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Tuesday, December 6, 2022

In Wake of Paul Pelosi Attack, Unease Is New Normal on Campaign Trail

This article is part of The D.C. Brief, TIME’s politics newsletter. Sign up here to get stories like this sent to your inbox.

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio—At my desk back in D.C., a half-organized collage of campaign bumper stickers and pins hangs behind my screens. On the shelves above, I display souvenirs from presidential libraries like a baseball picked up at George W. Bush’s library in Dallas, or golf balls snagged at Jimmy Carter’s in Atlanta. They’re fun markers of years of covering politicians of all stripes amid the rows of memoirs, tell-alls, and reference books.
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But one piece of swag hits a little different in recent days: a foam football, brown with white laces and letters spelling out “Fire Pelosi” across it. That 2010 trinket was a stunt from the National Republican Congressional Committee and part of a broader, GOP-wide effort to make Pelosi an icon and enemy at once. Republicans used the broad antipathy toward Pelosi—the first and only female to lead the House—to animate the base of that cycle, the one that gave the Tea Party its first official taste of power and emboldened elements on the right to treat rivals as inhuman enemies. With each campaign cycle that followed, the GOP focus on Pelosi seemed to grow darker and more personal.

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As law enforcement shares more details about the brutal attack on Paul Pelosi by an intruder who seemingly was looking for his wife, the long-simmering contempt of Nancy Pelosi now seems to have reached its unfortunately logical conclusion. And that souvenir by my desk feels a little less cheeky.

The man accused of breaking into the third-ranking U.S. official’s home with the intention of kidnapping her has a social-media footprint that echoes the fringes of the modern GOP, down to conspiracy theories about Covid-19 and the Jan. 6 insurrection. He used a hammer to bash Paul Pelosi; police recovered zip ties that presumably would have bound the Pelosis’ wrists for easy transport to a hostage site.

Campaigns, of course, are reluctant to disclose changes to their security protocols, but you can see them pretty quickly if you know what you’re looking for. Anecdotally, campaigns this cycle have seemed slower to release their upcoming schedules. Events have been smaller, rallies fewer. Some aren’t even advised to reporters or the public more than a few hours ahead of time—if at all.

As Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer—who was the target of her own kidnapping plot—told TIME in July: “This environment has gotten so toxic, and so mean, and so cruel, that I think it’s wise to be concerned and to make plans to help keep people safe.”

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On Tuesday, I attended an event for the Democratic nominee for governor, former Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, in a bar here in Youngstown. As was the norm even before the Pelosi attack, state police were on site before Whaley and her entourage showed up, and traveled with her as she marched northward on yet another busy day. Ohio Democrats insist nothing has changed, but aides were very careful to keep aisles clear. The doorway was no more than 10 strides from where the first row of politicians sat.

The night before, I stopped by an early-voting site in Columbus, Ohio, on a busy road. And every time a car backfired, the volunteers handing out sample Democratic ballots jumped. After the first time, one calmly turned to me: “It’s just a car. We checked it out.” The fact that it had to be considered as anything else was terrifying, particularly given the ballot-watching troubles in other states.

All those precautions have come at a cost—both real and emotional. Congressional campaigns from both parties disclosed almost $3 million in security-related expenses in 2021, according to an analysis of federal election records by CQ Roll Call. That’s a seven-fold increase from the last cycle, when federal candidates spent a relatively little $385,000 on such services and the Federal Election Commission expanded such expenditures in 2020. And that doesn’t take into account the price of local security for federal officials when they’re at home on official business or state-level pols and candidates who report differently.

I’ve seen campaign security tighten—and loosen—over the years. And after traumatic events, the bubble always tightens. After the bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City and 9/11, obviously, things got far less accessible. Shouts of “terrorist” as Sarah Palin referenced Barack Obama at her rallies in 2008 prompted a few more eyes on the crowds at Obama’s rallies. The failed assassination attempt of then-Rep. Gabby Giffords in 2011 forced everyone to take a beat and consider if lawmakers were ever truly safe, even in grocery stores. The assault on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, similarly forced a review, not just in Washington but in the field; security bills quickly cleared Congress that included extra money for protecting Supreme Court justices and the Capitol itself.

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Still, those are responses to dangerous ideas. Politicians aren’t doing much to eradicate the ideas themselves. In fact, some are stoking them pretty actively and have for years. Some of the most in-demand political voices this cycle are those who think Jan. 6 was a hiccup and that those facing trial for their role in it are martyrs. Over the weekend, Twitter quickly devolved to a dumpster fire when some—including Twitter owner Elon Musk—suggested the Pelosi attack was staged, adopting some of the InfoWars conspiracy theories of Sandy Hook.

So as the campaign season hits its final stretch, I’m going to be keeping an eye on what security protocols look to be new—and where the exits are in case they’re needed. The prospect of political violence is once again at the forefront for everyone out on the trail—candidates, staffers, activists, and journalists alike.

And as for that “Fire Pelosi” football back in Washington, it’s now less of a giggle and more of a gutpunch.

——WITH REPORTING BY VERA BERGENGRUEN/WASHINGTON AND ABIGAIL ADAMS/NEW YORK

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