The race to become Maricopa County's next top prosecutor, just weeks in, is beginning to heat up. And not in a good way.
On May 11, interim Maricopa County Attorney Rachel Mitchell — currently the Republican frontrunner for the vacated seat — sent out an email to supporters, urgently seeking donations.
“George Soros is at it again!” read the subject line.
The message marked a shift in the tone of the county attorney’s race — which will determine who steers the powerful Maricopa County Attorney's Office out of troubled waters.
In November 2020, when the last election for the job took place, the Republican and Democratic candidates — Allister Adel and Julie Gunnigle, respectively — ran on a platform of reform. Despite distinct approaches, both promised to take a second look at some policies deemed harsh and defining.
If her initial campaign messaging is any indication, Mitchell seemingly is taking a different tack. She presented herself initially as a reasonable, no-nonsense, conservative. It took only a few weeks for her to begin railing about Soros, a bogeyman for the tough-on-crime right.
“Soros and his daughter are behind efforts to 'Defund the Police' and are trying to undermine our criminal justice system at every turn,” she wrote in the May 11 email that sought donations. This had resulted in a “crime surge across the United States.”
If she were not elected, Mitchell implied, this surge would arrive in Maricopa County: “Can I count on your support to help fight off the Soros machine?”
Mitchell's campaign explained the email in a statement to Phoenix New Times.
"The Maricopa County Attorney's race is vitally important and it is critical that voters understand how special interest groups have contributed to failed policies in other cities like Chicago and San Francisco where violent crime is surging," it reads. "The safety of this community is Rachel's number one priority."
Mitchell’s current chief of staff at the county attorney’s office, Jennifer Liewer, said she couldn’t comment on campaign matters.
Former County Attorney Adel resigned from her post at the end of March, a little over a year into her first elected term. Adel’s time at the office was marked by scandal, over the political prosecutions of Black Lives Matter protesters, which were dropped after an outcry, and questions about her sobriety. Adel died at just age 45 on April 30.
After Adel’s resignation, candidates quickly put their names in the running to fill the vacancy. As it stands, Mitchell and Gina Godbehere, both of whom have spent decades as prosecutors at the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, are vying for the Republican nomination. Gunnigle, a private attorney who narrowly lost to Adel in November 2020, is the lone Democratic contender.
Last month, the county board of supervisors appointed Mitchell to serve as the interim county attorney until voters choose a full-term replacement. This means Mitchell is approaching the August primaries armed with the advantage of incumbency.
Mitchell has had a long tenure with MCAO, and has served in its highest ranks, working for a time as the second-in-command. She is perhaps best known for her role at the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh in 2018, when she interrogated him and Christine Blasey Ford, who had accused him of sexual assault.
She has positioned herself as a seasoned, well-respected conservative prosecutor. In prior interviews with New Times and while making other public statements, Mitchell has emphasized that she has the experience required to address the issues and instability that many saw in the office during Adel’s tenure.
But although she has touted a focus on victim’s rights, she has paid less lip service to broader questions of criminal justice reform than her predecessor.
This recent email signals that, unlike Adel, Mitchell is beginning to adopt the tough-on-crime posture that had once defined the agency. Crime was surging, she wrote in her email last week, due to liberal prosecutors advocating criminal justice reforms, and the “special interests” backing them.
Gunnigle was quick to bash Mitchell for her latest statements, calling it a “conspiratorial and anti-Semitic campaign stunt.”
“Anti-Semitism should always be rejected and I think will be firmly rejected by the voters,” she said, adding: “My finance records are public. Rachel Mitchell’s comments, as usual, are lies to her base.”
Mitchell's campaign was dismissive of Gunnigle's accusations: "[Mitchell] is focused on addressing issues like prosecuting dangerous criminals and drug cartels to make our neighborhoods safe, not making baseless accusations against those running against her."
Gunnigle declined further interview requests and said she stood by her claims.
Soros, a philanthropist and businessman, is Jewish. At times, criticisms of his philanthropy deploy anti-Semitic tropes, as Jewish civil rights organizations like the Anti-Defamation League have noted. It is true, though, that Soros has spent millions on local prosecutor races over the last few years, among other political causes.
And he has stepped into this county's politics in the past, most memorably in 2016. That's when he donated $2 million to a group working to prevent Joe Arpaio’s re-election as sheriff of Maricopa County. He also spent over $1 million in the county attorney’s race that year. A review of all active and inactive independent expenditure committees registered with Maricopa County shows that Soros has not spent money independently in a county race since 2016.
Gunnigle never has received any direct funding from Soros, records show. In 2020, Gunnigle reported donations from five political action committees. Two were trade unions, two were local political groups supporting Arizona Democrats, and one was Emily's List, a Washington, D.C.-based group that gives money to pro-choice Democratic female candidates.
Emily’s List has reported donations from Soros in the past, but the organization has a wide range of donors and has no close ties to him, in particular. Emily’s List gave Gunnigle $6,450, according to campaign finance records. The majority of her fundraising, $360,900, came from individual donations (Soros was not one of them).
Mitchell’s campaign didn’t provide any evidence of independent expenditures by Soros in the 2020 county attorney’s race. “There is little doubt that Soros is interested in the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office so we must be prepared,” the email said of the 2022 race.
Though it’s still early, in first-quarter reports in the county attorney’s race, Gunnigle reported $39,133 in funding, all from individual donations. Mitchell did not report any fundraising in her first-quarter filing, save for $25,000 of her own money.