Horne could face bloody, expensive battle in 2014 attorney general race
Tom Horne has long maintained that he’s innocent of the campaign finance allegations against him, but he may not get a chance to prove it until after voters have decided whether to give him a second term as attorney general.
Thanks to the scandals that have clouded his first term, Horne has drawn a Republican primary challenger — former Arizona Department of Gaming Director Mark Brnovich. And Democrats are eagerly anticipating the possibility of a rematch between Horne and their 2010 nominee, Felecia Rotellini, who ran a fairly close race against Horne in a year when every other statewide Democratic candidate lost by double digits.
Horne is badly wounded, and political observers from both sides of the aisle say Brnovich and Rotellini have a path to victory in the race. But many say Horne is still the frontrunner, and warn that even though he’s vulnerable, he shouldn’t be underestimated.
“I still think the primary is Tom Horne’s to lose. It may be a bloody battle and it may be an expensive battle, but I still think Tom Horne will come out on top in the primary,” said Bert Coleman, a Republican political consultant.
Brian Murray, also a Republican campaign consultant, said Horne is probably still the frontrunner in the primary. But the campaign finance allegations are toxic, he said.
“I think a silver bullet is putting it lightly. This is a neutron bomb here that destroys people,” Murray said.
The campaign finance allegations against Horne stem from a joint investigation by the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office and the FBI. They concluded, as did Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk this month, that Horne’s campaign illegally coordinated with Business Leaders for Arizona, an independent expenditure run by Kathleen Winn, who is now a top aide to Horne at the Attorney General’s Office.
FBI investigators who were tailing Horne during the investigation saw him back into a car and leave the scene in a downtown Phoenix area parking garage. He has since pleaded no contest to minor traffic charges in the case. The FBI alleged that Horne left the scene to hide an affair with Carmen Chenal, a former law partner and subordinate at the time, who was in the car with him.
Polk determined that $400,000 contributed to BLA was in effect an illegal in-kind contribution to Horne’s campaign, and has ordered the attorney general and Winn to repay the money. They are fighting the charges.
Prosecuting the attorney general
Brnovich said he is primarily focused on his qualifications for the Attorney General’s Office, including stints as a federal, state and county prosecutor, and was hesitant to discuss the myriad problems facing Horne. But during a recent meeting with conservative activists in north Phoenix, Brnovich took several swipes at Horne’s legal and ethical issues, telling the crowd that Arizona needs an attorney general who will work with the FBI, not be investigated by them.
Murray said Brnovich will have to hammer Horne on his campaign finance problems in order to win.
“It’s really incumbent upon Brnovich and his campaign to essentially prosecute the attorney general,” Murray said.
Others question how potent such attacks will be. Republican consultant Chris Baker said the campaign finance issues are the key to victory for Brnovich. But voters may not care about the details of campaign finance laws, as some people believe, he said.
“There’s an argument to be made … that campaign finance stuff is too inside baseball,” Baker said.
Baker said Brnovich has a chance to win. But Horne is a “heavy favorite,” he said.
Horne said his record speaks for itself. He touted his fight against corruption and child abuse in the polygamous enclave of Colorado City, his role in a national settlement against mortgage lenders, his anti-consumer-fraud efforts and his battles against the Obama administration, the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Labor Relations Board.
The attorney general said he expects to win his case, and in fairly short order.
“The charges are false. The case can proceed fairly quickly to a hearing and I expect a favorable ruling from the Administrative Law Judge in the near future,” Horne told the Arizona Capitol Times in an email.
Lobbyist and consultant Chuck Coughlin, a Horne supporter who plans to work for the attorney general’s campaign, said he believes voters will focus more on Horne’s record than on the campaign finance issues. He compared the situation to former Gov. Fife Symington’s 1994 re-election, when he cruised to victory over a primary challenger who pummeled him over his ongoing legal problems.
“The focus was on his record as governor. And Tom seems fairly engaged about communicating with the electorate about his record and what he has done,” Coughlin said. “You’re not going to get elected the next attorney general just by not being Tom Horne. You’re going to have to convince people why you’d be better. And that’s going to be a lot more issues than just this.”
When Polk announced the findings of her investigation, Rotellini was quick to take advantage of the news. In a fundraising plea, Rotellini decried Horne’s “blatant lawbreaking” and accused him of “cheating his way into public office.”
Some Republicans are concerned that if Horne wins the GOP nomination again, he will make an easy target for Rotellini. They’re concerned that the party will give up one of the state’s top offices to a Democrat and set Rotellini up as a rising star in Arizona politics.
Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, who encouraged Brnovich to run after his case against Horne was taken from him, insisted that Horne can’t win the general election.
“He loses bad,” Montgomery said. “Horne is such damaged goods.”
Brnovich insists that he will be the better candidate against Rotellini.
“I think it’s important that we have a candidate who can win the general election,” he said.
Many Democrats agree. While some are bullish about Rotellini’s chances against either Republican, some say they would much rather see her in a rematch with Horne.
Bob Grossfeld, a Democratic consultant, said Rotellini has a shot against Brnovich. But he views her as the favorite against Horne.
“I think Horne is God’s gift to the Democrats. This fellow has 10 miles of bad road in back of him. I’m surprised he’s got any traction at all,” Grossfeld said.
Campaign finance issues aren’t the only problems Horne faces. He pleaded no contest to traffic charges from the parking garage incident, which opponents refer to as a hit-and-run.
And the FBI claimed that Horne was having an affair with Chenal, who until recently had a six-figure job at the Attorney General’s Office. Horne would not answer a question from the Arizona Capitol Times on whether he had an affair with Chenal, but vigorously defended her record and credentials at the Attorney General’s Office.
