Boston Bombings Change Massachusetts Senate Race

Bombings prompted candidates to put campaigns on hold, change issue focus.

April 29, 2013, 6:49 PM

April 30, 2013 — -- Since the afternoon of April 15, the residents of Massachusetts have been focused on the bombing that hit the state's signature sporting event, the Boston Marathon, leaving three dead and more than 260 injured.

However, even before the attacks, interest wasn't high in the special election to fill the Senate seat John Kerry vacated when he became secretary of state. Voters will cast their ballots in both the Democratic and Republican primaries today and turnout is expected to be low.

"Certainly, it has been overshadowed in the sense that the drama and the pain of the April 15 bombing made it look less important but, on the other hand, no one was paying attention to [the special election] before the bombing," Tufts political science professor Jeffrey Berry said. "The race hasn't gained traction and this added to that. There was always going to be a tiny turnout anyway."

All five of the candidates suspended campaigning for the week after the bombings and have had to figure out the delicate balance since they started up again, but Berry chalked up the lack of interest not just to the bombings, but to election fatigue for Bay State residents, as well.

He added that there's a different feel than there was when Scott Brown beat state Attorney General Martha Coakley for an open Senate seat in 2010.

"There isn't the sort of anger out there like the last special election where we were at the bottom of the recession that propelled Scott Brown into office," Berry said, adding the third reason is a "dispirited" state Republican Party that lost both the 2012 Senate election, when then-Sen. Brown fell to Elizabeth Warren, and the 2010 gubernatorial election, won by Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick.

The electorate is largely undecided, according to polls, but the most recent survey done by Western New England University and taken between April 11 and 18 showed U.S. Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., ahead of U.S. Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., 44 to 34 percent.

As for the Republicans, the poll showed businessman and former Navy SEAL Gabriel Gomez with 33 percent, former acting director of the ATF and former U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan with 27 percent and state legislator and Mitt Romney's former senior legal counsel Dan Winslow with 9 percent.

Dan Payne, a longtime political consultant and advisor to Markey, said the bombings "froze things the way they were," but it also changed the conversation from the economy to homeland security and national defense, with Lynch trying to "argue that Markey is soft on homeland security, but that hasn't really stuck."

Payne thinks the full stop the bombing put on campaigning hurt Lynch more than Markey's campaign.

"Lynch told the state party he had a two-week "Get Out the Vote" program," Payne said. "The first of those two weeks was the marathon bombing. That week was essentially wiped out. You couldn't make phone calls, you had to wait it out. So Lynch only had one week to conduct a GOTV program, while Markey lost a week. So losing a week didn't hurt him as much as Lynch."

He added that the Markey team will have 5,000 volunteers getting out the vote for Markey today. Berry, too, noted Markey's team was very "well organized."

Lynch rolled out an ad on focusing exclusively on the tragedy with no mention of the campaign besides for the required language at the end of the ad approving its message. He was the only candidate to do so.

"My heart goes out to those affected by this unthinkable terrorist attack," Lynch said, speaking directly to the camera. "I want to thank those whose actions saved lives and the police whose heroic efforts brought it all to an end."

Markey's ads have been more focused on his support of abortion rights and gun control. Gomez was running a bio ad introducing himself to voters, which Berry believed had helped him with name recognition in the state. Wilson was running an ad touting his many newspaper endorsements, including ones from the Boston Globe and Boston Herald.

Scott Ferson, senior advisor to Lynch, said the bombings "certainly changed the dynamic" of the race with the focus of last week's debate on homeland security and national defense. But, as for how it affected the electorate, Ferson said that question can't be answered until Tuesday.

"I think both campaigns lost time that week, but they both suspended activities ... whatever the affect was, it was equal," Ferson said, disagreeing with Payne.

Ferson said they decided to go with an ad focusing on the tragedy to "keep a presence on TV," but also because they thought it was "inappropriate to just go back to the standard issues. This is what people were thinking about."

Lynch was directly affected by the bombings. He has been friends with the family of Martin Richard, an 8-year-old killed in the attack, for more than 20 years.

It was a very different Democratic primary than the one playing out now just weeks ago with the more liberal Markey touting his support for the president's signature health care law and Lynch trying to appeal to blue-collar Democratic voters by running on his rejection of the law.

Republican candidate Gomez was running in the marathon, himself, and crossed the finish line just minutes before the bombs exploded. He would soon suspend his campaign.

"That close to an important election, losing any time campaigning ... is a detriment," said Will Ritter, Gomez's spokesman. "But he felt [it] was important to do."

Gomez spent the last four days on a bus tour around the state making 58 stops, during which Ritter said he focused on retail campaigning and visited with firefighters and police departments all over the state "thanking them for their service."

Charles Pearce, spokesman for the Winslow campaign, agreed that the focus of the race changed from the economy to "national security issues, how to classify [the suspects] and prevent further attacks."

"We are moving forward with the election on Tuesday as we planned and it shows democracy prevails even under the most trying of circumstances," Pearce said.

Pearce was confident that the new ad the Winslow campaign was running touting its endorsements was coming out at the perfect time because voters were just "tuning in now" because of the bombings.

Sullivan is the most conservative of the Republican candidates, something his opponents have been eager to point out so they can paint him as not in step with most Massachusetts voters. However, the bombings have "highlighted" that Sullivan was the former acting director of the ATF and a former U.S. attorney who prosecuted the "shoe bomber" Richard Reid during his tenure, spokeswoman Alicia Preston said. He was even on television after the bombings not as a candidate for U.S. Senate, but as an expert on the issue, including on ABC News.

Preston said the bombings affected "every campaign in the same light" and it was an "even playing field in how it affected the activities of each campaign," but it showed that Sullivan was "tried and tested in the field of national security."

Both Gomez and Sullivan have called for the citizenship of the surviving suspect Dzokhar Tsarnaev to be revoked and for him to be treated as an enemy combatant.

"I think whenever a national security event occurs that comes back to people's minds," Preston said. "He's tough on this, he's a leader and he's got the experience."

Whoever wins Tuesday will face off in the general election on June 25.

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