Is Mark Brnovich conservative enough for Arizona?

The Senate candidate and Grateful Dead fan is on a 'long, strange trip' in a changed Republican Party

Mark Brnovich, the attorney general of Arizona and a leading Republican candidate for Senate, boasts the sort of establishment credentials and prominent statewide profile that have given him a running start as he competes in one of the most high-profile races of the midterm elections.

His studded résumé, in contrast with an array of lesser-known GOP rivals, suggests some continuity with an individualist style of Republican politics that, while often idealized, has long been venerated in the historically conservative Copper State. As a college freshman, for instance, Brnovich interned with the self-proclaimed maverick John McCain, who was then a congressman, and later directed the Goldwater Institute’s Center for Constitutional Government, whose namesake, the former senator and McCain predecessor Barry Goldwater, is a founder of modern conservatism.

Brnovich, an experienced prosecutor who leans libertarian, casts himself as a party faithful who, as the state’s top law enforcement official, is also charting a solo path in the spirit of his personal heroes, including Robert F. Kennedy, Muhammad Ali and Jerry Garcia, the revered frontman of his favorite band, the Grateful Dead. 

“It’s a long, strange trip,” Brnovich, 55, quipped in a recent interview with Jewish Insider, invoking a popular line from “Truckin,” the shuffling Grateful Dead classic.

Lately, though, Brnovich — whose gravelly voice and scruffy beard contribute somewhat to his image as an avowed Deadhead — appears to have found himself adrift as former President Donald Trump has asserted his psychedelic spell over Arizona’s warped political landscape. Brnovich, who launched his campaign last June, has struggled to balance his messaging with appeals to Trump’s base, which remains in thrall to the former president’s unfounded attacks on the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. 

Brnovich might as well have committed political apostasy when he acknowledged that Joe Biden had won the election and sat alongside Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, as she certified the results in November 2020. More recently, the two-term attorney general has somewhat conspicuously dragged his feet on an investigation connected with the findings of a partisan election audit, commissioned by the Republican-controlled state Senate, that reaffirmed Biden’s victory.

Weeks before announcing his run, Brnovich took fire from the former president, who dismissed  him as “lackluster” in a blistering statement. “He is always on television promoting himself,” Trump said last May, “but never mentions the Crime of the Century, that took place during the 2020 Presidential Election, which was Rigged and Stolen.” While the former president appears to have softened his rhetoric in recent months — having described the Senate hopeful as a “good man” at a rally in Arizona last January — Trump has also emphasized that he is “anxiously waiting” for Brnovich to declare that the election was a “total fraud.”

Uncharacteristically for the often disputatious attorney general, Brnovich has shied away from addressing such tensions, arguing instead that he has been out front on election issues for longer than his opponents, who have faced little to no resistance from the former president. The attorney general, who includes a section about “restoring election integrity” on the issues page of his campaign website, cited a consequential Supreme Court case last summer in which he successfully defended some voting restrictions in Arizona that critics had accused of discrimination against minorities. “I stepped up, not my opponents,” Brnovich said. “They didn’t file briefs. That was me.” 

Even as Brnovich touts his decidedly hardline approach, one of his chief Republican rivals, Blake Masters, has more willingly pandered to Trump’s election lies. The well-funded venture capitalist has falsely declared that “Trump won in 2020,” and in an interview with JI not long ago, described Brnovich as “weak on election integrity.” Meanwhile, a pro-Masters super PAC — buoyed by a $10 million donation from his former boss, the right-wing tech billionaire Peter Thiel — has released attack ads targeting Brnovich over his alleged disloyalty to the former president.

Attorney General Mark Brnovich speaking with supporters at the 2016 Legislative Forecast Luncheon hosted by the Arizona Chamber of Commerce & Industry in Phoenix, Arizona. (Credit: Gage Skidmore)

The other GOP candidates in the August primary include Jim Lamon, a solar executive who has used a personal loan of at least $13 million to cut one of the more incendiary TV ads of the current election cycle; Michael McGuire, a former adjutant general of the Arizona National Guard; and Justin Olson, a state utility regulator who recently served as the chief financial officer of Turning Point USA, a Trump-aligned campus advocacy group. 

The former president has so far withheld his endorsement, despite attending a fundraiser for Masters last November. In conversation with JI, Brnovich was reluctant to dwell on Trump’s thought process, sounding mildly exasperated when the subject was raised. “I don’t know what the president or anyone else is going to do,” he said. “But I learned a long time ago in my career that if you want to talk about me and what I believe and why I believe it, I will talk to you about it and I will tell you.”

With five months remaining until the primary, the field remains mutable, even more so now that Arizona’s Republican governor, Doug Ducey, has finally removed himself from contention. The term-limited governor had resisted entreaties from GOP leadership in Washington who believed he was the party’s best shot to unseat Sen. Mark Kelly (D-AZ), the vulnerable Democratic incumbent. 

