Peter Torkildsen lost his seat in Congress 18 years ago, but the former Republican lawmaker is still trying to turn the sprawling 6th Congressional District back from blue to red.
Torkildsen, who created a super PAC that unleashed a barrage of negative TV ads on Democratic Congressman John Tierney two years ago, said he plans to campaign for GOP hopeful Richard Tisei in his second bid for the congressional seat.
“It’s never easy to win as a Republican in Massachusetts; I know that from experience,” Torkildsen said. “I’m just trying to do what I can to create a more level playing field.”
In the Nov. 4 election, Tisei faces Democrat Seth Moulton of Salem, who ousted nine-term incumbent Tierney in the Sept. 9 primary.
Torkildsen, a former two-term congressman, said he is no longer in charge of the PAC — Strong Economy for Massachusetts — and has passed the reins to his longtime treasurer, Ernesto DiGiambattista of Revere, who produced a Web-based ad ahead of the Sept. 9 primary that stressed Tisei’s “50/50 bipartisan voting record” as a state lawmaker.
“I wanted to be free to get more directly involved in Tisei’s campaign, and you can’t do that if you’re part of the PAC,” Torkildsen said. “When you’re the head of a PAC, everything you do is put under a microscope.”
The PAC, which raised more than $300,000 for advertising in the 2012 elections, is running on fumes, with less than $30,000 in its coffers, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission.
DiGiambattista, a technology consultant at a Boston financial group, said he plans to raise more money and produce more campaign ads, but he said he will stick to a positive message highlighting Tisei’s legislative record. DiGiambattista describes himself as a fiscally conservative and socially moderate Republican.
“We’re going to be talking about Richard’s background,” he said. “He has the experience and knowledge to help break the gridlock in Washington. That’s my biggest concern. We need better representation in the district.”
Torkildsen said he believes Tisei’s record of voting for both Republican and Democratic bills will appeal to voters.
“Richard has a proven track record of reaching across the aisle,” he said. “In the Massachusetts Senate, he was routinely outnumbered 6-1 and was still able to get stuff done. His bipartisan record is going to be appealing not just to Republicans and Democrats, but independents, too.”
Torkildsen, who represented the 6th District from 1993 to 1997, lost the seat to Tierney in the November 1996 election by a razor-thin, 371-vote margin that took a month of recounts to finalize. He challenged Tierney two years later in what was described as a grudge match, but he failed to win back the seat.
Democratic Party officials, who are rallying behind Moulton in the upcoming election, dismissed Torkildsen’s involvement.
“Peter Torkildsen can try to buy this seat through negative campaigning, but voters will see right through it,” said state Sen. Ben Downing, who is overseeing the Massachusetts Democratic Party’s coordinated campaign committee. “Voters will support Seth Moulton’s fresh ideas and approach to public service, over his 30-year Republican career-politician opponent.”
Two years ago, Torkildsen’s PAC went after Tierney in a series of TV ads and mailers that blasted the incumbent for an illegal gambling operation organized by his brother-in-law on the Caribbean island of Antigua. A second round of ads criticized Tierney for not attending a House committee hearing on the 2012 attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
Following the election, Torkildsen’s PAC was fined $9,000 by the FEC for not disclosing all of its expenditures.
Tisei is also getting support from Republican-leaning super PACs, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which backed him in 2012. The group has already spent $350,000 on ads lauding him as an “independent voice” who wants to end “partisan gridlock” on Capitol Hill. It’s expected to come out with another round of ads ahead of the election.
Gay and lesbian rights groups are also helping Tisei. The Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, the conservative American Unity PAC and the Log Cabin Republicans have all endorsed Tisei, who would become the first openly gay Republican elected to Congress if he wins.
Meanwhile, Democratic super PACs are gearing up to spend millions — money originally intended to support Tierney’s re-election bid — on TV ads, mailers and robo-calls to keep the seat blue.
The House Majority PAC has reserved $1.4 million in advertising time with local TV stations in the Boston market ahead of the Nov. 4 general election, while the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee reserved more than $1.4 million for political ads. Representatives for both groups said a large chunk of that money will be devoted to the 6th District race, one of the most competitive in the state.
Moulton is also getting support from pro-veteran super PACs — such as VoteVets.org and the recently created Forward Massachusetts, which produced attack ads targeting Tierney ahead of the Democratic primary.
Super PACs cannot contribute directly to a campaign, but they can run ads favorable to a candidate or negative ones about the opponent. The groups spent more than $400 million nationally two years ago, according to FEC records.
In Massachusetts, most of the $6.1 million spent by PACs in the 2012 election cycle was pegged to the Tierney-Tisei race.
Spending in the 6th Congressional District this year is being driven by a broader battle for control of Congress. Republicans currently have 234 seats in the House of Representatives, and Democrats have 199 seats. There are two vacancies.
Independent candidate Chris Stockwell of Marblehead is also running for the 6th District seat that represents much of the North Shore and part of the Merrimack Valley.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @cmwade1969.