Vulnerable Republican incumbents are increasingly raising fears about Guantánamo Bay detainees, following a campaign strategy used by Scott Brown before his surprise victory in a Massachusetts special election for a Senate seat six years ago.
On Monday, Sen. Mark S. Kirk of Illinois put forward a bill that would add Iran and Sudan to the list of troubled countries to which the military is not allowed to transfer Guantánamo detainees. He declared that “allowing the transfer of these dangerous criminals to terror hot spots only makes it easier for them to rejoin in the fight against America.”
On Tuesday, Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire proposed a bill that would bar the transfer of any more Guantánamo detainees, regardless of the individual circumstances, to other countries until at least October 2017. She declared that the Obama administration’s “dangerous releases” have “allowed terrorists to return to the battlefield.”
Kirk and Ayotte both won their seats in the 2010 midterm elections as part of the Republicans’ sweeping wave of victories that year, but they are in danger of losing this fall because their states are leaning to the Democrats; Illinois and New Hampshire voted for President Barack Obama in 2012.
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They and three other Republicans who face similar challenges are using Guantánamo as a major campaign theme, adding to a recent pattern that has prompted Obama to observe that his proposal to close the prison — which he argues costs too much and fuels anti-U.S. sentiment — is “a hard case to make” because “it’s easy to demagogue the issue.”
But with control of the Senate at stake in this election, the success or failure of the Guantánamo strategy may carry consequences far beyond the fate of the prison. If a Democrat wins the presidential election, he or she will have a far easier time governing — including filling Supreme Court vacancies — if Democrats pick up at least four Senate seats and regain a majority.
Another endangered Republican is Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, a state that Obama carried in 2012. Last month, Johnson declared that every remaining detainee was among the “worst of the worst” and should be “locked up forever.” In February, he introduced a bill called the Terrorist Release Transparency Act. It would force the government essentially to make public, two weeks before any transfer, who is leaving and where he will go, a step that could complicate the ability to reach the diplomatic deals that make many of the transfers possible.
And the campaign websites of Pennsylvania’s Patrick J. Toomey and Ohio’s Rob Portman, the other two Republican senators running for re-election in states won by Obama, feature petitions against the president’s plan to close the prison and to move the remaining detainees to a prison on domestic soil. A page on Portman’s website juxtaposes a black-and-white photograph of the prison with a colorful photograph of a farm and invites visitors to “Stand with Rob against Closing Guantánamo Bay and bringing terrorists to America!”
The candidates hope that highlighting Guantánamo will not only spur more Republicans to vote but also appeal to independents and moderate Democrats. A nationwide poll in March by The New York Times and CBS News found that Republicans favored keeping the prison open by 74 to 19 percent. Independents favored keeping it open 48 to 39 percent. Thirty-eight percent of Democrats said it should stay open, while 52 percent wanted it closed.
Still, the candidates’ proposals can lack policy nuance. For example, Kirk’s bill barring the military from sending detainees to Iran or Sudan appears to be unnecessary. Current law already bans the transfer of detainees to countries deemed to be state sponsors of terrorism, and Iran and Sudan are both on that list. And none of the 89 remaining detainees are from either of those countries.
While Ayotte is warning about the risk that detainees transferred by the Obama administration will return to the battlefield, intelligence data shows that all but seven of the 118 former detainees who are confirmed to have engaged in terrorist activity after their release (out of 676 transfers as of the most recent report) left the prison under the Bush administration. Those transferred as a result of the more individualized Obama-era decision-making process have been far less likely to cause problems.
And despite Johnson’s claim that every detainee who remains in the prison is the “worst of the worst,” none of the 35 recommended for transfer, if security conditions can be met in the receiving country, are linked to any terrorist plot. Most of them are Yemenis who went to Afghanistan before the 2001 terrorist attacks and are accused only of training to help the Taliban fight the Northern Alliance. They are stranded because their home country has been too chaotic to repatriate them.
The strategy of Republican Senate candidates running in Democratic-leaning states by striking a hard line on terrorism detainee issues traces to the Jan. 19, 2010, special election to fill the Massachusetts Senate seat left vacant by Edward M. Kennedy’s death.
Brown had been expected to lose, but after the attempted destruction of a Detroit-bound plane on Dec. 25, 2009, by a terrorist who hid a bomb in his underwear, Brown pounded on the theme that the Obama administration should have sent the terrorist to Guantánamo rather than handling him in the criminal justice system. (It later emerged that FBI interrogators persuaded the terrorist to provide large amounts of intelligence, and a civilian court later sentenced him to life in prison.)
While many commentators portrayed that election as a rebellion against the Affordable Care Act, Neil Newhouse, a Republican pollster who helped the Brown campaign, said that was a misconception. The health care issue did make the race closer, he said, but that issue was already “baked in” for voters by early January 2010, when an internal campaign poll found that Brown was going to lose to the Democrat, Martha Coakley, by 10 points.
But that same poll, Newhouse said, also showed that voters preferred by an overwhelming margin — 61 to 29 percent — handling terrorists as enemy combatants, not criminals. The Brown campaign jumped on that theme, even producing a television ad.
“The terrorist issue was ‘new information’ to voters, it was timely and important, and it moved the electorate in our direction,” Newhouse wrote in a recent email. Along with a strong debate performance by Brown nine days before the election, he said, “it made the difference.”
From that moment, some Republicans seized on the Brown campaign strategy. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican Senate leader, said in February 2010, “I tell my members, ‘Hey, you can campaign on these issues anywhere in America — as Scott Brown demonstrated in the most liberal state in America.’”