The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Even after New Mexico shootings, little GOP reckoning over election denialism

Police say attacks on Democrats’ homes were motivated by false fraud claims. Republican leaders insist Trump is not to blame.

Solomon Peña, center, believed his loss in a November race for the state House was due to election fraud, authorities said. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal/AP)

Republican officials in New Mexico knew that Solomon Peña, the man police accused last week of orchestrating shootings into the homes of four Albuquerque Democrats, had served nearly seven years in prison for his role in smash-and-grab thefts before he lost his bid as the GOP nominee for a state House seat.

They also knew that Peña was a fervent proponent of the view that the 2020 presidential election was rigged. Authorities said Peña was persuaded that his own election in November had been stolen — despite being defeated by nearly 50 points — and targeted the homes of officials who refused to entertain demands that his loss be reversed.

After Peña’s arrest, Republican leaders condemned the attacks, which included a spray of bullets into a 10-year-old’s bedroom, and acknowledged that the former candidate’s criminal history should have been a red flag. There was far less apparent interest in a reckoning over Peña’s beliefs in widespread voter fraud, a false theory pushed relentlessly by former president Donald Trump and his supporters.

The attacks may have been heinous, top Republicans insisted, but the party’s embrace of election denialism was not the core problem.

“It’s important that we say we can’t stand for crap like this,” said Mark Ronchetti, a Republican who lost the 2022 governor’s race to Democratic incumbent Michelle Lujan Grisham. “But blaming Trump — that’s not fair to do.”

The response reflected Republicans’ continued reluctance to challenge Trump’s false claims, even when they are associated with violence — and even as evidence mounts that they have become an electoral liability. Republicans who echoed the former president’s unfounded assertions lost key races in battlegrounds nationwide last November.

They also lost in Democratic-leaning states, such as New Mexico. Still, with Trump again running for president, and with his track record of using election denialism as a litmus test for earning his endorsement in GOP primaries, many Republican candidates and officeholders have been careful not to cross him.

Numerous state Republican leaders, including the chairman, the executive director, national committee members and the top leaders in the state legislature, did not respond to requests for interviews for this story.

State Sen. Mark Moores of Albuquerque was one of the few Republicans reached by The Washington Post willing to criticize on the record the party’s direction on election denialism.

“It’s a pox on our house until we reckon with that and move on,” Moores said.

Jobs, economic opportunity, education and crime, he said, are all more important to his voters than the 2020 election. Moores is the last remaining Republican state senator from any of the three major metro regions of New Mexico. That, he said, “just proves we cannot be a governing party” without a new message.

But election denialism still has a constituency in the state, especially in rural areas where Republicans remain loyal to the former president and his false claims. Three New Mexico counties either delayed or voted against certification of their 2022 primary results, citing concerns about fraud. In one, thinly populated Otero, commissioners certified the results only after the state Supreme Court ordered them to do so.

The commissioners had been urged to reject certification by David Clements, a former New Mexico State University business professor who has traveled the state and the country making presentations laden with false claims about 2020 election fraud. Clements, who did not respond to a request for comment, has in recent days advertised upcoming presentations on election fraud in California, Nevada, Utah and Colorado.

An ex-professor spreads elections myths across the U.S., one town at a time

Peña tweeted links to Clements’ writings and wrote regularly about overturning the 2020 election and about the fraud that he claimed followed in 2022.

The candidate, who did not face a primary opponent, boasted on social media that he had attended the “Stop the Steal” rally on Jan. 6, 2021 that preceded the attack by a pro-Trump mob on the U.S. Capitol, called for election officials to be imprisoned for life and sometimes used violent language, such as claiming that Trump’s critics “will have to kill us to stop us.”

The New Mexico Republican Party’s official Twitter account has also embraced Trump’s fraud claims, posting in late November 2020: “Biden did not win this election, and we are working hard alongside the Trump Campaign to uncover the fraud.”

New Mexico is one of the seven states where the Trump campaign and national GOP leaders launched a scheme following the 2020 election to create false electors and have their votes counted for Trump rather than for Joe Biden. It’s not clear why the Trump campaign targeted New Mexico, an overwhelmingly Democratic state that voted for Biden by a margin of nearly 11 percentage points.

Peña was charged last week with multiple felonies in connection with what police say was his role in masterminding attacks on the homes of four Democratic lawmakers in December and January. Authorities said the 39-year-old paid gunmen to fire on the homes and had participated in at least one of the attacks. He had previously appealed to the elected officials to help him overturn his defeat, arguing he had been cheated. Albuquerque Police Chief Harold Medina said he had no doubt Peña was motivated by false claims of election fraud.

No one was injured in the attacks, but police maintained that he had intended to cause “serious injury or cause death to occupants inside their homes.”

