The last time terrorists struck while Massachusetts Democrat Stephen Lynch was campaigning for office, on Sept. 11, 2001, he coasted.
He easily won the Democratic primary that day and clinched a seat in Congress with a gauzy television ad in the general election that intoned, "At a time like this, we're not Democrats or Republicans. We're Americans."
This time, when bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon in the homestretch of Lynch’s underdog campaign for the U.S Senate, he pounced.
After a week’s hiatus from the campaign trail, Lynch assailed his Democratic rival, Rep. Edward Markey, in a televised debate Monday for voting against the creation of an anti-terrorism task force in 2002. The unexpected attack -- expected to be replayed in the second and final debate of the primary Tuesday night -- is shaking up the quiet special election to replace now-Secretary of State John Kerry and could help Lynch close a double-digit gap in the polls by Tuesday’s vote.
“Clearly, the terrorist attack has given Lynch new purpose and energy in his campaign, which until this time had been flat,” said Boston-based Republican strategist Rob Gray, who is not involved in the race. “Anything can happen in a low-turnout special-election primary, especially given the focus on the marathon bombings, though I still think Markey is the favorite.”
Lynch’s campaign faces a challenge familiar to politicians who have campaigned in the chaotic aftermath of natural disasters and acts of violence: how to draw the attention of a shell-shocked electorate without appearing to be exploiting a tragedy for political gain. What’s less customary is that the soft-on-terrorism line of attack is usually wielded by hawkish Republicans against more liberal Democrats. In this Democratic primary, bright lines already separate the more liberal Markey and more conservative Lynch on abortion rights, President Obama’s health care law and the Keystone XL Pipeline.
“I was waiting for the terrorism card to be played in the general election and didn’t expect this sort of intraparty maneuver on the part of Rep. Lynch,” said Tim Vercellotti, a political science professor at Western New England University, which found Lynch trailing Markey by 10 percentage points in a mid-April survey.
The more familiar political backbiting over the government’s response to terrorism was last seen in the 2010 Massachusetts Senate race, when Republican Scott Brown accused Democrat Martha Coakley of being naïve about terrorist threats. Raising the issue of homeland security in next week’s Democratic primary could motivate independent voters who are eligible to participate and lean toward the more conservative Lynch.
“The news cycle is still absolutely dominated by coverage of the investigation, so for folks like Steve Lynch it’s really hard to get some traction,” Vercellotti added. “If he were to put an ad on the air he’d be playing with fire because he runs the risk of politicizing an event that’s still really raw, but emotions are high and it could resonate. It’s tricky.”
Markey’s campaign is vigorously defending his record on national security, pointing to his legislation to require better screening of airport cargo, opposition to allowing small knives on planes and advocacy for increased security at nuclear power plants. Only 33 Democrats voted for the anti-terrorism task force in 2002 because of concerns about U.S. military involvement in local law enforcement issues, said Markey spokesman Andrew Zucker.
“Steven Lynch’s personal attack on Markey’s national leadership on stopping terrorism and keeping Americans safe is a clear sign of desperation from a candidate with nowhere left to turn,” he said.
The Lynch campaign disagreed. “We just spent a weekend watching the interaction between local and federal agencies, so talking about the candidates’ differences on that policy is very relevant,” said Lynch’s spokesman, Scott Ferson. “I guess we could have had another debate over the health care law, but now we are having a very different debate.”
The issue is also creeping into the Republican primary, which pits businessman Gabriel Gomez against former U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan and State Rep. Dan Winslow. Gomez, a former Navy SEAL, has said he was “disappointed” the federal government won’t be holding the surviving bomber suspect as an enemy combatant. Sullivan has called for revoking his citizenship.
"The bombing has completely transformed the race and brought national security and homeland defense to the forefront,” said Republican strategist Eric Fehrnstrom, who is working for a pro-Gomez super PAC. “I think it will increase participation in the special election because you will see more independents turn out. People are playing closer attention now and they are going to be scrutinizing the candidates’ records on homeland security and national defense issues.”