By CHRISTINA A. CASSIDY Associated Press
Two years since the attack on the U.S. Capitol, a series of drive-by shootings targeting Democrats in New Mexico is a violent reminder that the false claims about a stolen election persist in posing a danger to public officials and the country’s democratic institutions.
While no one was hurt in the Albuquerque attacks, this latest outburst of political violence underscores how election denialism has become deeply embedded across much of the country and how it is driving grievance-filled anger over the nation’s politics and officeholders.
Over the past year, the husband of former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was seriously injured in an attack in his home by an assailant who said he was sick of the “lies coming out of Washington D.C.,” election workers were intimidated and harassed, and prosecutors won convictions in a plot to kidnap Michigan’s governor.
Further sign of the unrelenting threat came this week when authorities arrested a Republican candidate for the New Mexico House who had refused to accept his loss in last fall’s election. Police said Solomon Peña hired four people to shoot at the homes of four Democratic lawmakers.
“I think we are really entering a new era where political rhetoric has gotten so heated and people with mental health issues or extreme conspiratorial viewpoints on the world have resorted to political violence,” New Mexico Attorney General Raúl Torrez, who took office Jan. 1, said in a recent interview with The Associated Press.
He wants the Legislature to address political violence and said he plans to talk with the secretary of state’s office about ways to shield some information about elected officials or candidates from public disclosure.
Torrez noted that other countries have become destabilized when extremists use threats and intimidation rather than work through the institutions of government. He said such violence is destabilizing and needs to be dealt with forcefully.
“It is a threat to the very fabric and foundation of a democratic republic,” he said.
Lies by former President Donald Trump and his allies about the 2020 presidential election led to the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, as well as threats and harassment against state and local election officials. The insurrection in Washington also contributed to a drop in confidence in election results among Republicans.
Some election deniers ran last year for offices that oversee elections, as well as for governor and attorney general — all losing in battleground states. The turn to violence in New Mexico suggests the lasting impact of the campaign by Trump and his allies to discredit the 2020 race he lost and sow doubt about how elections are run.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre called the allegations “horrifying and shocking,” adding the Biden administration has “emphasized the dangerous ways in which conspiracy theories and disinformation can lead some individuals to violence.”
A large segment of Republicans, 58%, still believe Democrat Joe Biden’s victory in 2020 was not legitimate, according to an October poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
Peña, a 39-year-old felon and self-proclaimed “MAGA king,” faces multiple charges in the Albuquerque-area attacks on the homes of two state lawmakers and two county officials, including one house where a 10-year-old girl was asleep. Peña had refused to accept his landslide loss in November when he won just 26% of the vote in a state House race in Albuquerque against the longtime Democratic incumbent, Rep. Miguel P. Garcia.
Peña parroted Trump’s rhetoric, claiming without evidence that the House race had been “rigged” against him. There has been no evidence of fraud or widespread problems in New Mexico’s election.
Peña, who is being held without bond, appeared briefly in court Wednesday on charges that include multiple counts of shooting at a home, aggravated battery with a deadly weapon, conspiracy and being a felon in possession of a firearm. He spent nine years behind bars after his arrest in April 2007 for stealing electronics and other goods from several retail stores as part of what authorities described as a burglary crew. He was released from prison in 2016, and had his voting rights restored after completing five years probation in April 2021, corrections officials said.
Peña did not speak at the hearing, and a message to his attorney was not immediately returned.
The New Mexico Republican Party said in a statement that Peña should be prosecuted “to the full extent of the law” if he is found guilty.
There also was no evidence of widespread fraud or manipulation of voting machines in the 2020 election, and Biden’s win was affirmed after exhaustive reviews in the states where Trump disputed his loss. Dozens of judges — including some appointed by Trump — rejected lawsuits by Trump and his allies challenging the outcome, and Trump’s own attorney general, William Barr, said the fraud claims were bogus.
Despite that, the conspiracy theories surrounding the presidential election have prompted a surge in threats and harassment of state and local election officials.
Cases like the one in New Mexico might seem random but are not, said John Farmer Jr., director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University and a former New Jersey attorney general.
“They are the logical endpoint of this culture of challenging the legitimacy of our democratic processes,” he said.
Farmer said curbing that kind of political violence depends in part on filing the most serious charges possible and aggressively prosecuting cases.
David Levine, a fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy and a former elections official in Idaho, said extremism fueled by anti-democratic figures and conspiracy theories is an acute threat. He advocated for better information-sharing among intelligence and law enforcement agencies as well as changes to state laws to remove provisions that could be exploited by those seeking to spread election misinformation.
Congressional proposals to increase penalties for threatening election officials failed to advance last year, leaving state officials looking to their legislatures for support. Seven bills have been introduced so far in five states to protect election workers and their staff, according to the Voting Rights Lab, which tracks voting-related legislation in the states.
In Michigan, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and Democratic legislative leaders announced plans this week for several election-related bills, including ones to increase penalties for threatening, harassing or revealing private information about election workers and for pressuring election officials to act illegally.
“We must do more to protect the people who protect democracy,” Benson, a Democrat, said in a statement.
Concerns of political violence have been growing in recent years.
Last month, the co-leader of the plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer before the 2020 election was sentenced to 16 years in prison. Whitmer, a Democrat, was not harmed. Prosecutors said the defendants were upset about restrictions related to the COVD-19 pandemic and perceived threats to gun ownership.
In California, prosecutors said the assault of Paul Pelosi was part of a plot to kidnap the Democratic congresswoman and that the suspect also planned to target other politicians.
Members of Congress have seen a sharp rise in threats in the two years since the insurrection. In Kansas, a trial began this week for a man prosecutors say threatened to kill a Republican congressman.
New Mexico House Speaker Javier Martínez of Albuquerque, whose home was among those targeted in the recent shootings, said he was relieved by the arrest.
“These are the things that can happen when the rhetoric gets out of hand,” he told reporters on the opening day of the Legislature. “Anyone who takes the plunge to participate in our democracy, to get into the process, should never have to encounter that type of violence and have that kind of fear.”
Associated Press writers Susan Montoya Bryan and Morgan Lee in Albuquerque, New Mexico; Colleen Long in Washington, D.C.; and Alanna Durkin Richer in Boston contributed to this report.