Peña is being held without bond. His lawyer, Roberta Yurcic, said he intends to plead not guilty. In a statement, she said her client is “presumed innocent of the charges against him. It is critical that the public not rush to judgement. I will fiercely safeguard Mr. Peña’s constitutional rights.”

The arrest was not Peña’s first encounter with the law. Democrats had gone to court last year to argue that his prior convictions on charges of stealing cars, ramming them into stores and making off with expensive electronics should disqualify him from running for the state legislature, but a judge disagreed.

Despite Peña’s criminal record and long odds of winning in a heavily Democratic legislative district, prominent Republicans supported his candidacy.

“He appeared to be a very thoughtful, upstanding young man,” said Harvey E. Yates Jr., a former member of the Republican National Committee and longtime GOP donor in New Mexico whose energy company gave Peña $5,000. “Before I donated to him, I was aware he had committed felonies and so forth. But it seemed to me that he was trying to turn his life around.”

Yates struggled, however, to offer an opinion on Peña’s embrace of election denialism.

First, Yates criticized federal leaders for failing to properly investigate what caused the violence on Jan. 6 in Washington. Next, he said, “Should questioning the legitimacy of the election lead to violence? Absolutely not.” Then: “Let me roll that back: I’m not saying it’s improper to question whether election fraud took place. I am an agnostic on that.”

Finally, Yates said: “Am I saying there was election fraud sufficient to overturn the election? No. What I’m saying is there has been no real effort to look into election fraud.”

Dozens of court cases and state and local audits have failed to turn up evidence to support Trump’s fraud claims.

Ronchetti, who received Trump’s endorsement for his gubernatorial run but said he doesn’t “carry the Trump flag,” blamed Peña’s mental health and pointed to the shooting of his own home with a pellet gun last fall as evidence that violence happens to candidates of both parties, though he acknowledged that what police charged Peña with is worse.

He did say, however, that Republicans should do more to vet the backgrounds of their candidates — and talk less about election-rigging and more about policy proposals. “We have to hold our political leaders accountable for what they say or do,” he said. “People might be taking those cues and do something really dangerous.”

Mick Rich, who lost a 2018 U.S. Senate race to Democrat Martin Heinrich, said he was disappointed with Trump’s behavior and the ensuing violence on Jan. 6, 2021. But he said he didn’t see Peña’s actions as a pattern in the GOP — or related to the storming of the Capitol.

“I’m appalled over the shooting of the homes of Democrats,” Rich said. “But his actions are an outlier. One man does not define a national party.”

Targets of the shootings included New Mexico House Speaker Javier Martínez, state Sen. Linda Lopez, Bernadillo County Commissioner Adriann Barboa and former commissioner Debbie O’Malley.

In an interview, O’Malley said she once thought of people like Peña as outliers. Then the sound of gunshots in her own home awakened her in the middle of the night last month.

“He was shooting because of a belief system,” O’Malley said. “This is domestic terrorism. It was politically motivated.”

One New Mexico GOP operative, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, said part of the problem is that Trump is still active in politics — not only running for president but potentially gearing up to hold endorsements over candidates’ heads, as he did in 2020 and 2022.

And in the vast majority of U.S. House races, winning the primary is tantamount to winning the election, the operative said. “So there’s no incentive to be thoughtful, or to lure Democrats who might cross over,” he said. “At the end of the day, candidates are going to do whatever they have to to win.”

That theory applies less to statewide races and more competitive general elections, however. Two prominent New Mexico election deniers lost their races last year: secretary of state candidate Audrey Trujillo, and Yvette Herrell, who as a member of the U.S. House voted against certifying Biden’s victory on Jan. 6, 2021. Her defeat in November gave Democrats control of every federal office in the state.

Deniers who were defeated in key races nationwide have mostly conceded their own defeats, though Kari Lake, who lost her bid for Arizona governor, is one high-profile exception.

Lauren Wright, a politics professor at Princeton University, said research, as well as recent election results, shows that most Americans are not demanding fealty to the fraud narrative — or to Trump.

“There’s no reason why the party can’t speak out against this. Absolutely no reason,” Wright said. “Trump’s endorsement record is not that successful, especially in the general election environment. And public opinion shows there’s very mixed support for him, even among Republican voters.”

Bill Richardson, the former New Mexico governor and U.S. energy secretary, said most of his Republican friends in New Mexico privately agree that the party must move on from the fraud narrative. But Richardson, a Democrat, predicted that won’t happen until Trump’s influence fades.

'The only way this cultism is going to abate is with the continued defeat of MAGA candidates and the continued diminution of Donald Trump’s personal power,” he said. “And that’s going to take some time.”

Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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