If there's one thing our deeply polarized electorate can agree on this election season, it's this: What a shame that someone has to win. Whether it's Mitch McConnell versus Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky or Rick Scott against Charlie Crist in Florida, so many races this cycle are between two candidates who have greater unfavorable than favorable ratings in the polls that, as MSNBC's Benjy Sarlin recently noted, "voters are struggling to decide between politicians that they feel lukewarm about at best and outright contemptuous of at worst."
Unless they happen to live in Massachusetts' 6th Congressional District—a mixture of immigrant suburbs, working-class towns, and wealthy seaside enclaves that stretches from just north of Boston to the New Hampshire border. There, voters face a difficult midterm decision not because they'll be choosing between the lesser of two evils but because they've been blessed with two unusually worthy candidates. Indeed, Massachusetts's North Shore might be one of the few places in the United States today where voters won't walk into—and out of—their polling places holding their noses.
The Republican candidate is Richard Tisei. Although the 6th is Massachusetts's most Republican-leaning Congressional district, President Obama still won it two years ago by 11 points. Which means that Tisei, who served in the Massachusetts legislature for 26 years, is about as moderate a Republican as you're likely to find these days. To wit, while Tisei wants Massachusetts to be exempted from Obamacare, he argues it's because the Commonwealth already had near-universal healthcare coverage when the federal law was passed; unlike pretty much every other GOP candidate, he doesn't call for Obamacare's repeal.
But what really makes Tisei stand out inside the GOP are his stances on social issues. Tisei is pro-choice and supports marriage equality; earlier this year, he boycotted the Massachusetts GOP's state convention over the party platform's opposition to abortion and gay marriage. What's more, Tisei is gay and married himself—facts of his life that, like any hitched hetero pol, he uses in his campaign: In one of his ads, he says chipperly and matter-of-factly: "My husband and I live right on Main Street, next door to my mom." It's hard to imagine any candidate—Republican or Democrat—making such a statement in a campaign ad as recently as two years ago. But, as Tisei explained to The New York Times, "I think people need to know who I am and what I'm all about. I'm obviously proud to be married to Bernie, and I'm proud to be a Republican."
Tisei's equally compelling Democratic opponent is Seth Moulton. A first-time candidate, the 36-year-old Moulton was a senior at Harvard when, four weeks away from graduation in 2001, he decided to enlist in the Marines. He went on to serve four tours in Iraq as an infantry officer and, after leaving the Marines, attended Harvard's Kennedy School on the GI bill; he got a Harvard MBA, too. After passing up lucrative jobs on Wall Street, Moulton decided to challenge the 18-year (and scandal-plagued) incumbent John Tierney in September's Democratic primary, and scored an upset.
None of that, however, is what's most remarkable about Moulton. Not long after the Democratic primary, the Boston Globe's top investigative reporter, Walter V. Robinson, decided to do some digging into Moulton's military record. What he discovered was shocking. As Robinson wrote:
The American political graveyard has more than a few monuments to politicians and public officials who embellished details of their military service, in some cases laying claim to medals for heroism or other military honors they never received.
And then, uniquely, there is Seth W. Moulton, the Democratic nominee for Congress in the Sixth Congressional District, a former Marine who saw fierce combat for months and months in Iraq. But Moulton chose not to publicly disclose that he was twice decorated for heroism until pressed by the Globe.
Moulton had told no one, not even his parents, about his Bronze Star and his Navy and Marine Corps Commendation because, as he eventually explained to the Globe's Robinson: "There is a healthy disrespect among veterans who served on the front lines for people who walk around telling war stories," and because there are "many others who did heroic things and received no awards at all."
And so voters in Massachusetts' 6th are faced with an exquisite dilemma: choosing between the candidate who's seeking to be the first openly gay non-incumbent Republican to be elected to Congress; or the war-hero Democrat who refuses to exploit his heroism for political purposes. This is exactly what our democracy is supposed to look like: a choice that's difficult because both options have their merits. But in the current political environment, the fact that one Congressional district boasts two such compelling candidates seems downright cruel. Washington desperately needs more politicians like Tisei and Moulton. It's a shame that geography has conspired in such a way that, come January, the Capitol will only have one of them.