Security costs spike for campaigns as rules ease and threats rise

Top spenders include Sen. Mark Kelly, who was depicted as a villain in opponent's Wild West gunfight ad

Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly and his wife, former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, at a 2017 news conference for the gun control group Giffords launched after surviving a 2011 mass shooting in which a gunman killed six people. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly and his wife, former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, at a 2017 news conference for the gun control group Giffords launched after surviving a 2011 mass shooting in which a gunman killed six people. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted February 22, 2022 at 11:20am

When a GOP candidate seeking to run against Arizona Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly recently released an ad featuring him in a Wild West shootout with Kelly and other prominent Democrats, members of both parties criticized the spot. 

Kelly’s wife, former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, formed a gun control advocacy group after surviving a 2011 mass shooting in Tucson in which a gunman killed six people. Senate candidate Jim Lamon posed as an old-time sheriff having a shootout with “the DC gang” in the ad, which aired during halftime of the Super Bowl on Tucson’s NBC affiliate. His campaign subsequently said it was meant to be tongue-in-cheek.

The controversy comes amid an increase in the death threats that politicians say they face more than a year after a deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. And with loosening regulations on campaign spending for personal security, congressional campaigns from both parties disclosed nearly $3 million for security-related expenses in 2021, according to a CQ Roll Call analysis of federal election records. 

That’s a dramatic increase, of nearly 700 percent, from the entire 2019-2020 cycle, when congressional candidates listed security-related expenses of $385,000.

The services include both personal security and cybersecurity.   

Kelly’s campaign spent some $300,000, according to campaign finance disclosures, second only to Georgia Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock, whose campaign listed expenditures totaling $665,000. Both won elections in the last cycle that helped give Democrats control of the Senate — Warnock in a January 2021 runoff. Their campaigns did not comment on security spending.

The campaign of GOP Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas disclosed just shy of $250,000 spent on security-related expenses, followed by Georgia’s other senator, Jon Ossoff, who spent $240,000, and Missouri Democratic Rep. Cori Bush, $170,000.

Other top spenders were Pennsylvania GOP Sen. Patrick J. Toomey ($96,000) and Democratic Reps. Eric Swalwell of California ($86,000), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York ($73,000) and Mike Levin of California ($65,000). Rep. Liz Cheney, the Wyoming Republican who has faced threats for serving as vice chair of the committee probing the Jan. 6 attack and for voting to impeach former President Donald Trump, rounded out the top 10, spending $59,000.

“Members of Congress are facing an unprecedented threat level that began rising in 2019 but has escalated substantially since the Jan. 6 insurrection,” said Brett Kappel, a campaign finance lawyer with the firm Harmon Curran.

As a result, he said, the Federal Election Commission has loosened restrictions on campaign spending for personal and home security. The FEC, over the past decade, has issued advisory opinions allowing for campaign money to pay for “bona fide” bodyguards, the costs of wiring for home security, and other expenses related to residential security systems.  

“Campaign funds can only be spent to hire legitimate, bona fide security professionals,” Kappel noted. “This limitation was included in the advisory opinion to prevent campaign funds being used to hire private militias like the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys, who had been providing security for some members of Congress.”

Jonathan Wackrow, vice chair of the ASIS International executive protection community and a former Secret Service agent, said the security industry observed a “big spike, an appropriate spike” in demand among lawmakers and candidates after Jan. 6. 

“The polarization of the political environment these days lends itself to a high probability that political rhetoric can turn into physical action,” Wackrow said. “That can happen rapidly.” 

He said political campaigns are also highly susceptible to cyberattacks, too, and online attacks can quickly turn into physical violence.     

“Republicans and Democratic candidates are all victims of this new operating environment,” Wackrow added. 

A spokesman for Levin, Eric Mee, said the security costs are related to public events the California lawmaker holds and are "in response to specific threats he has received.”

Democratic fundraiser Mike Fraioli said the threats to members and candidates likely goes beyond just those who have acknowledged them publicly. 

“With all the members that are talking about the threats they’re getting, you’ve got to wonder how many are not talking about the threats they’re getting,” he said. “It’s real.”

Herb Jackson and Stephanie Akin contributed to this report.