Politics

Winning an Election Is More Dangerous Than It Used to Be

Pelosi looks down at her notes as she stands behind a podium.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi at the Capitol in September. Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

For a congressional reporter like Liz Goodwin, today is a weird day. It’s the day most of the people she reports on will find out if they still have jobs. It’s the day she’ll find out whether, next year, instead of covering the Jan. 6 committee, she’ll be covering an investigation into … Hunter Biden.

And it is also the culmination of a bitter campaign season. “Election Day in some ways feels like a relief,” Goodwin said, “because it just feels like each campaign cycle is getting longer and longer, and the atmosphere around them is more and more toxic.”

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Goodwin has been thinking about this toxic environment a lot lately, and not just because it’s her workplace. Through the summer, she’s reported on attack after attack on the politicians she relies on as sources. In July, a man assaulted New York gubernatorial candidate and congressman Lee Zeldin. That same month a different man was arrested in front of Rep. Pramila Jayapal’s house—he’d threated to kill the leader of the progressive caucus. Then, of course, there was the attack just the other week, when an intruder broke into Nancy Pelosi’s home and hit her husband over the head with a hammer.

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Pretty much immediately, Goodwin connected what happened to Paul Pelosi to another incident in which an armed man showed up outside Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s house. This was back in June, when the country was waiting for the Supreme Court decision that would overturn Roe v. Wade. Like Pelosi’s attacker, Kavanaugh’s showed up in the middle of the night, with zip ties and a plan. And as in the Pelosi case, Kavanaugh was not home, so his security detail wasn’t either. It revealed just how vulnerable politicians and their families are right now.

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On Tuesday’s episode of What Next, as you head into the voting booth, I spoke with Liz Goodwin of the Washington Post about how winning an election is more dangerous than it used to be. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Mary Harris: In the wake of the attack last month on Paul Pelosi, it’s clear that political violence is on the minds of many of us. A poll released just last week showed that 9 out of 10 Americans say they’re “concerned” about the growing threat. 

Goodwin first heard about the attack on Paul Pelosi in the early morning hours a couple of Fridays back. Her colleagues had started sending around a statement from Nancy Pelosi’s office, which was short but alarming. It said the speaker’s husband was hospitalized, and that the motivations for his assault were “under investigation.”  

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Liz Goodwin: It was incredibly shocking. A million questions immediately flowed from the first statement.

Can you tell me about the reaction among members of Congress? Because these are folks who know that their job can be dangerous, and in some way may have been primed for news like this. But I imagine if you’ve been through Jan. 6 as a congressperson and then you see this attack, it must be another thing that’s making you more upset.

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Yeah, for sure. There’s Democratic members who lived through Jan. 6 and found they were having trouble getting over it. They were still reliving a lot of the violence. So, they formed a support group chat afterward. And that chat has been very active in the days since the attack because it is bringing up a lot of the same fears that lawmakers have had since Jan. 6. It makes everyone feel vulnerable. And most members of Congress have a crazy voicemail on their phone or have had someone yell at them in front of their house. And when they see this happening to Pelosi’s husband in her home, it underscores that everyone’s at risk.

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Over the past decade, threats to lawmakers have mushroomed. While the Capitol Police recorded about 900 of them in 2016, they documented more than 9,000 threats of political violence in 2021. Members of Congress have been worried for their safety since at least 2011. That’s when Democratic Rep. Gabby Giffords was shot while meeting with constituents in a supermarket parking lot. 

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2011 was definitely covered as an assassination attempt, but it also lacked some coherence because the shooter himself had a confused ideology. It didn’t seem connected to him having read some conspiracy about her or feeling hate toward her due to some political ideology. That made it feel a little bit separate. It definitely underscored how vulnerable members are, but it didn’t feel like part of a growing problem with rhetoric that encouraged violence. The next assassination attempt would be the 2017 baseball shooting, where someone who hates Republicans attacks a group of lawmakers who are practicing for a baseball game and ends up shooting Steve Scalise, a Republican from Louisiana. That felt more connected to heated, heightened political feelings. And to me, that is when we enter this new phase.

