GOP candidate in Mass. special election rolls dice on 9/11 imagery

With less than a week to go and a special-election victory in sight, Republican Jim Ogonowski has put his family’s Sept. 11, 2001, tragedy front and center in his campaign, inserting a wild card into his upset bid in Massachusetts’s 5th district.

On Tuesday, his campaign launched a new ad that features a still shot of a plane about to strike the World Trade Center and talks about Ogonowski’s support for his brother’s family after his brother died that day.

The ad’s launch signifies how far Ogonowski has come but also circles back to the issue that initially helped him stand out in the race to replace former Rep. Marty Meehan (D).

Shortly after Ogonowski announced his candidacy for the special election in April, he declared that his brother’s death in the 2001 terrorist attacks would play a role but would not be “at the forefront” of his campaign.

Despite the state’s famously liberal leanings, Tuesday’s outcome is up in the air. Democratic nominee Niki Tsongas has enlisted the help of numerous party leaders, including former President Bill Clinton and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), and has directly engaged Ogonowski in recent days, comparing their stances on issues.

Both are signs of a close race, and Democrats are conceding that an upset is possible.

The ad is likely to cause a stir. It comes less than two months after a pro-Iraq war group, Freedom’s Watch, used a strikingly similar image in an ad pleading with viewers to support the war effort.

Both the Freedom’s Watch ad and the Ogonowski ad were created by a firm called Jamestown Associates.

Such subjects are generally considered taboo, and images of Sept. 11 weren’t used much, if at all, in 2006.

Last year, Republicans and some Democrats objected vehemently to a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) Internet ad that featured flag-draped coffins. The DCCC pulled the ad.

Ogonowski said Tuesday that including the Sept. 11 image wasn’t a difficult decision.

“That’s part of history, no different than seeing the images of Pearl Harbor,” he said. “It was just something that I had to think about — how we wanted to portray it. I think it adequately represents what happened to us that day.”

David Wasserman, a House race analyst with The Cook Political Report, said Ogonowski is wading into “uncharted territory” and that the move is risky.

“His aim is clearly to emphasize his efforts to go to bat for his family with the federal government after 9/11, but some voters will still be confused: the ad seems to paint Jim Ogonowski as a good consoler rather than a good leader,” Wasserman said. “That’s a very unusual appeal.”
Wasserman said Ogonowski is “within five yards” of winning, but that the last five will be extremely difficult to get.

Ogonowski said in May that he had only been talking about Sept. 11 — the day his brother piloted a plane that was hijacked and flown into a World Trade Center tower — when he was asked about it.

He told The Hill that Sept. 11 would be “inter-related with some other aspects of the campaign,” one example being when the Iraq war is discussed.

“It will not be the forefront of my campaign, but it is part of who I am today,” he said.

Unlike Freedom’s Watch, Ogonowski is somewhat shielded from criticism for the move because of his personal connection to the events. But Democrats have yet to speak out against either Ogonowski or Freedom’s Watch for their use of the Sept. 11 imagery, and Tsongas’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment.

Massachusetts Democratic consultant Michael Goldman said the ad is an extension of Ogonowski’s message to run as an “affable guy.”

“I knew people casually who were in that building. … It’s got to be awful,” Goldman said. “But races for Congress are not about who we feel badly about. It’s who best understands, cares about and can do something for me and my family.”

To Ogonowski, though, the ad is not about people feeling sorry for him as much as it is about his character and what kind of representative he would be.

“When my family needed me most, I stepped up,” he said. “I was thrust into a different role that day. … I’m proud of what I did there.”