Brnovich said he respects “the job” Ducey “is doing” but declined to comment on any conversations about the race he has had with the governor, who has also drawn rebukes from Trump for affirming the presidential election results. Ducey’s exit was no doubt fortuitous for a relatively mainstream candidate like Brnovich, who has led public polling on the race, even as most voters say they are still undecided. But his surprisingly sluggish fundraising has, up to this point, proven incommensurate with his prestige status as a well-known elected official, fueling speculation over his viability.

According to the latest filings from the Federal Election Commission, Brnovich has raised just over $1.8 million, but entered the new year with only $770,000 on hand. He has been far outpaced by Lamon, who said he will ultimately spend $50 million of his own money, as well as Masters, who was sitting on $1.8 million as of Dec. 31. On Friday, Masters announced that his campaign had pulled in $1.1 million in the first quarter of 2022.

A spokesperson for the Brnovich campaign declined to disclose his latest fundraising numbers before the filing deadline on April 15.

While Brnovich entered the primary as a “soft frontrunner based on name ID and the fact that he had been elected statewide,” said Jessica Taylor, a Senate elections forecaster for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, “what he hasn’t been able to do is capitalize on that.” The attorney general is “just not running an impressive campaign by any means,” she told JI. “Unless he is able to match financial mettle,” Taylor added, “he could very well lose.”

For the moment, Kelly, a former astronaut who is seeking his first full term after unseating a Republican incumbent in 2020, maintains a comfortable cash advantage, having finished the year with approximately $19 million on hand. But the general election matchup, which Cook rates a toss-up, is widely expected to be competitive, due in part to seemingly favorable political headwinds for Republicans gunning to regain their majority in the upper chamber.

Ron Ober, a political consultant in Phoenix who supports Kelly and has worked closely with his campaign, believes the senator will be tough to beat, but he expressed uncertainty as to who among his Republican challengers would advance beyond the primary. “It’s unclear if Masters or Lamon can level the playing field with just money,” Ober told JI. “The conventional wisdom says that Brnovich has the advantage until he doesn’t.”

In the interview with JI, Brnovich was sanguine about his prospects. “Fortunately, no one has to guess where I stand because I’ve been involved in every single major fight in not only Arizona but this country over the last seven years,” he said. “When you look at law and order, someone that’s actually been toe-to-toe with the cartels and gangbangers, when you look at someone that literally lives in the same neighborhood they grew up in and cares about the price of gas and the price of groceries — I am a consistent rule-of-law Republican, and I think that’s what Arizonans want.”

Thomas J. Volgy, a professor of political science at the University of Arizona in Tucson, said Brnovich “has been actively using his position as attorney general with a series of high-profile lawsuits to challenge Democratic policies and to enshrine his very conservative credentials.” 

But it has been “hard to tell” how Brnovich is distinguishing himself ideologically from his primary challengers, according to Volgy. “All have tilted very far to the right in order to contest for conservative Republican votes,” he told JI in a recent email exchange. “In fact, given the short time between the primary and the general election, this tilt becomes a very significant liability both for Brnovich and his competitors.”

Echoing some of the red-meat conservative talking points that are now circulating in the race, Brnovich says he is running to address such issues as border security, federal government overreach, “attempts to socialize our economy” and policies that, he argues, “make us dependent on our energy needs from tyrants and dictators all over the world.”

Despite overlap with his opponents, Brnovich insisted that he is the only true believer in the race. “Arizonans deserve a senator that represents Arizona values, not somebody that’s trying to buy a Senate seat to fuel their own ego,“ Brnovich, who lives in Phoenix and is the son of ethnic Serbian immigrants from the former Yugoslavia, told JI. “I am somebody whose family has not just studied history, but lived it. My parents lived through World War II, they lived through communism, and I think anytime when you have that kind of background, you understand how important freedom is and how fragile liberty is.”

On foreign policy matters, particularly in the Middle East, Brnovich drew a contrast with Masters, whose non-interventionist approach has raised questions among Jewish community activists who have voiced concern that such views could influence his position on maintaining U.S. security assistance for Israel. Masters, for his part, has clarified that he is in favor of providing aid to Israel, while emphasizing a broader skepticism of funding for other countries.

Brnovich, however, cast doubt on the authenticity of that explanation. “I think it’s easy for someone who’s dropped into a Senate race that’s being supported by an out-of-state billionaire,” he told JI, “to say one thing and when they’re in front of another group or another show or on radio or TV, they’re saying something completely different.”

Describing himself as an “unabashed supporter of Israel” for his “entire life,” Brnovich said he is “wholeheartedly” in favor of continued U.S. security funding as well as supplemental assistance for Israel’s Iron Dome missile-defense system. Israel, he said, “is literally at the tip of the spear, and so anything that we do to help Israel helps the United States.”

Brnovich drew a parallel with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which he described as a “reprehensible attack,” to illustrate his support for security funding. “Folks need to understand that there are people out there that don’t respect international borders and mean us harm,” he said. “It’s important to have a good offense.”