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A lot of people have pointed out the way the Republican Party has targeted Nancy Pelosi in particular for years now, and the result of that is that she is one of the most threatened members of Congress. Can you tell me how Nancy Pelosi became a target?

She became a target when she became the first woman speaker of the House. And then, she was just the face of Democrats from that point forward. 2010 was the midterm election where the tea party got really fired up. And she was an incredibly motivating part of that. It was Obama, it was Pelosi—their faces, looming in ads.

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Notably a Black man and a woman.

Right. She’s very easy to characterize, to lampoon. She’s the San Francisco woman, the typical liberal boogeyman in some ways. And that’s been gold for Republicans for a really long time. It’s impressive the staying power, as well, because even in this election, we’ve done analysis about topics in Republican political ads. And she is up there.

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The U.S. Capitol Police say the threats against her are just in a league of their own. She’s someone who’s attracted so much vitriol on the right consistently. And as the atmosphere in general got more toxic, the threats against her got more serious and more voluminous.

And Republicans have run ads that mocked her, dehumanized her. One Republican actually wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post, basically saying, “Sorry, I ran a campaign that was encouraging folks to fire Pelosi, and it had fire around her. And the rhetoric was too hot.” Are you hearing any Republicans in power talking seriously about moderating their rhetoric at all?

I have not heard that discussion. There are Republicans who privately will say that they don’t like how Trump changed the tenor of political discourse, and that has ramifications not just for Democrats, but also for Republicans. When Jan. 6 happened, the crowd was screaming, “Hang Mike Pence,” who’s a Republican. And there were a lot of Senate Republicans who privately would say, “That could be me. That could be anyone.” There’s nothing that protects you if Trump decides to focus the rage of his supporters on you. But I’m not seeing that translate into widespread condemnation. I’ve seen some general calls to tone down the political rhetoric, but nothing at the soul-searching level.

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The way security works for members of Congress has been changing in the past few years, but very slowly. Since only political leaders are guaranteed a security detail, some members end up spending thousands of dollars of campaign funds to stay safe. Which has many politicians wondering what’s fair here. At the same time, the Capitol Police, who are assigned to protect them, say they are impossibly stretched.

The U.S. Capitol Police have talked about how they’re lacking resources. They were given more money in 2018 to beef up training, to hire more officers. But it continues to be an issue, which is something we saw after the Jan. 6 attack as well. They’re begging for more officers, and it’s partially a resources issue, it’s partially a recruitment issue. Morale has obviously been very low since the Jan. 6 attack. But there’s also the overarching limitation, which is that they don’t protect members of Congress when they’re not in the building, unless you are a member of the leadership team. There’s about 10 people who get that protection. And then in the past year, they extended protection to members of the Jan. 6 committee because the volume of threats was just so high.

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Last week, the head of the Capitol Police basically admitted that he doesn’t have enough resources to protect members.

He’s been very candid about it. Part of it is because he knows Congress gets to decide how much money and resources the Capitol Police get to have.

I was struck by the fact that lawmakers were given up to $10,000 just in August to set up security systems in their homes. So, it’s not something they’re unconcerned about, but the head of the Capitol Police is saying, “We need more.” And that seems like a challenge to have the members give more money for themselves, essentially.

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It is, yes. Especially if Republicans take back the House, it’s hard to imagine a big boost in security for members, because Republicans are already wary of the political optics of any kind of extra money for members of Congress. There’s also been some politicization of the security issues within Congress because, for example, after Jan. 6, Pelosi had metal detectors installed outside of the House floor. And that’s been a huge point of contention for Republicans.

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It’s interesting that you highlight this issue with the magnetometers, because it draws this connection between political violence and outside actors, and the members themselves and how they’re deeply involved with stoking some of the violence that we’re seeing. I was thinking about that because I remember really clearly an incident from right after Jan. 6 where Missouri Rep. Cori Bush and Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene had been assigned to offices right next to each other. And it became a big deal; they were fighting. And they moved offices to be away from each other. And to me, it was this incident where you realize, like, huh, the political violence. Yes, it’s on the outside, but the call is also coming from inside the house. And I wonder if you’re seeing that too, which is how heightened rhetoric around political violence is spilling out to the members themselves.

