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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Now, Ken mentioned the Massachusetts Senate race is one to watch. But another congressional race in that state could make history. That's because Republicans have their best chance to win their first House seat in Massachusetts in 15 years. And the GOP's candidate in that race, Richard Tisei, is vying to be the first openly gay Republican elected to a freshman term in Congress.

From member station WBUR in Boston, Curt Nickisch has the story.

CURT NICKISCH, BYLINE: Richard Tisei is openly gay. He's also openly Republican.

RICHARD TISEI: You know what? In Massachusetts, it's a lot easier to be gay than be a Republican...

(LAUGHTER)

TISEI: ...as far as trying to get elected to office.

NICKISCH: Republicans are long shots to get elected in this solidly Democratic state. But Richard Tisei's upset bid is getting a huge lift from a family scandal surrounding the incumbent Democrat, Representative John Tierney. Voters like Bob Doucette don't want to give the 16-year congressman another two years in office.

BOB DOUCETTE: Totally ridiculous. If my wife had $7 million in a checking account, how intelligent can he be if he didn't know that? And he's partly running our country? No possible way.

NICKISCH: Tierney's wife pled guilty to aiding and abetting an illegal gambling operation that her brothers were running. This summer, one of them was convicted of racketeering. Another is on the lam. But both brothers-in-law say the congressman knew all along what they were doing. Tierney says they're just lashing out.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN TIERNEY: I think they're angry that their brother-in-law congressman didn't make this matter go away for them.

NICKISCH: Tierney admits he knew about the offshore operation, but that he thought it was legal.

TIERNEY: Look, I regret having brothers-in-laws. Frankly. You know, what did Henny Youngman say? Take my wife. I'd say take my brothers-in-law, please. But you don't get to choose those things in life.

NICKISCH: You also don't get to choose your election opponent. And Tierney is not up against the usual ho-hum candidate that the Massachusetts GOP often serves up. Richard Tisei is a 26-year veteran of the state legislature. And he says serving as minority leader taught him to work across the aisle and vote on ideas, not party lines.

TISEI: When Governor Romney was here, I voted with him half the time and I voted against him half the time. You know, and I have no problem working with Nancy Pelosi. I'm not going to - just because she's in the opposition, I'm not going to poke her in the eye.

NICKISCH: Tisei's independent rhetoric echoes that of another Massachusetts Republican. Scott Brown wrested Ted Kennedy's Senate seat from Democratic control two years ago. But not every voter is ready to hand over a Massachusetts congressional seat to the GOP.

Val Buchanan is willing to overlook Tierney's feud with in-laws. She has seen her congressman come to community meetings, listen to constituents' problems, and follow through on his promises to help.

VAL BUCHANAN: It gives me a track record with him. In terms of his personal life and those kinds of things about what he knew about that issue, I'm less informed. But it means less to me, I guess, after having experienced him politically.

NICKISCH: Tierney is counting on voters like Buchanan. And he's now attacking Richard Tisei, trying to paint his Republican challenger as a party extremist.

TIERNEY: He doesn't want to be on record for what he stands for because, it turns out, it is exactly what Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor and the right-wing Tea Party Republicans are pushing forward.

NICKISCH: House speaker John Boehner held a fundraiser for Tisei. And the National Republican Congressional Committee has pledged nearly a million dollars toward a TV ad campaign targeting Tierney. It's a rare event, but in Massachusetts, an incumbent Democrat in Congress is fighting for his political life.

For NPR News, I'm Curt Nickisch.

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