Updated 2:59 p.m. | President Barack Obama has vowed to fulfill his 2008 campaign promise to close Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, military prison, with two detainees having already been transferred abroad this week.
But Democrats running for Congress in a year when national security has ascended to the forefront of voters’ minds are making campaign promises of their own that don’t necessarily align with helping the president fulfill his 8-year-old pledge.
In Congress and on the campaign trail, Republicans say the facility will be around forever under their watch, setting up a fundamental contrast between the president and the Republican Party about what’s a bigger threat to national security — closing the facility or keeping it open.
Even if sympathetic to the president’s argument that the prison fuels terrorist recruitment and drains federal money that could be more efficiently spent against terrorism, Democratic candidates aren’t as vocal about the desire to close the facility right away.
“He’s not running for election,” said one Democratic operative who works on campaigns when asked about the split in messaging between the president and candidates seeking House and Senate seats.
Down-ballot Democratic candidates have instead prefaced their messages about Guantánamo with pledges of American security and safety.
When New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan announced her campaign for Senate in October, she said she’d consider closing the facility — “but only in a context that ensures the protection of U.S. citizens,” according to the New Hampshire Union Leader.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, who led a congressional delegation to the prison in October, called on the president to halt all detainee transfers abroad late last year and has questioned Hassan’s position on the issue as part of her national security-themed attacks on the Democratic governor.
“Kelly has heard from many Granite Staters who are worried about how the President’s campaign promise to close Guantánamo Bay would harm our national security,” said campaign spokeswoman Chloe Rockow. “While Kelly has led the fight against the administration’s policy of transferring dangerous terrorists out of Gitmo, Governor Hassan has refused to even tell voters whether she stands with President Obama and Washington Democrats who want to bring terrorists to U.S. soil.”
Hassan hasn’t walked back her suggestion she’d consider closing the facility, but she’s prioritizing security in her official statements, which puts some distance between her and the president — not a surprise coming from the only Democratic governor to break with the administration and call for a temporary halt to the resettlement of Syrian refugees after the Paris terrorist attacks.
“The governor believes our first priority must always be to keep our citizens safe and protect America’s security and that Guantánamo should not be closed until there’s a concrete plan in place to ensure the safety of our citizens and that prisoners won’t return to the battlefield,” Hassan campaign spokesman Aaron Jacobs said on Dec. 29.
Meanwhile, New Hampshire voters are hearing quite a lot about Guantánamo from presidential candidates this week.
“When I am president,” Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said in a Monday national security speech there, “foreign terrorists caught overseas will receive a one-way ticket to Guantánamo where we will interrogate them and gather as much information as we can to prevent future plots.”
Also in the Granite State, America Leads, the super PAC supporting New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, debuted an ad Tuesday in which Christie responds to a town hall respondent’s question, “Keep every rotten dangerous terrorist who’s there and never let them go.”
Obama signed an executive order in 2009 to review all the detainees in preparation for closing the facility. It’s still open, in large part because Congressional Republicans have opposed closing it and, as Reuters reported late last year, Pentagon officials have routinely stalled efforts to relocate prisoners.
Congressional Republicans included language prohibiting transfers to U.S. prisons in the National Defense Authorization Act and the omnibus, both of which the president signed late last year.
“Nobody wants KSM living next door, even if it’s in a supermax,” one Republican operative said Tuesday referring to 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
Republicans initially tried to target Colorado Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet and 6th District Democratic candidate Morgan Carroll for supporting closing the prison.
The National Republican Congressional Committee launched radio ads against Carroll, while Rep. Mike Coffman pounced on Carroll in a fundraising email, asking, “How could Morgan Carroll possibly be good for Colorado when she won’t even stand up for our state on an issue as clear as this?”
But both Bennet and Carroll have said they would only want the facility closed if there was a secure way to relocate the prisoners.
“It is absurd to say that I, or anyone else, wants to bring terrorists to Colorado,” Carroll said in a statement.
“The Department of Defense has no authority to transfer these prisoners or make such modifications and they have made no case that it makes sense to do so,” Bennet said in October.
The administration hasn’t ruled out taking executive action to close the prison this year, but having taken relocation of prisoners to the U.S. off the table in at least the near term, Republicans are zeroing in on what vulnerable Illinois Sen. Mark S. Kirk on Tuesday called the “reckless” relocation of detainees abroad.
“People don’t trust that the administration knows how to tackle this threat,” a GOP operative said. “I think it’s still a very scary issue.”
Meanwhile, in the new year, the president has shifted toward another of his priorities that has been hard to achieve: gun control. So far, that’s a promise that some Democratic candidates have found to be more pertinent to their own campaigns, with many trying to push a ban on people listed on the terrorist watch list from buying guns as a national security issue.