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The Boston Globe

Opinion

JOAN VENNOCHI

Markey’s security votes are fair game in Senate race

Given that two bombs just exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, it’s not all that “Karl Rove-ian” — as US Representative Edward J. Markey complained — to ask Markey to explain his votes on national security legislation.

Voters have every right to understand his thinking — and voting — on such matters.

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Besides, Markey’s rival in the US Senate Democratic primary, US Representative Stephen Lynch, is simply trying to get voters to focus on his view of the differences between the two candidates. That’s what a campaign is all about. Markey is happy to do that when the difference is his “yes” vote for health care reform versus Lynch’s “no” vote. But he finds the concept offensive when it’s applied to him.

In this special election, Markey’s goal is to run like he always does, as a can’t-lose incumbent. That means keeping headlines to a minimum, the better to contain turnout to a small, dependable group of liberal primary voters.

This strategy has been working well in a sleepy race with an April 30 primary date. Last week’s Boylston Street blasts pushed the Senate race even further from the public consciousness.

But, trailing in the polls, Lynch isn’t going quietly. In the campaign’s final week, he seized the issue of the day — terrorism — and forced Markey to confront some of his votes.

During a Monday night debate, which aired on WBZ-TV and was cosponsored by the Globe, Lynch challenged Markey’s opposition to establishing the counterintelligence branch within the Department of Homeland Security, which Lynch linked to the much-acclaimed investigative work connected to the Boston Marathon attack. Markey seemed confused about his vote; afterwards, even a liberal blogger at Blue Mass Group declared him “unprepared for this line of attack.”

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Lynch kept up the pressure during a Tuesday night debate in Springfield. It led Markey to declare: “Many of his charges are desperate, they’re sad, they’re Karl Rove-ian in their inaccuracies.”

Lynch’s charges don’t tell the whole story of Markey’s record, but Markey’s problem is that in recounting some of his votes, Lynch is technically accurate.

In 2002, Markey did vote against establishing the Joint Interagency Homeland Security Task Force. During Monday night’s debate, he said if he voted no it was because the bill was flawed. That’s exactly how Lynch explains his vote against the Affordable Care Act. After the debate, a campaign spokesman explained that Markey voted no out of concern that military representation on the joint task force could give the Pentagon domestic law enforcement responsibilities.

On Wednesday, the Markey campaign also argued that the specific task force that actually coordinated the post-Marathon investigation was set up by executive order in July 2002 — which means no one in Congress, including Lynch or Markey, voted for or against it.

However, Markey also voted against a 2006 port security bill. A Markey press release at the time called the bill “a sham” and charged that it left the country vulnerable to nuclear attack because it didn’t call for scanning all overseas cargo before it’s loaded aboard container ships. In other words, he voted no because he believed the bill was flawed. That, again, echoes Lynch’s rationale for voting no against health care reform — a rationale that Markey routinely ridicules.

After the debates, the Markey campaign put together a list of all the national security legislation Markey not only backed but sponsored. It includes measures that require screening of cargo on passenger planes; increased security at nuclear facilities; and input from the Department of Homeland Security regarding decisions about placement of liquefied national gas facilities. He also recently introduced the “No Knives Act of 2013,” to reverse a TSA policy change which would allow knives back on planes.

Tracking the votes may be confusing, but the politics aren’t.

Lynch is looking for a game-changer. If he paints Markey as soft on terrorism against the backdrop of last week’s attacks, maybe more independents and conservative Democrats will turn out for him on primary day. Whether you consider Lynch desperate or smart, he succeeded in catching Markey off guard.

Mark Horan, a Markey advisor, said it’s fair to label Lynch’s tactics as “Karl Rove-ian” because “he is taking what is a strength of Ed Markey, a longstanding commitment to homeland security . . . and trying to make it a weakness.”

But defending Markey’s record is Markey’s job. The week before the primary, Markey seemed shocked to discover he has a rival who wants to see if he’s up to it.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.

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