Representative Seth Moulton, a Marine combat veteran who rocketed to national attention when he defeated an entrenched incumbent five years ago, ended his long-shot presidential campaign on Friday, a decision that sends him back to his North Shore district, where he faces a contested path to reelection.
A Harvard-educated centrist who served four tours in Iraq, Moulton entered the presidential race in April and made foreign policy, veterans’ issues, and national service the centerpieces of his campaign. But as he traveled to Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, he failed to gain traction in polls and did not qualify for any of the televised debates.
He said Friday that he would run for another term in the Sixth Congressional District, where he could face hard feelings from some voters who feel he abandoned them by seeking the presidency. Moulton also angered some Democrats, including many women, by trying to prevent Nancy Pelosi from regaining the House speakership last year.
“Though this campaign is not ending the way I had hoped, I am leaving this race knowing that we raised issues that are vitally important to the American people and our future,” Moulton said Friday at the Democratic National Committee summer meeting in San Francisco, adding that “I can’t wait to get back at it” in his fight for reelection to the House.
In a press call with local reporters, he rejected the notion that he left his district unattended to seek the White House, saying he has one of the most successful constituent services programs in Congress and was received well during a recent visit to “Beverly Senior Day.”
“I’ve never had a more enthusiastic response from all the seniors in Beverly,” Moulton said.
Moulton, 40, said he ran for the Democratic presidential nomination because “I don’t think there’s a better foil for Donald Trump than a young combat veteran,” but decided to quit when he didn’t see a path to victory.
He said he was not ready to make any endorsements but praised former vice president Joe Biden, and criticized Medicare-for-all proposals like those backed by Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, whom Moulton said he sees as the only other two viable contenders for the nomination.
“I’m a fan of the vice president,” Moulton said. “He’s a mentor and a friend and would be a strong person to take on Donald Trump.”
Discussing the challenges he faced in the race, Moulton pointed to his late entry into the crowded contest and to Democratic Party rules that barred him from the debate stage based on his low poll numbers. He said that, as the only combat veteran in the race, “you’re marginalizing voices that should be a part of our party.”
David Guarino, a Democratic strategist from Salem, said Moulton made the right decision by quitting before Labor Day, when voters back home begin to pay more attention to politics.
“He has his work cut out for him,” Guarino said. “I’d tell him to jump back in with both feet and show up at everything throughout the district. . . . There are people in the district who felt very much like an afterthought.”
Two little-known candidates — Lisa Peterson, a first-term Salem city councilor, and Jamie Zahlaway Belsito, a Salem State University trustee – are challenging Moulton for his House seat in next year’s elections. Three other, more prominent Democrats — state Representative Lori Ehrlich of Marblehead, Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll, and John F. Tierney, the former nine-term congressman Moulton defeated in 2014 — are considered possible candidates.
Tierney confirmed Friday that he is considering a rematch in 2020.
“This district needs someone who wants to be the congressman; he, clearly, doesn’t,” Tierney said. “Whether that’s me or not, remains to be seen.”
Ehrlich also confirmed her interest in the race. She pointed to a tweet from a Vice News correspondent who quoted an unnamed Moulton adviser as saying the congressman would still make a strong contender for the vice presidency.
“I hope he is serious about representing the district,” Ehrlich said. “But just today, his adviser indicated he would be a good VP candidate. We need clarity.”
Driscoll did not respond to a request for comment about Moulton or her interest in the race.
Moulton, for his part, downplayed his interest in the vice presidency, saying, “It’s very flattering, but I’m running to be congressman from the Sixth District.”
Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic strategist, said Moulton may have made himself vulnerable to a primary challenge by opposing Pelosi, being mentioned as a potential 2020 challenger to Senator Edward J. Markey, and running for president.
“It seems like the last thing on his mind is that congressional district, and voters know those things,” Marsh said. “They know when you have your eyes on something else.”
Guarino said that the longer Moulton stayed in the race, the greater the likelihood he would draw a well-known challenger such as Ehrlich or Driscoll. But by dropping out before fall, Moulton “could freeze the field,” and scare away opponents, he said.
“He is facing a reality that no candidate wants to face, but he’s facing it head-on and making the right decision for him, given the way things have been going,” Guarino said.
Moulton’s withdrawal drops the huge Democratic presidential field to 21 candidates.
Scott Ferson, a Democratic strategist who advised Moulton in his race against Tierney, said Moulton’s voice on foreign policy could still influence the eventual Democratic nominee.
“He spoke with authority, having been on the ground in Iraq, to what a Democratic response to an erratic president could be,” Ferson said.
Trump weighed in with his own response to Moulton’s decision, linking it to the plunging stock market.
“The Dow is down 573 points perhaps on the news that Representative Seth Moulton, whoever that may be, has dropped out of the 2020 Presidential Race!” Trump tweeted.
The Dow is down 573 points perhaps on the news that Representative Seth Moulton, whoever that may be, has dropped out of the 2020 Presidential Race!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 23, 2019
Asked about the tweet, Moulton said, “I appreciate the compliment. What else am I going to say?”
In his speech to the DNC, he added that “I will be campaigning my ass off” for whichever Democrat wins the nomination to challenge Trump in 2020.
Michael Levenson can be reached at email@example.com