In the latest example of how former President Donald Trump’s election denialism has stoked rising political violence in the US, Solomon Peña, a former Republican candidate for the New Mexico House, was arrested earlier this week for allegedly orchestrating a conspiracy to shoot up four state and local officials’ homes after refusing to accept his November election loss.
An ardent Trump supporter who attended a pro-Trump rally in Washington, DC, on the day of the January 6, 2021, insurrection, Peña lost his race for New Mexico House District 14 against incumbent Democrat Miguel Garcia by more than 47 percentage points.
But he refused to concede, and allegedly conspired with four individuals to carry out the politically motivated shootings. He paid at least two of them to fire at Democratic leaders’ homes while driving by in stolen cars. He also attempted to shoot a jammed AR-15 rifle at the home of state Sen. Linda Lopez, according to police.
No one was harmed in the attacks, which took place between November and early January. But as former county commissioner Debbie O’Malley, one of the targeted officials, told NBC, Peña “could have killed us.” He is currently facing at least 15 charges, including shooting at a dwelling, shooting from a motor vehicle, aggravated assault involving a deadly weapon, and conspiracy and criminal solicitation charges, but not attempted murder, according to legal filings in a New Mexico court.
The scale of the conspiracy makes this case unusual — this was not a lone wolf, but someone seeking elected office who engaged multiple people over several weeks in planning targeted attacks on Democrats. Overall, though, politically motivated violence aimed at government officials and their families has become increasingly common, with last October’s violent attack on former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband at their home in San Francisco being one of the most high-profile incidents.
“This is a particularly shocking example, but also calls to mind the ways that elected officials were involved in spreading conspiracy theories and fomenting violence that led to the insurrection,” said Lindsay Schubiner, programs director at the Western States Center, an organization focused on building inclusive democracy. “What we’re seeing now are the results of the way that Donald Trump opened the door to welcome bigoted movements into mainstream politics, and you can’t put that genie back in the bottle.”
The conspiracy, explained
Peña foreshadowed his motivations on Twitter before the attacks took place. He argued on the eve of the election that his opponent had to “rely on rigging” to win and declared on November 9, after the race had been called, “I dissent. I am the MAGA king.” Days later, he acknowledged that he had never conceded the race and said that he was “researching my options.”
His next step was to show up at the doorsteps of two Democratic Bernalillo County commissioners and two state legislators to plead his case. He brought paperwork claiming that the election was fraudulent, according to Albuquerque police.
Bernalillo County Commissioner Adriann Barboa told NBC News that he appeared “erratic” and “aggressive” when trying to argue that the votes he received didn’t match up with his ground game. (The district, which encompasses downtown Albuquerque, has long been blue, and there was no evidence of widespread voter fraud in the election.) O’Malley told NBC that she found her interaction with Peña “unsettling” given that he was “angry about losing the election” and felt it was “unfair and untrue.” Both commissioners called police after the incidents, and in O’Malley’s case, police patrolled her house for a few days before the shooting took place.
A criminal complaint obtained by USA Today asserts that Peña was “upset he had not won the election for public office” and that he had urged his co-conspirators to shoot at lawmakers’ homes while they would be awake with the intention to “cause death” or at least seriously injure.
During the attack on Lopez’s home on January 3, the most recent of the shootings, bullets flew over her sleeping 10-year-old daughter, causing bits of sheetrock and dust to fall on her bed, according to the complaint. The next morning, after dismissing the bang of the gunshots as fireworks, Lopez discovered bullet holes in the side of the house.
She called police, who found shell casings at her house that matched a handgun that had been confiscated at a traffic stop on the night of the shooting. Police also found some 800 fentanyl pills and an assault rifle inside the vehicle involved, which was registered to Peña. The driver had an unrelated felony arrest warrant but was later found to be one of Peña’s co-conspirators.
With the help of an informant who witnessed the shootings, police used cellphone records that point to Peña as the “mastermind” of the attacks, finding that he had provided his co-conspirators with addresses and instructions on how to carry out the shootings and paid them for doing so, according to the complaint.
It’s another example of rising political violence in the US
The attacks reflect an increasingly high-threat environment for politicians in the US.
“Every case of violence has its own idiosyncratic elements, but the trendline is clear: There are individuals who are planning attacks and working with others to carry out armed assaults. People with opposing points of view are being targeted with the aim either of hurting or silencing them,” said Darrell West, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution.
The number of threats against members of Congress rose dramatically between 2017 and 2022, with US Capitol Police investigating nearly 10,000 threats in 2021.
In addition to the attack on her husband, Pelosi’s home was also vandalized in December 2020. Republican Sen. Susan Collins told the New York Times in October 2022 that an intruder had smashed a storm window in her Bangor, Maine, home and said she “wouldn’t be surprised if a senator or House member were killed.” A man was also charged with felony stalking in July after he shouted expletives outside Democratic Rep. Pramila Jayapal’s Seattle home while armed with a semiautomatic handgun with a live round.
Following the January 6 attack at the US Capitol, the Federal Election Commission ruled that members of Congress could use campaign funds to pay for personal security services. Since then, their personal security expenditures have ballooned, especially among those who have a high national profile and controversial legislative record, like Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA), as well as among Republicans who voted to impeach former President Donald Trump.
But there hasn’t been similar financial support for the safety of state and local politicians, who are also on the front lines fighting against anti-democracy movements and election denialism. That’s left officials like those in New Mexico largely reliant on their personal resources and local law enforcement for protection against attacks.
“The biggest social movements that drove the [insurrection] have continued to organize to build power in communities across the country. And we’re seeing that particularly at the local level targeting democratic institutions,” Schubiner said.
The solution, she says, doesn’t entirely lie with law enforcement; rather, Schubiner argues the federal government should offer training and security resources for elections officials and other public employees who are victims of harassment and intimidation by anti-democracy and bigoted groups. The risks of not doing so are too great, she said.
“What we’ve seen is that when local governments or community institutions weaken or fail, there are many examples of bigoted and extremist groups stepping into occupy whatever vacuum exists,” she said.