SALEM — Despite a deluge of outside spending and a withering challenge from a longtime state legislator, US Representative John F. Tierney held on Tuesday to win a ninth term by the narrowest margin since his first victory.
Tierney descended to the ballroom at Salem’s Hawthorne Hotel about 12:30 Wednesday morning to declare victory, holding his wife’s hand aloft and basking in the cheers of 100 remaining supporters. He made an elliptical reference to the family scandal that had dogged him throughout the campaign and provided ample fodder for challenger Richard R. Tisei.
“In the end this was not about our family, and it wasn’t about his family,” Tierney said. “It was about your families.”
Tisei refused to concede, albeit in a muted speech that had hints of concession.
“I am sorry that you have been here so long; I am not coming down to concede,” Tisei said just after 11 p.m., arriving to cheers of “Richard! Richard!” from the 100 loyalists remaining out of a once-buoyant crowd of 250. “This is a very close race.”
The Tisei party went dark an hour later, campaign officials vowing to press on to make sure all overseas military ballots are counted.
With all precincts reporting, Tierney held a nearly 4,000-vote lead, collecting 48.3 percent to Tisei’s 47.3 percent.
A late-arriving crowd at the Tierney party swelled to 200 at one point, spirits soaring, when it appeared he would retain his seat.
“We were all prepared for the worst given the lead-up to the race,” said Kim Driscoll, Salem’s mayor. “This is just phenomenal, and [we’re] very happily surprised.”
Shadowed by a gambling scandal involving his wife’s family, Tierney had been rendered a slight underdog by national analysts such as the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. But he appeared to benefit from the strong performance of Democrats above him on the ticket and from the party’s sophisticated ground game, as well as from the presence of Libertarian candidate Daniel Fishman, who collected 4.5 percent despite being omitted from televised debates.
Tierney had not been in a race this close since 1996, when it took a month of recounts to finalize his 371-vote victory in his second try to unseat the Republican incumbent, Peter Torkildsen. He had won easy reelection every two years after that until now.
Tierney’s wife pleaded guilty in 2010 to aiding the filing of false tax returns for one of her brothers, admitting “willful blindness” in helping to manage millions of dollars in illegal gambling income. Patrice Tierney spent a month in prison last year. One brother is serving three years, and the other remains a fugitive in the Caribbean.
But Tierney withstood $3.5 million in outside spending and about $1.7 million in spending by Tisei, much of it aimed at questioning what he might have known about the illegal gambling enterprise. Tierney spent more than $2 million in response — and benefited from $2 million in outside support — defending himself and attempting to paint Tisei as an acolyte of the Tea Party movement, despite his reputation as a moderate.
Tisei specifically challenged Tierney on the $24,000 annually that the incumbent’s wife collected from an account she managed on her brother’s behalf, unreported by the Tierneys on their taxes and deemed by them a family gift. He also repeatedly questioned the congressman’s 2009 visit to the Antigua home of brother-in-law Robert Eremian, now a fugitive.
Many voters agreed. “I just think it’s time for a change,” said Brian Halpern, a 58-year-old from Billerica, after he and his wife, Maryann, voted for Tisei. “Tierney’s got some skeletons in the closet.”
Jan MacDonald, a high school math teacher from Peabody, was also skeptical.
“If he doesn’t know what’s going on in his own house, how can he have a grip on what’s going on in the state?” said MacDonald, a 42-year-old who voted for Tisei and US Senator Scott Brown, but also for President Obama.
Others stood by the congressman, who, if not a star, has achieved a quiet reputation for constituent service and diligence on issues such as education and military spending.
“Whatever happened with Tierney’s wife is their own business,” said Dot Michalowski, 73, who cast a vote for the congressman at his home precinct, at Salem’s Bentley School.
In Lynn, Nolisha Greer voted for Tierney because he supports Obama’s agenda and cut him slack for the problems with his extended family.
“It was his in-laws, not him,” said Greer, 40, a hotel administrative assistant.
Some supported him simply because of the D beside his name, as one Billerica woman acknowledged after leaving the Ditson School, where she voted for Tierney. “I honestly don’t know anything about him, sorry,” she said.
Tisei, now 50, rose from a 22-year-old state representative to become minority leader in the Senate during 26 years in the Legislature. A fiscal conservative and social libertarian, he was trying to become the first Republican elected to the US House from Massachusetts in nearly two decades.
“If this state won’t elect a Republican like Richard Tisei,” said Karl Weld, 42, a graphic designer from Reading, “it will never elect a Republican.”