SALEM — Since he eked out reelection two years ago with the whiff of a family gambling scandal still trailing him, US Representative John F. Tierney has become Exhibit A in a familiar political cautionary tale: He showed how hard it is to dislodge a Democrat in Massachusetts.
His challenger, Seth Moulton, has heard that one. Still, the first-time candidate is taking on Tierney in the Democratic primary, trying to accomplish what no one in Massachusetts has done in 22 years — unseat an incumbent congressman from his own party.
His eagerness against the odds may be explained by his pedigree. Moulton, 35, has the bulletproof self-confidence of a guy who obtained three degrees at Harvard and survived four deployments in Iraq.
Moulton is a political newcomer whose remarkable resume and knack for networking have bought his freshman bid uncommon credibility. His campaign recently outraised Tierney’s for the third quarter in a row, raking in about $450,000 in the first three months of the year.
A Marine captain, he graduated from four prestigious alma maters — Phillips Academy Andover, Harvard College, Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and Harvard Business School — whose alumni have helped him raise more than $1 million in just nine months. His eclectic mix of high-profile supporters include former presidential adviser and CNN political analyst David Gergen, retired generals David H. Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal; and Hollywood director Marc Webb.
Tierney’s campaign has largely ignored Moulton while enjoying the support of the Democratic establishment, including President Obama, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
But behind the scenes, Moulton’s insurgent campaign has succeeded in getting under Tierney supporters’ skin and prompted the campaign committee to conduct an unusual early poll of the embattled incumbent’s odds of prevailing in the primary. The results showed Moulton to be an unknown who would get trounced by Tierney by 40 points. (The poll didn’t include a third Democratic challenger, immigration attorney Marisa DeFranco.)
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Raised in Marblehead by antiwar liberals, Moulton enlisted in the Marines after graduating from Harvard with a degree in physics.
His mother was scandalized. “There was no career choice he could have made that would have made me more unhappy, except if he had chosen a life of crime,” Lynn Moulton was quoted as saying in a 2008 Boston Magazine article .
But his time in the Marines came to define him. Moulton not only saw combat in Iraq; he saw “the consequences of terrible decision-making in Washington” that later helped motivate him to run for office.
In Iraq, he worked with newly liberated media and cohosted a regular local TV news show called “Moulton and Mohammed.” His media savvy and onscreen personality also brought him interviews on NPR and a leading role in the Oscar-nominated 2007 Iraq War documentary “No End in Sight.”
He returned from the reserves to volunteer for a third and then a fourth deployment as a special assistant to Petraeus, then America’s top military officer in Iraq and not yet sullied by scandal.
At Harvard’s joint master’s program in business and public policy, Moulton caught the eye of Gergen, someone he now calls a mentor. Although Moulton wasn’t pursuing a career in politics — he moved to Dallas to run a high-speed rail venture, then returned to launch a North Shore health care startup — Gergen kept mentioning his story. Emily Cherniack, the founder of New Politics, which recruits veterans and Peace Corps alumni to run for office, was listening.
“He’s a perfect example of the kind of leadership our country needs,” Cherniack said.
Though he now has a resume tailor-made for politics, Moulton resists the suggestion that he was calculating a campaign all these years. Instead, he says, it was his experience at war that motivated his decision to serve in a different theater.
“I’m running because I saw friends and colleagues killed and maimed in the Iraq war due to bad decision-making and failed leadership in Washington,” he said.
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On a sunny, cold Saturday in March, a sea of supporters stood outside Salem High School waving signs for Tierney. It was caucus day in Salem, when Democrats would elect delegates to represent them at their state convention, and though congressmen weren’t even competing for delegates that day, Tierney’s loyalists were there flexing their muscle.
Moulton, the newcomer, brought only a sprinkling of supporters with signs and a few relatives to serve doughnuts, coffee, and oranges at his campaign table.
Inside the school library, packed with 125 dedicated Democratic voters, Tierney looked at ease as he rubbed shoulders with other elected officials preparing to make their pitches.
Moulton stood apart. With one hand in a pocket, he leaned against a wall by the windows in his blazer, looking crisp and confident, and a little bit aloof — a debate team champion waiting to take the stage.
When Tierney spoke, he played to the familiar in a crowd that knows his story well: He was born and raised in Salem, he stressed. He went to Salem schools. He will continue to fight for the district and for the principles he believes in — a higher minimum wage, pay equity for women, a strengthened middle class.
“Always, you know that I’ll be on your side,” Tierney said, to applause.
When it was Moulton’s turn to address the activists, he spoke of his Harvard education and the war experience that led him to this campaign. “We just had the most ineffective Congress in our nation’s history and we can do better,” he said.
