Tom Menino, who delighted in hurling his substantial political girth into contests around the state and beyond, will hold sway over one more election.
Menino’s death on Thursday, five days before voters pick a new governor along with candidates for a wide variety of offices, set the statewide campaign into a temporary freeze. Even before his passing, as news of the seriousness of his illness spread through political circles, campaign strategists were quietly calculating how the death of one of the state’s best-known figures might factor into their hotly contested races.
Commemorating the 20-year former mayor will consume much of the political class’s attention over the remainder of the campaign. That dynamic probably restricts the volatility of the race.
The TV airwaves were still awash Thursday in campaign ads, and will most likely stay that way through the election, but the space for aggressive last-minute pitches has shrunken.
The news could most affect Democratic Attorney General Martha Coakley, who is trailing Republican Charlie Baker in several gubernatorial campaign polls. A transcendent outside event like Menino’s death may have eliminated her last chance to close the gap suggested in those polls.
Coverage of Menino’s death on Thursday quickly overshadowed lingering questions over a story Baker told in Tuesday’s debate about a fisherman he met — an anecdote that his campaign has failed to substantiate.
Decorum in the wake of such events also discourages the kind of negative attacks that trailing candidates frequently use in the closing days of a race.
On Monday, when the campaigns would typically be throwing themselves into the frenzied final hours of election-eve campaigning, much of the state will be transfixed by Menino’s procession from Faneuil Hall and funeral Mass at Most Precious Blood Church in Hyde Park, where he was baptized.
Political strategists were reluctant to speak for the record about the electoral consequences of a city grieving its longtime leader, because discussing it publicly could be viewed as crass. But the broad agreement in both parties was that the race has now been largely locked in place.
“The mayor’s passing, the reminiscences about his life, his legacy, his impact on our city may very well overwhelm the campaign here in the last several days,” said Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel F. Conley, who said he was the first paid campaign worker on Menino’s first City Council campaign in 1983.
“All Menino, all the time,” Conley said. “I’d imagine that’s exactly how the TV stations are going to handle it, you guys in the print media, so people are going to take their eye off the ball here.”
Baker said he was suspending campaign events on Thursday and Friday. Coakley canceled events Thursday, saying she would probably resume campaign activities on Friday.
But on Thursday evening, she showed up at a prayer service at Morning Star Baptist Church in Mattapan honoring Menino. She spoke at the event, which was originally scheduled as a get-out-the-vote rally. Coakley said after the gathering that when she heard a memorial service was being held, she felt it was important to attend.
Governor Deval Patrick maintained his political schedule, rallying supporters for Democrats as a surrogate at three events on Thursday.
Although Menino and Coakley were not particularly close political allies, some Democrats said privately that there was the possibility of a rally-around-the-flag effect, a surge in voter turnout in Boston, a city Coakley is expected to carry.
Cold political analysis in the face of emotion-stirring events is nothing new on the cusp of elections. The Sept. 11 attacks disrupted the 2001 special election primary to pick a successor to the late US Representative Joe Moakley, who had died of cancer that year. Despite, or perhaps because of, the attacks, turnout exceeded expectations.
The 2008 presidential election was jolted by the financial crisis that boiled over in September of that year, throwing the campaign of Arizona Senator John McCain, the Republican nominee, off balance.
In 2012, Hurricane Sandy slammed the East Coast scarcely a week before the election. Many analysts felt President Obama’s actions, and appearances with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, firmed up his support over Mitt Romney.
Last year, candidates in the special election to succeed former Senator John F. Kerry, who had left to become secretary of state, suspended their campaigns after the Marathon bombings struck Boston just two weeks before the primary.
Scott Ferson was a consultant to US Representative Stephen F. Lynch’s first campaign for Congress, when the primary fell on Sept. 11, 2001, and during last year’s Senate campaign.
“You had to do advertising in a general election, but there was no good way to do it,” Ferson said of the first race, in which Lynch ultimately beat state Senator Jo Ann Sprague. “Sept. 11 was so epic.”
The tragic circumstances were no easier to grasp the second time around, but the politics of campaigning were.
“You knew you had to stop,” said Ferson. “We know now the protocol is to stand down.”
That can be difficult for campaigns to accept when they have a limited number of days to sway voters. But it’s far harder for voters to accept a candidate who forges on with campaigning in a way that can be viewed as “unseemly,” he said.
“This is kind of life trumping politics,” Ferson said. “And people expect a healthy respect for politics halting while an important life event goes on.”