PHOENIX — He has been caught by FBI agents leaving the scene of a parking-garage fender-bender after a lunchtime tryst, a mishap that exposed not only the affair, but also a federal investigation into alleged campaign finance violations, which ended unceremoniously and without any charges.
Six weeks before the primary elections here, those are the least of the concerns for the Arizona attorney general, Tom Horne. The Arizona secretary of state’s office said this week that there was enough evidence to support a full investigation of accusations that Horne used his staff in his re-election campaign. Arizona elections officials are also looking into whether he committed campaign improprieties. Gov. Jan Brewer, Sen. John McCain and Sen. Jeff Flake have all turned their backs on him.
Though Horne is a powerful figure for Arizona’s conservative voters, his mounting legal problems have nonetheless come to threaten his credibility, his credentials and his chances at re-election.
Support from fellow Republicans has shrunk almost as quickly as the accusations of improprieties have surfaced, fueled most recently by a former employee’s complaints that she and others routinely worked on Horne’s campaign at the taxpayers’ expense, under the guidance and approval of the attorney general. Arizona’s junior senator, Flake, has gone as far as asking Horne to drop his bid for a second term, saying it is important that Republicans hold on to the seat, but that it is not likely if Horne’s name is on the ballot.
His biggest snub came Thursday, when Brewer endorsed his challenger, a former prosecutor and state gaming director, Mark Brnovich, in the Aug. 26 primary. Although he is little known among voters, Brnovich retains a consultant, Sean Noble, who has deep ties to the Koch brothers, the powerful Republican donors. These days, Brnovich’s robust list of backers reads like a who’s who of Republican influencers, including former Sen. Jon Kyl and the Maricopa County prosecutor, Bill Montgomery, one of the most fervent defenders of Arizona’s restrictive abortion rules.
“There is Horne and then there is anybody but Horne,” said Stan Barnes, a public affairs consultant and former Republican state legislator. “Brnovich is standing in as the candidate who is anybody but Horne.”
Brewer’s endorsement came a day after Jim Drake, the Arizona assistant secretary of state, asked the state’s solicitor general – who reports to Horne – to investigate whether Horne violated campaign finance laws; the solicitor general has referred the case to independent counsel. And Friday, a judge held the first hearing in a lawsuit filed by Horne to stop the Arizona Clean Elections Commission from pursuing the same issue.
For his part, Horne does not seem worried.
“There’s no question I’ll win the primary,” he said in an interview Thursday.
During his more than 30 years in public office, Horne has been known as a skilled political maneuverer. He changed his affiliation to Republican from Democrat ahead of his run for the state Legislature, where he served for four years, using some of the money he made as a successful private-practice lawyer to become prominent in Arizona’s Republican circles.
In 2002, he defeated the incumbent Jaime Molera, a protégé of Gov. Jane Dee Hull, in the Republican race for schools superintendent, investing roughly $500,000 to pay for a barrage of negative ads that accused his opponent of failing to institute the state’s ban on bilingual education. Once elected, Horne moved to champion the extinction of the Mexican-American studies program at the Tucson Unified School District, saying that it offered a skewed interpretation of history and was therefore racist against whites.
He became attorney general in 2010, riding the furor over illegal immigration in Arizona that helped secure Brewer’s victory and the Republican Party’s hold on every statewide office, as well as its supermajority in the Legislature. He pledged to vigorously enforce the state’s “show me your papers” law, which asked the police to check the immigration status of people they stopped who they suspected were not citizens.
Most recently, he threatened to sue the federal government for sending to Arizona some of the migrants apprehended by border agents in Texas, scoring points among some voters.
He lists as one of his chief accomplishments the successful defense before the Supreme Court of an Arizona law that made proof of U.S. citizenship a requirement for voter registration.
“The responses I get from voters are very enthusiastic; I get standing ovations,” Horne said. “They know I’m the only federal official to have had success fighting against federal government overreach.”
Horne has nonetheless remained an oddity of sorts in the state’s largely homespun political circles: a Harvard graduate and a skilled classical pianist known for serenading allies at fundraisers with passionate renditions of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”
Chuck Coughlin, a political consultant who has served as an informal adviser to Horne, described him as “not a people person” and so erudite that “lobbyists, me included, have a hard time getting through.” Tom Jenney, Arizona director for Americans for Prosperity, said Horne had lost the support of many fiscal conservatives by refusing to sue the state over its Medicaid expansion plan, which includes a fee to be paid by hospitals that opponents have characterized as an illegal tax.
For Brnovich, a fast-talking Grateful Dead fan with a law degree from the University of San Diego, Horne has been an “attorney general of convenience,” picking his cases based on the political points they might score. He has also become “a distraction,” Brnovich said, “and, quite frankly, an embarrassment” to the state.
One of the accusations Horne is facing is that a three-ring binder labeled “Border Patrol” that he kept on the shelf behind his desk carried instead a list of campaign donors, whom he called from his office to solicit donations.
“At the end of the day,” Brnovich said, “we need an attorney general that doesn’t have his personal defense attorney on speed dial.”
Horne said the allegations against him came from a “disgruntled employee” and were part of an “orchestrated smear campaign by some elements of the Republican establishment.” He added, “I’ll be vindicated.”
So far, Brnovich has struggled to capitalize on Horne’s tribulations. His campaign raised $76,500 between Jan. 1 and May 31. While that is more than the roughly $50,000 Horne raised in the same period, the attorney general’s campaign has five times as much money in the bank. The only Democrat in the race, Felecia Rotellini - a former professional bodybuilder who worked as a prosecutor under three Arizona attorneys general and came within 4 percentage points of defeating Horne in 2010 - has raised more than $1 million, including, she said, $76,000 just in month June.
For the primaries, at least, Horne said he was banking on his money, his record and his name recognition to beat his challenger.
“Brnovich,” he said dismissively. “Nobody’s ever heard of him.”