But the tension in the room was thick. Some Tierney supporters bristled — and Tierney scoffed — as Moulton said he respects Tierney “for all of your years, your 17 years of service.”
“This is Tierney’s hometown,” Kristian Hoysradt, a Salem Democrat wearing a bright yellow T-shirt emblazoned with Tierney’s name, said in an interview after the caucus. “Good for him [Seth] for coming. But John’s support here is really strong.”
Jim Fleming, a member of the Democratic State Committee, frowned as he watched the dashing young Marine.
“I don’t think this is Seth’s time to be running,” he said after the caucus. “Obviously we had a tough race last time. I’m anticipating a tough time this year. But John has done a great job for this city and this district. He knows the pulse of this city.”
Does he have any concerns that Tierney could be vulnerable due to his family scandal?
“Absolutely not,” Fleming said. “For me, it should not be an issue.”
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Just weeks before the 2010 election, Tierney’s wife, Patrice, pleaded guilty to federal charges of aiding tax fraud. She acknowledged “willful blindness” in overseeing her brother’s financial affairs, which she should have recognized as a criminal enterprise — an offshore betting operation.
Tierney won reelection anyway. And in 2012, in a sometimes nasty race that became a referendum on his family, rather than his politics, he won again, narrowly beating Republican Richard R. Tisei.
Tierney was never implicated of any wrongdoing; the House Ethics Committee considered but dropped an investigation into the matter. But he remains a chief target of both Republicans and Democrats. CQ Roll Call named him one of the nation’s 10 most vulnerable House members this election.
Moulton says he is trying to steer clear of the scandal. “I think people are tired of hearing that,” he says of the negativity. Instead he casts himself as a fresh-faced change agent who can get more accomplished in Washington.
“I like to fix things,” Moulton says in one online ad, which takes the theme so far that it shows him knocking on doors, offering oil changes, and checking the pipes under people’s sinks.
But not everyone can be persuaded.
At the Salem caucus, his mother, Lynn, took a swipe at Tierney as she introduced a reporter to Moulton’s sister and her husband. “Brother-in-law,” Lynn Moulton quipped. “Never been indicted.”
Tierney’s perceived vulnerability is precisely the reason that Moulton’s backers feel he can beat Tierney. The incumbent’s weaknesses have helped Moulton enlist a campaign team of national heavy hitters, including longtime presidential campaign consultant Joe Trippi.
Stu Rothenberg, publisher of the Rothenberg Political Report, a nonpartisan newsletter that handicaps congressional races, said it will be difficult for Moulton to inspire voters to oust the incumbent without challenging Tierney’s ethics — especially since Tierney prevailed in his last two elections, when memories of the scandal were fresh.
“Count me as skeptical that [Moulton] will knock off a sitting member who’s going to be able to talk about what he brought to the district,” Rothenberg said. “It’s tough to take on a sitting member of Congress. Very tough.”
Moulton has not spent much time on the trail, as he focused on fund-raising in the early part of the campaign, pursuing support from his well-monied networks of alumni, many far beyond Massachusetts.
Moulton’s fund-raisers have been taking place in Chicago, New York, California, even London, prompting skepticism about the level of support he can drum up within the voting district.
Tierney campaign aides remain officially bullish about reelection, noting that, despite Moulton’s recent fund-raising, the incumbent has more campaign money on hand.
“From a strictly political argument, I think the burden is on him, Mr. Moulton, to tell us why he would be a better candidate and why his values are better than the congressman’s,” said Tierney spokesman Dan Rubin.
Complicating matters is Tisei, the Republican waiting to challenge either Tierney or Moulton after the September primary.
The National Republican Congressional Committee, smelling blood, has named Tisei one of its top national “contenders,” offering an additional level of support.
Recently, the Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call changed its handicapping of Tierney’s possible race against Tisei in the general election to “Toss-Up/Tilt Democrat,” further downgrading his odds of retaining the seat.
Moulton tries to use that argument to his advantage, insisting, as he did at the Salem caucus, that he is better positioned to win the general election than Tierney.
“I know how hard all you Democrats worked in 2012 to hold on to this seat and we just barely did,” Moulton told the crowd in Salem. “This is Massachusetts. This is a blue district in a blue state. We shouldn’t have to fight so hard just to hold on to that seat.”
But some party activists, like Fleming, of Salem, would rather not see the Democrats fight at all.
“I did not want to see a Democratic primary like this,” he said. “I think it will be a dissolution of our resources and assets at a time we need them.”
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Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert.