to prison for a month, though he was not implicated, cost him some votes. But he said it redoubled the efforts of core supporters.
"They were as offended as we were by the low level of the advertising and things, and they came out, and I think they worked even harder than they worked in the past," Tierney said. "They really brought it home for us."
Veteran Democratic consultant Michael Goldman, an informal adviser and a close friend since he and Tierney were in their 20s, said Tierney drew on 16 years of goodwill accumulated through hundreds of parades and chamber of commerce breakfasts.But Goldman said voters also asked the questions they ask every time, "whether for president of the United States or for unpaid school committee": Does the candidate understand their problems, does he care about them, and can he do anything about them? Tierney's consistent support for Democratic positions on Social Security, Medicare, and education prevailed.
Goldman said he thought Tisei was undone by his own ads. One spot dubbed reelecting Tierney a "gamble," though Tierney in office has been nothing if not predictable. "At worst, he was going to be the same congressman they elected eight previous times," Goldman said.
Tisei's closing ad offered a respite from negativity by showing a Gloucester beach scene. That earned creativity plaudits and social-media attention, but Goldman considered it a thin closing argument after so much setup about Tierney's family. "He had an opportunity in the end to say, 'You may not know a lot about me, let me tell you who I am,' but he put up a beach."
The Associated Press called the election early Wednesday, but Tisei did not formally concede for 13 hours, issuing a statement congratulating Tierney. He did not call the incumbent and declined interviews, though his campaign manager called Tierney's manager.
"This has been a long, hard-fought battle, and I believe that the voters deserve better representation in Washington. That's why I ran. Nonetheless, the election results are now fully in and Congressman Tierney retains a narrow lead," Tisei said, thanking volunteers and voters.
Tisei's statement alluded to charges his campaign manager made, questioning voting in Lynn. Tierney prevailed there nearly 3 to 1, and turnout was roughly 50 percent higher than it was for the 2010 midterm election — though about the same as it was in 2008.
"While I have concerns about reported irregularities in some areas of the district, I'll leave any investigation of those matters to others," Tisei said.
Capano considered that a cheap shot that ignored Democratic organization and the kinship Lynn voters felt with Tierney for helping preserve the city's veterans clinic and expand the Lynn Community Health Center. "It's like if you can't win on the issues, we'll attack your character. And if the outcome isn't good, it must be corruption," Capano said.
Libertarian Daniel Fishman said some of his support came from Ron Paul supporters frustrated at being discounted at the GOP convention; some were former Tierney voters who could not support Tisei because his views would be trumped by House Republicans.
"There's no question that Richard Tisei is a progressive on social issues, but on a federal level, the Republican Party is running on a 1950s social platform and that's never going to win in Massachusetts," Fishman said, attributing "a shocking Tierney win" to Democratic coattails and the specter of the Republican far right.
Eric Moskowitz can be reached at email@example.com.