With less than a week until the US Senate primary, US Representative Stephen F. Lynch is suddenly on the offensive, lacing into US Representative Edward J. Markey on security-related issues in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings.
Lynch’s abrupt decision to put the emotionally charged issues at the center of his campaign has jolted the low-key race and given the South Boston Democrat an opening against a rival who has a strong advantage in polls, fund-raising, and support from the party base.
“He’s been able to force people to take notice,” said Peter Ubertaccio, a political scientist at Stonehill College. “There are a lot more people this week talking about Steve Lynch than there were a few weeks ago.”
But the approach could produce a backlash.
Lynch’s aggressive criticism of Markey’s national security record in two debates this week could turn off some voters, especially at a time when candidates traditionally focus on purely positive messages to motivate their supporters.
Lynch also runs the risk of appearing to politicize a tragedy. This week, he launched a television ad that shows him speaking directly to the camera, saying he pays tribute to those who were killed and to the police who responded.
Michael Shea, a Democratic media consultant, said Lynch is seizing on the attacks in an attempt to draw conservative voters into Tuesday’s primary, the type of contest that in the past has been dominated by liberal activists focused on issues like health care, abortion, and gay rights.
For much of the campaign, Lynch has been on the defensive over those issues, including his opposition to President Obama’s health care law.
The attacks, Shea said, have given Lynch an 11th-hour chance to shift the conversation in the special election campaign to replace John F. Kerry, who became secretary of state.
“He’s in a pretty desperate position to make up lost time, and he’s got to swing for the fences if he wants to turn things around,” Shea said. “There’s more than a little risk in being seen as possibly trying to capitalize on the tragedy, but strategically he doesn’t have a lot of options.”
Markey, whose campaign acknowledged that he was caught off guard by Lynch’s offensive, launched a television ad Tuesday that highlights his record of responding to the threat of terrorism after Sept. 11, 2001.
The ad features Sara Nelson, a flight attendant, who says she could have been on Flight 175, which was hijacked after taking off from Logan International Airport that day.
She recalls Markey visiting a crisis center at Logan and praises the Malden Democrat for authoring a 2010 law that requires scanning all inbound air and maritime cargo.
“Congressman Markey was absolutely our partner and our champion,” she says in the ad, which includes a newspaper photo of one of the planes hitting the World Trade Center.
Lynch’s campaign was first to shift gears after the Marathon bombings. He worked quickly to reshape his message, which had been focused on his blue-collar roots and background as an ironworker.
“When you think about what these families went through, when you think about the importance of the decisions that the next US senator from this Commonwealth will make, it energizes me,” Lynch said earlier this week, adding that “sometimes the times find the person.”
Even when his campaign was on a brief hiatus, Lynch, as a Boston congressman, appeared prominently at press conferences about the bombings and spoke to reporters about bombing victim Martin Richard, the 8-year-old from Dorchester, whose family Lynch knows.
On Monday, in the first debate since the attacks a week earlier, he sharply criticized Markey for voting in 2002 against creation of a terrorism task force and for opposing several homeland security appropriations bills over the last decade. Lynch repeated the criticisms in a second and even more heated debate on Tuesday in Springfield. “You’re so far out on the left, Ed, here it’s ridiculous,” Lynch said.
He closed the debate with a direct appeal to voters shaken by the bombings.
“Show those terrorists who’s right,” Lynch said. “Get out and vote on the 30th.”
Markey, a Malden Democrat, responded by pointing to homeland security appropriations bills he has supported and to measures like the 2010 cargo screening law he wrote.
“He’s taken a page right out of the Karl Rove, Swiftboat playbook,” Markey said at Tuesday’s debate, linking Lynch’s criticism to George W. Bush’s political strategist and to the ads that attacked Kerry’s Vietnam record during the 2004 presidential campaign. “And it’s very sad, especially just one week after what just happened in Boston and Cambridge and Watertown.”
Lynch’s campaign said it is trying to handle the issue sensitively. In his new television ad, for example, Lynch does not mention his Senate campaign.
“In the face of this tragedy, our city and state offered a stunning example of the strength of the human spirit,” he says. “We hold in our hearts those we lost, but we will get through this together and work toward a brighter day.”
Despite the upbeat message, Lynch is walking a fine line by discussing the attacks in a political ad, said Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist who worked on Kerry’s 2004 campaign, which also confronted issues of terrorism and national security.
“It’s a little tricky,” he said. “There’s obviously enormous sensitivity about an issue like this.”Michael Levenson can be reached at email@example.com.