Some consultants said the alleged affair could hurt him, but it could also backfire on Brnovich or Rotellini if they go after him on those kinds of personal issues.
“It’s highly likely they will (use it). It’s unclear if that will be the right move. Personal issues along those lines are very, very tricky,” Baker said.
Horne noted that the owner of the vehicle he backed into didn’t notice any damage, and later told investigators that a dent in the car was caused by his son.
A clear path
Aside from the plethora of problems facing Horne, Rotellini may have some advantages that she didn’t have in 2010. Last time, both Horne and Rotellini came into the general election almost flat broke after tough primary battles. This time, Rotellini may have a clear path to the Democratic nomination. Former Democratic Attorney General Terry Goddard has said he is considering a run for his old job, but there is widespread doubt among Democrats about whether he’ll actually get in.
Rotellini said the experience from her 2010 campaign will help next year. She also said she is cautiously optimistic that she won’t have an opponent in the Democratic primary.
“I am not at all concerned about which candidate comes out of the primary. My message resonates now and will resonate in the general,” Rotellini said. “Having the 2010 election under my belt gives me name recognition. I only lost in 2010 by 3.8 percent. I think. So we’re very excited about starting early and really getting my message out to all corners of the state.”
Rodd McLeod, a Rotellini campaign consultant, said 2014 will almost certainly be better for Democrats than 2010, the best Republican election year in a generation. And Rotellini is experienced on the campaign trail, as opposed to 2010, when she was a first-time candidate.
Whichever way the GOP primary goes, McLeod said Rotellini is in good shape for the general.
“She’ll either be running for another open seat after a kind of nasty, ugly civil war in the opposing party, or she’ll be running against a damaged incumbent who has not lived up to the ethical standards that people expect,” he said.
Horne said 2014 will be different as well, but not in a good way for Rotellini. He noted that the Committee for Justice and Fairness, an independent expenditure funded by the Democratic Attorneys General Association, spent $1.5 million against him in 2010, compared to the $500,000 that BLA spent supporting his campaign. CJF was later found to have violated campaign finance laws as well.
“There were a lot of dark money groups dropping money for ads that distorted my record. This time around I am the incumbent with results that the voters can be informed about and judge,” he said.
Horne said he expects a “spirited campaign” against Rotellini, but that voters will “again reject her liberal ideas” and opt instead for his proven leadership.
“Ms. Rotellini is a retread candidate who feels she has a score to settle,” Horne said.
As for Brnovich, Horne said he has no path to victory.
“He was a 3rd string choice when other more prominent potential candidates chose not to challenge me,” Horne said.
Democratic lobbyist Barry Dill compared the race to the 1998 attorney general’s race, when Janet Napolitano narrowly won the general election over Tom McGovern, the winner of a brutal Republican primary.
“You had John Kaites and you had … Tom McGovern just basically trashing each other, and you have this eminently qualified person on the Democratic side just standing there, didn’t have to spend money on a primary,” Dill said. “I see a lot of parallels.”
Coughlin said Democrats should be careful what they wish for if they’re hoping for a rematch with Horne. And Brnovich, he said, simply can’t win the primary.
Despite his problems, Horne still has a lot going for him. He is widely known as a fierce and hardworking campaigner who knows how to win a tough race. In 2010, he won a bruising primary against former Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas. And in 2002, he was elected superintendent of public instruction after defeating incumbent Republican Jaime Molera in the primary.
As opposed to 2010, when Thomas was the favorite of grassroots conservatives and Tea Party activists who were largely hostile to Horne, the Republican base is quite happy with Horne these days. In nearly three years as attorney general, Horne has championed numerous conservative causes, even arguing personally at the U.S. Supreme Court in favor of Arizona’s voter identification laws.
Horne is also a proven fundraiser with a history of putting his own money into his campaigns, if needed. He loaned himself $350,000 in his 2010 campaign, and a half million in his 2002 schools superintendent campaign.
If Brnovich wants to compete, observers say, he’ll need enough money to get his message out. And so far, no one is sure whether he’ll be able to raise it.
Murray said Brnovich will have to raise at least $1 million. And even that might not be enough, he said.
“I think there’s a big question mark on that,” Murray said. “You’re going to need, I think, at least $1 million on television alone.”
Brnovich has never had to raise money for a campaign. Baker said Brnovich should have gotten into the race earlier so he could start raising money.
But the host committee for a November fundraiser suggests that he’s off to a good start. The host committee includes Tucson auto dealership owner Jim Click, a major funder of Republican campaigns and causes, and longtime GOP operative Steve Twist, who has ties to deep-pocketed contributors.
“I think a silver bullet is putting it lightly. This is a neutron bomb here that destroys people.” — Republican campaign consultant Brian Murray.
“She (Democrat Felecia Rotellini) will either be running for another open seat after a kind of nasty, ugly civil war in the opposing party, or she’ll be running against a damaged incumbent who has not lived up to the ethical standards that people expect.’’ — Rotellini campaign consultant Rodd McLeod.
“I think (Bnrovich) has a chance. But by no means is he even remotely the favorite. I think Horne at this point in time is probably a heavy favorite.” — Republican campaign consultant Chris Baker.
“Ms. Rotellini is a retread candidate who feels she has a score to settle.” — Attorney General Tom Horne.
“(Brnovich) was a 3rd string choice when other more prominent potential candidates chose not to challenge me.” — Attorney General Tom Horne.
“I think Horne is God’s gift to the Democrats.” — Democratic political consultant Bob Grossfeld.