Political Violence Threatens Our Democracy. How Do We Keep Candidates Safe?

A climate of fear and intimidation continues to impact 2023 and 2024 campaign plans.

U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.)—pictured here with Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) as they launch the American Climate Corps on Sept. 20, 2023—has faced numerous death threats while in office and on the campaign trail. For women in politics, especially women of color, this is nothing new. (Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images)

Trump’s authoritarian Republican Party has pushed its followers to hurl violent threats at its enemies for years. Last month, we saw those followers turn on members of the Republican Party itself in the speaker’s race, and it made national headlines. But for Democratic women, receiving threats has become a normal part of public life since 2016, and it often goes overlooked and unreported. This has to change. 

Emerge has more than 5,500 alums across the country, and more than two dozen state affiliates. We have strong relationships with our alums—that’s how we know that the climate of fear and intimidation continues to impact 2023 and 2024 campaign plans. Plus, with the ongoing Israel-Gaza War, Jewish and Muslim women leaders have to deal with a spike in antisemitism and Islamophobia. Some, like Sen. Jacky Rosen, (D-Nev.) and Rep. Ilhan Omar, (D-Minn.) have even received death threats. Unfortunately, this is nothing new. Threats this fall are the latest instances of women in politics being targeted by extremists. 

Sometimes, these threats of political violence against women leaders grab media attention because the victims are known national figures, as in the case of House Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi or Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. And some of these threats have escalated into violent attacks, as in the case of Paul Pelosi.

But more often than not, they go overlooked, especially for candidates running for state or local office, and women of color. Former Vermont State Representative Kiah Morris said she reported at least 26 incidents to the local police where she and her family felt threatened between 2016 and 2018 before she finally resigned. 

Women like Boston Mayor Michelle Wu and U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal have both been targeted, and for Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, death threats have become a common occurrence.

None of this should be normal, and yet after eight years of Trump directing one of the two main parties, this is very normal. The threats women candidates face on the campaign trail are intentional, especially towards women of color and those serving at the state and local level who rarely receive media attention. These women are targeted by people who want to impose a chilling effect on their running for office or try to force them out of public service once they are elected.

According to the Center for Democracy and Technology 2022 report, women of color candidates were twice as likely as other candidates to be targeted with mis- and disinformation online, and the most likely to be targeted with posts that combined mis- and disinformation and abuse.

Being in the public eye and running for political office does leave candidates, both men and women, open to scrutiny. There should be a place for disagreement, civil discourse and passionate debate—but there is no place for violence and harassment, and we cannot let attacks on our democracy continue unchecked.

The threats women candidates face on the campaign trail are intentional, especially towards women of color and those serving at the state and local level who rarely receive media attention.

The people who use threats against women leaders are trying to destabilize our democracy. They know that our democracy is healthy and thriving when women are at the table. That’s why they are so threatened by women’s leadership and seek to drive women out of public spaces.

Last week’s threats are just the latest page from the authoritarian playbook Trump and his followers operate from in their ongoing attempts to overthrow our democracy. In fact, Capitol Police report not having enough staff to manage increased threats against elected officials, especially women. 

Democracy isn’t broken. MAGA Republicans and their biggest supporters are actively choosing to break it. They want Americans to stop believing in America and either believe in Trump or nothing, so that they can take over.

And in doing so, they have made one thing crystal clear: Attacks on women candidates and elected officials are attacks on democracy. Full stop.

We must all do more to build a more civil discourse, encourage women to run for office and support women during their campaigns. In normalizing women’s presence in places of power, we can empower women to not only stand up for others, but to stand up to attacks on our democracy. That’s why supporting women candidates is standing up for democracy—one that works for all of us.

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A’shanti Gholar is the first Black woman president of Emerge, the nation’s premier organization that recruits and trains Democratic women to run for office.