Ten days before the midterm elections, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband was attacked with a hammer in his home by a follower of right-wing conspiracy theories.
In the final week before the elections, Republican leadership has tacitly blessed the continued disparagement of the California Democrat — ranging from run-of-the-mill attacks on her “San Francisco values” to jokes about the nature of her husband’s alleged assault — in ads and on the campaign trail. Some of the most well-known Republicans in the country have aired ads that implore voters to “save the country” from the Democrats. Republican Sen. Marco Rubio released an ad that tied his opponent’s voting record to Pelosi’s, adding, “I approve this message to stop this insanity and save our great country.” Tulsi Gabbard recorded a spot for South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem that says, “South Dakota is a place of freedom, let’s keep it that way.”
Rep. Tom Emmer, who leads the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), kept a video he posted on Twitter two days before the attack where he fires a gun at target practice. “Enjoyed exercising my Second Amendment rights,” Emmer posted, including the hashtag “FirePelosi.” When “Face the Nation” host Margaret Brennan pressed Emmer about the needless violence in the ad, he stood by it, saying it had nothing to do with shooting Pelosi.
Republicans who spoke to Grid said that there are no conversations inside the party about changing course.
“Lots of times, the other party — whichever party — will look for a boogey man or boogey woman, and a lot of Republicans have chosen Pelosi as that boogey woman this year,” said Steve Stivers, a former Ohio congressman who led the NRCC during the 2018 midterms.
“If there’s one recognizable figure for the Democratic Party, despite the fact that Joe Biden is president, it’s probably Nancy Pelosi, nationally,” said Stivers, who now leads the Ohio Chamber of Commerce. It’s partly because she helped pass the Affordable Care Act in 2010, which was “reviled by many conservatives.”
Republicans say Pelosi is fair game — to a point
Republicans insist most of the TV ads aren’t inherently violent. They feature images of Pelosi in black and white, often with ominous music playing and a narrator menacingly criticizing how she’s handled major issues.
“An ad that says that candidate X stands with Speaker Pelosi or Mitch McConnell 100 percent of the time — it’s a negative ad, but it’s not a violent ad,” said Michael Steele, former Republican National Committee (RNC) chairman. “It’s not an ad or a tweet that shows an individual firing off an automatic rifle and then puts the hashtag ‘FirePelosi.’ That’s a problem. You see the difference?”
But even continuing to air those ads might be in poor taste so soon after the attack.
“I know these ads have been cut, most of them, long before, so they’re going to continue to run them,” former New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman told Grid. “Should they? I don’t think so.”
Mainstream conservatives have condemned the act of political violence and offered Paul Pelosi their best wishes — but they’ve been silent about Republicans who have turned the attack into a punchline in their stump speeches or who have echoed a new right-wing conspiracy theory that the attacker was a sex worker. And former president Donald Trump has insinuated that the attack was staged.
It might not be surprising that Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., who espouses multiple conspiracy theories, minimized the attack. “The only crime victim you hear about from Democrats and the media is Paul Pelosi,” Greene said at an Iowa rally.
But what’s more concerning to some is that mainstream Republican politicians — those who don’t espouse those views in their own rhetoric — aren’t condemning members of their own party.
“They know damn well that this was motivated and encouraged and fueled by the crap that they continue to stand silent against,” said Steele.
Nancy Pelosi’s been the subject of ads with violent themes since her early days as speaker of the House. In one ad in 2009, the RNC centered an image of her face in a barrel of a gun and compared her to a Bond villain with an inappropriate name. In 2010, conservatives aired an ad called “Attack of the 50-Foot Pelosi” that showed her as a monster defeated by Republican ray guns. That cycle, according to Molly Ball’s book “Pelosi,” Republicans spent $70 million airing 161,203 anti-Pelosi ads.
Earlier last month, Nevada Republican Senate nominee Adam Laxalt’s campaign released an ad that showed Pelosi fist-bumping other Democratic leaders while the narrator said “Washington politicians lie,” ending with Laxalt saying we have to “save America.” An ad against Democrat Will Rollins from Republican Ken Calvert’s campaign decries the Biden-Pelosi-Rollins way, before describing his opponent as a “radical, wrong, liar.”
Some Republicans know they have a violent rhetoric problem. Whether they do anything about it is unclear.
There’s little sign of a retreat from the kinds of conspiracy theories and not-so-subtle calls for violence against Democratic leaders, including Pelosi. CBS News found that more than half of Republican candidates are election deniers. Not said aloud, most of the time, is that adherents of that conspiracy theory often believe that violence may be necessary to rectify the injustice. (And some far-right media outlets have glommed onto the new development that DePape was in the country illegally for years.)
To be sure, many politicians, including candidates for Senate, offered their well wishes to Paul Pelosi for a speedy recovery. But sometimes, those were followed by criticism of the speaker. Republican Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin initially declined to apologize for saying at a campaign event, “There’s no room for violence anywhere, but we’re gonna send her back to be with him in California.” Days later, he said that he didn’t “do a great job” of expressing his condolences. Kari Lake, Republican nominee for Arizona governor, said something similar: “Nancy Pelosi, well, she’s got protection when she’s in D.C. — apparently her house doesn’t have a lot of protection.”
Some on the far right — including some members of Congress — are already spreading conspiracy theories about the Pelosi attack. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz retweeted a claim that the attacker was actually a left-wing activist, though DePape’s online presence was full of far-right conspiracy theories. Donald Trump Jr. posted a picture of his “Paul Pelosi Halloween costume”: a photo of a hammer and a pair of underwear. Greene promoted a theory that Pelosi’s attacker was in fact a romantic partner.
In reality, Pelosi’s attacker was reportedly wearing “all black” before breaking into Pelosi’s home by breaking a glass door with a hammer. His stated plan was to hold Nancy Pelosi hostage and break her kneecaps.
But even after the police reported the details of the attack, Trump said on conservative radio that “the glass, it seems broken from inside,” and that “weird things” were “going on in that household.”
Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) offered his well wishes to the Pelosis, but there hasn’t been a clear rebuke for Republicans who minimized or distorted the attack.
“Someone in the party has to assert leadership and control the moment,” Steele said, “before someone gets killed.”
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.