Capitol attack, threats not deterring congressional hopefuls

Campaigns grappling with security questions, but recruitment continues

Fencing and razor wire have been installed around the Capitol complex.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Fencing and razor wire have been installed around the Capitol complex. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted February 4, 2021 at 6:00am

Lately, when Rep. Ruben Gallego talks to potential congressional candidates, a new question comes up. 

It’s not their first question, but some potential candidates are now asking the Arizona Democrat, “Is it safe? Will it be safe for me and my family?” 

Safety is just one of many factors people weigh as they decide to run for office. And recent security questions underscore the persistent threats facing lawmakers, which were on full display as a mob attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6. 

A few campaign operatives involved in congressional races said safety concerns have come up in recent conversations with potential candidates, while others said they have not heard anyone raise them. None of the operatives believed the security risks would actually deter potential candidates from running.

“Because of what occurred on Jan. 6, it makes it even more important that we have people that are willing to step up and do the job,” said Gallego, who chairs BOLD PAC, the campaign arm of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. 

Undeterred

Former Republican Rep. Ryan A. Costello, who is considering running for Senate in Pennsylvania, said in a recent interview that the persistent security threat “makes me think long and hard” about running. 

“I think it would for any reasonable person,” he said.

But Costello also said the Jan. 6 attack spurred him to strongly consider a congressional comeback because he was angered by the “purposeful dissemination of disinformation and just the unwillingness to accept the results of an election.” 

The same was true for Democrat Heather Mizeur, a former state lawmaker who decided to challenge Maryland GOP Rep. Andy Harris after the attack. She said she had no intention of running for office, but Jan. 6 “changed everything.”

Mizeur worked as a congressional staffer for a decade, and her wife is also a former staffer. They named their farm after “The Apotheosis of Washington,” the painting on the inside of the Capitol Dome, which they would admire as they walked through the Rotunda together each morning.

Democrat Heather Mizeur, a former congressional staffer, is running for Maryland’s 1st District. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post via Getty Images file photo)

“That invasion of the Congress felt very personal. It felt like an invasion of my own home,” Mizeur said. 

Mizeur said she did weigh the security risks that come with running for office, and that it wouldn’t be human to say she didn’t. “And I know that fear, the energy of fear purposely tries to separate us from each other. And I know that there is reason to trust in the goodness of the people in this district. And I put that fear aside,” she said. 

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Asked whether security risks could deter potential candidates from running, Michigan Sen. Gary Peters, the new chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said in a Wednesday interview, “Every individual has to answer that on their own.” 

“In general, what we’re seeing happening in this country is actually a reason why so many Democrats want to run,” Peters added. “They realized that we’re at a pivotal time for the history of this country.”

National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Chris Hartline said he had not heard security concerns raised in recruitment conversations, and he did not believe they would affect potential candidates’ decisions. 

New York Rep. Elise Stefanik’s group E-PAC, which recruits and supports Republican women, has engaged with more than 100 potential candidates so far, and no one has raised concerns about security, according to Stefanik senior adviser Alex DeGrasse. 

“So far, every day of the Biden administration has helped embolden Republican women as they put their prospective campaigns together,” DeGrasse said. 

More security ahead?

The recent threats have prompted the House campaign committees to share guidance with lawmakers about spending election funds on security. 

Last week, lawyers for the House and Senate Republican campaign arms wrote to the Federal Election Commission asking that candidates be allowed to spend campaign funds on personal security for themselves and their families. 

“The current threat environment that Members and their families face must again be met with increased security measures,” wrote lawyers for the National Republican Congressional Committee and the NRSC.

The FEC has made similar rulings in the past. In 2017, a lone gunman targeted GOP lawmakers at their morning practice for the annual charity baseball game, injuring five, including GOP whip Steve Scalise. After the shooting, the FEC ruled that members of Congress could spend campaign funds on home security systems.

In their filing last week, the committees’ lawyers noted that since the 2017 baseball practice shooting, the “threat environment … has actually worsened.”  The FEC has not yet responded to their request.

Despite the ongoing threats, just four members of Congress used campaign funds to pay for home security systems during the 2020 election cycle, according to a review of campaign finance reports filed with the FEC. 

Gallego was one of them, spending $487 on Nov. 20 for a security system at his new home after receiving threats during the election cycle.  

Gallego expects personal security to be more prevalent at future campaign events, noting that he often has a plainclothes police officer at his official town hall meetings in Arizona. Other lawmakers have done the same, particularly after Arizona Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot and severely injured at a constituent event in 2011. 

Sen. Chris Coons also predicted heightened security at future campaign events, especially as in-person campaigning picks up after the coronavirus pandemic. 

“I think folks will be more clear-eyed about the risks they face because this was such a public moment,” the Delaware Democrat said of the Jan. 6 attack. 

“But honestly, if you hold this kind of an office, you get death threats on a regular basis,” Coons added. “That’s something most candidates don’t realize.”

Stephanie Akin and Jennifer Shutt contributed to this report.