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Yes. For some of the members who are more from the fringes of the party, that’s been an issue since Jan. 6. One of the reasons Pelosi wanted the magnetometers was because she pointed out that there were some Republican members who appeared to be tweeting where her location was, for example. That was an issue she had with Lauren Boebert. And Marjorie Taylor Greene had been friendly with some people who ended up leading the insurrection. And before she was a member of Congress, she had said Pelosi should be executed for treason or something along those lines.

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And that’s the exact kind of rhetoric you’re seeing from people who are actually carrying out some of the violence. So Pelosi was making the point that the threat is coming from within the House, and we need magnetometers until everyone’s trustworthy, basically. And that’s part of why Republicans resent it, because they reject that characterization.

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It’s hard not to listen to you, though, and think that there’s a political party, the Republicans, that shares the blame for this rhetoric, and I would say potentially the violence as well.

The fact that not every single prominent Republican immediately condemned what happened to Paul Pelosi definitely represents a shift compared to past years, and is worrisome and raises questions about how much the party as a whole is rejecting an act of political violence. Seeing Donald Trump’s son make fun of this attack and refer to a conspiracy theory that’s trying to basically erase the fact that this is an act of political violence.

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Donald Trump Jr. tweeted out his Halloween costume was Paul Pelosi, and it was a picture of men’s underwear and a hammer.

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Right. And, there was another Republican lawmaker who ended up deleting a tweet but had made a tasteless joke about it. That’s pretty shocking. But what some Republicans are saying is that they are targets of political violence, too, and they sometimes feel like the attacks against Republicans don’t get as much attention, like Lee Zeldin, the Republican candidate for governor in New York, getting stabbed on stage. So, their retort is that this is happening to members of both parties.

But the reaction is so different. I don’t think you could find one Democrat who would say, “Well, it’s just really no biggie that Brett Kavanaugh had someone outside his house threatening his life.” I think every Democrat would say, “That’s bad. Let’s talk about it.”

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Yeah, that’s what is kind of different and worrisome is the erasure of what happened to Paul Pelosi that was endorsed by people on the right. That’s very scary because if we can’t even agree that this happened, then you’re basically erasing political violence when it’s targeting Democrats, which is a tacit endorsement.

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I’m wondering what you’re looking for on Election Day that tells you more about where this is headed. I’m looking at Arizona, for instance, where there’s been a dispute about poll watchers. Do you see that as an extension of what happened with Paul Pelosi and what you’ve seen ramping up over the past few years?

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I absolutely see the threats against poll workers and nonpartisan election workers as an extension of what happened to Paul Pelosi, because these are just hardworking bureaucrats who are trying to do their very unglamorous job of making the basic tenet of our democracy work. And they are now facing threats and harassment. They’re retiring at a record clip because of it. There are people who are so angry and so convinced of lies about the 2020 election that they’re taking it out on just regular people. That’s very similar to David DePape allegedly being very mad about 2020 and a bunch of other conspiracy theories, and wanting to break Nancy Pelosi’s kneecaps over it. It’s just this toxic mix of powerful motivating lies that have convinced a lot of extreme people on the fringes of society.

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As I was thinking about this Nancy Pelosi story, I couldn’t help but think about how back in the summer, Republican Adam Kinzinger tweeted out these voicemails he’d gotten, allegedly from constituents—people threatening him, his family, basically for not being pro-Trump enough, for being on the Jan. 6 committee.

And it made me wonder: When does running for office become prohibitively dangerous? We’re already seeing people like Kinzinger just basically say, “I’m out, I’m not doing this anymore.” And then it becomes this question of like, Well, hold it, who’s left here? Are members asking themselves that question?

I think so. That is a question you’re hearing more and more, especially on the Democratic side, though, obviously, Kinzinger is Republican. Is it worth it if 30 percent of the country thinks that my party stole an election or that Democrats are part of this, like, QAnon pedophile conspiracy theory? Is it even possible to win people over or convince people that you’re trying to represent them when such powerful lies have convinced so many of them?

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