WASHINGTON — Faced with a newly drawn congressional district, his wife's legal woes and more fallout from his brother-in-law's federal racketeering and money laundering trial, U.S. Rep. John Tierney is facing Republican candidates eager to take back the North Shore Democrat's seat next year.
"When Democratic incumbents lose in Massachusetts, it is usually related to redistricting and some scandal," said longtime GOP strategist Rob Gray. "Everything has to go your way for a Republican to win a congressional seat in Massachusetts."
Tierney, who was a Salem attorney before winning his Sixth Congressional District seat in 1996, declined to be interviewed for this story.
"While the Republican candidates work to defend their party's unpopular positions, such as cutting funding from Pell Grants, ending Social Security, and increasing the tax burden on middle class families, John remains focused on advocating for our concerns and strengthening our community's shared priorities," Kathryn Prael, a Tierney spokeswoman, said in an emailed statement.
Gray said Tierney looks to be the most vulnerable Democrat among the state's congressional delegation, but he expects an uphill fight for the GOP in a blue state where President Barack Obama's presence at the top of the ticket could bump up Democratic turnout. Tierney has strong labor support and a cash advantage with more than $441,000 in his campaign account as of the end of September.
Former state senator Richard Tisei of Wakefield, a moderate who built up his name recognition as the 2010 Republican nominee for lieutenant governor, hopes to emerge as the GOP challenger against Tierney. Bill Hudak, a conservative who lost to Tierney last year by a 57-43 percent margin, will face Tisei in the primary. Hudak, of Boxford, had $3,352 in his campaign account as of Sept. 30. Tisei formally entered the race this month.
"The people of the district are pretty independent- minded and I believe they want an independent congressman," said Tisei, who contends Tierney is too liberal for the district.
President Barack Obama beat John McCain 57-41 in Tierney's old district. The eight-term Salem Democrat's new district is slightly more Republican, adding Tewksbury, Billerica and part of Andover. GOP Sen. Scott Brown won all three communities in his 2010 special election.
Scandals were front and center the last time Republicans knocked off Democratic incumbent House members in Massachusetts nearly two decades ago, in 1992.
The late Nicholas Mavroules of Peabody served seven terms as the North Shore's congressman before losing to Republican Peter Torkildsen in 1992 amid a corruption scandal that sent him to prison.
The GOP's Peter Blute beat longtime Worcester congressman Joe Early, who was hurt by the House banking scandal.
Both Blute and Torkildsen were re-elected in 1994, but lost to Democratic challengers in 1996.
Tierney has been beset by a flurry of negative news coverage as his wife, Patrice Tierney, began testifying recently at the trial of her brother, Daniel Eremian. Tierney's wife insisted she and the congressman didn't know that another brother, Robert Eremian, was running an illegal online gambling operation in Antigua.
Patrice Tierney served a month in prison after pleading guilty last year to aiding and abetting false tax returns for Robert Eremian, who remains a fugitive on racketeering charges. Prosecutors said she managed a bank account for Robert Eremian that took in more than $7 million in illegal gambling profits.
Tierney has said his wife was betrayed by her brother and had believed his income came from selling or licensing software to legal Internet gambling businesses.
The congressman hasn't been implicated, but Republicans have fanned the flames.
Hudak, who made an issue during the 2010 race of the legal troubles of Tierney's wife and the congressman's claims he was unaware of any illegalities, said this time around, the recent racketeering trial of Tierney's brother-in-law will take a greater toll on the congressman's political stock.
"The continuing revelations about his wife's situation and his knowledge of that is reaching a peak because of this trial," said Hudak. "What it reflects is his character, his lack of honesty and his lack of transparency ... He has an obligation to know something, and there's no doubt in my mind that it represents an ethics violation."
Tisei said he won't make an issue of the legal woes of Tierney's family.
"The press needs to do their job and the court needs to do its job," Tisei said. "Ultimately people will decide themselves whether it's a problem or not."
Gray said a key difference between 2010 and Tierney's re-election this time around is that "there's an active trial that is being covered fairly extensively by the news media."
John Walsh, Massachusetts Democratic Party chairman, said while he expects a "competitive race" he does not think the ongoing racketeering trial will hurt Tierney.
"The Republicans tried to make the same case during the previous campaign and it did not work then, either," Walsh said. "Voters know John Tierney and he's one of the most dogged campaigners I have seen."