In the fall of 2018, Brnovich visited Israel — “at no taxpayer expense,” he hastened to clarify —  for the second time since he assumed office. During the trip, he attended a financial technology conference in Tel Aviv and, with help from the Jewish National Fund, visited the city of Sderot near the border with Gaza, an experience he characterized as instructive. “I understand the threats to Israel’s existence are very, very real,” said Brnovich, recalling that he had toured a JNF-sponsored indoor recreation center designed to protect against rocket attacks from Hamas. “I’ve seen it firsthand.”

Looking elsewhere in the region, Brnovich endorsed legislation aimed at strengthening and expanding the Abraham Accords, which normalized diplomatic relations between Israel and a number of Arab nations in a series of historic agreements brokered by the Trump administration.

Brnovich opposes the Biden administration’s ongoing efforts to renegotiate a nuclear agreement with Iran, suggesting that the deal would jeopardize Israel’s security as well as broader stability in the Middle East. He argued for imposing economic sanctions that, he believes, will restrict Iran’s ability to create a nuclear weapon, and indicated that he is in favor of a range of diplomatic options, but did not provide specifics.

While he has no professional experience in the foreign policy realm, Brnovich touted his legal efforts to counter the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement targeting Israel. In Arizona, he said he has upheld a state law that prohibits government-funded contractors from boycotting the Jewish state. He has also taken the fight to the national level. Last year, for instance, Brnovich joined a multi-state coalition defending anti-BDS legislation in Arkansas that was found to have been in violation of the First Amendment. Brnovich, however, rejects the argument that such bills are unconstitutional, arguing instead that boycotts of Israel are potentially engaging in what he describes as “country-of-origin discrimination.” 

Mark Brnovich and Governor Jan Brewer speaking at the Arizona Republican Party primary night victory party at the Hyatt Regency in Phoenix, Arizona. (Credit: Gage Skidmore)

Brnovich has suggested that the BDS movement is motivated by anti-Jewish prejudice and amounts to “economic warfare” against Israel. “It seems like there’s a lot more hatred, there’s a lot more anger in this country and the world, and historically, when there are economic tensions, you get different ethnic groups scapegoated,” he mused. “We do have an obligation,” he added, “to stand up and call out” instances of “overt or even subtle antisemitism” wherever they occur.

In his own state, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle recently censured Republican state Sen. Wendy Rogers in a rare bipartisan vote, condemning social media comments in which she had espoused antisemitic conspiracy theories and called Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky a “globalist puppet” after speaking at a white nationalist conference hosted by a prominent Holocaust denier.

Brnovich, who commended the vote, emphasized that the legislature “is its own body” and that he respects “the separation of powers” between his office and the state Senate. “I think that was a very strong message,” he explained, “and an indication that anyone that coddles up to anyone engaging in any sort of antisemitic rhetoric, we have no tolerance or place for that in Arizona.”

In February, Brnovich was named in a lawsuit challenging the potential use of hydrogen cyanide — otherwise known as Zyklon B, the lethal gas found at Auschwitz — in executions of death row inmates in Arizona. Filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona on behalf of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Phoenix, the suit argues that hydrogen cyanide is a form of “cruel and unusual punishment” that violates the state constitution. 

Asked to address the lawsuit, Brnovich said “we need to keep in context why we have the death penalty,” adding: “Just like Adolf Eichmann deserved to be killed and the other Nazis that perpetuated crimes against humanity deserved” punishment, “I think society has a right to defend itself, and that includes executing those who commit unspeakable crimes.”

Tim Eckstein, who chairs the JCRC’s board in Phoenix, argued that Brnovich and his co-defendants have failed to address the substance of the suit, which does not call for the abolishment of the death penalty. “They’re not engaging on the core issue we’ve raised,” he said.

Brnovich, who has filed a motion to have the suit dismissed, said he could not comment directly on ongoing litigation. “I’m really kind of limited in getting into the weeds with the details of the different kinds of chemicals and drugs and the proposals,” he said. “We do the legal arguments, but it’s ultimately the Department of Corrections that comes up with the method.”

Eckstein does not believe the lawsuit has created tension between Brnovich and Jewish community leaders in Arizona who object to hydrogen cyanide. “He did not create this issue,” Eckstein told JI. 

The same, of course, might be said of his strained relationship with Trump.

Brnovich, who previously worked as a lobbyist for the Corrections Corporation of America, has held prosecutorial positions at the state and federal levels. He has also served as the director of Arizona’s Department of Gaming and as a command staff judge advocate in the U.S. Army National Guard.

In his quest to claim the seat once occupied by his old boss, John McCain, Brnovich said he recognized that there were challenges ahead, even as he expressed confidence that he would prevail. 

“I know there’s a lot of folks and there’s a lot of special interest and out-of-state money trying to influence this race,” Brnovich said. “When you’re a public school kid with a funny last name, you learn early on that you’ve just got to be a straight shooter, you’ve got to work hard, and you’ve got to be tough,” he emphasized. “You’ve got to be able to take a punch and give a punch.”

It was unclear, though, if he was including the former president in that assessment.

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