When Roman Pérez first spotted the Kandy Kaye Horn for Governor billboard looming above a Brownsville cafe that’s a popular political hangout, the conservative podcaster experienced a kind of sensory overload: a mix of curiosity, confusion, and amusement. First, he noted, the entire billboard is a Texas flag, with “SUCCESSFUL CHRISTIAN BUSINESSWOMAN: READY TO SERVE TEXAS” printed in block letters on the white portions. Second, his eye was drawn to the flag’s center, where a sixtysomething woman with hair that looks like it was colored with a burnt sienna crayon—the type of character Pérez said he meets at tea party meetings—wears a big smile. Third, and not least, he was taken aback by her dress, which appears to be made of cash money. 

Pérez, who teaches a Texas history course at Wayland Baptist University and has been immersed in local politics for twenty years, said the billboard scanned immediately as one for a Republican candidate, even though there is no mention of party. But he had never heard of Horn and wasn’t sure why a Republican candidate for statewide office would spend money to advertise in Southmost, the Brownsville neighborhood where the sign looms and where very few residents vote in GOP primaries. “This all went through my mind,” he recounted, “because I’m thinking, what is she trying to tell me, because there is so much in there.”

Later that day, Pérez took a picture of the 14-by-48-foot sign and tweeted it with words of bewilderment. He soon heard from other politicos who had been startled to see similar signs elsewhere—in Alamo, Harlingen, Mercedes, and Mission. Indeed, it turned out, Horn’s Brownsville billboard is one of 160 she paid to erect across the length and breadth of Texas in January, from El Paso to the Rio Grande Valley and from Amarillo to the Louisiana line. Horn’s message, never more than nine words, varies from place to place. In downtown San Angelo, instead of “SUCCESSFUL CHRISTIAN BUSINESSWOMAN,” she’s “A DIFFERENT KIND OF REPUBLICAN: READY TO LEAD TEXAS.”  In Austin, she’s “READY TO DECRIMINALIZE MARIJUANA: READY TO SERVE TEXAS.” But no one who responded to Pérez had ever heard of Horn, a retired Houston mortgage broker, philanthropist, and “baroness.”

Horn may be a novice candidate running a DIY campaign, but she is a well-funded (and self-funded) one. In an eight-candidate GOP primary field, she is spending on par with former Texas Republican Party chairman Allen West, a serious challenger, and behind only former state senator Don Huffines and Governor Greg Abbott. She’s already poured $1.4 million of her money into the race: a million on the billboards, a quarter million for a February blitz of newsprint ads and digital media with Hearst Newspapers, and $47,000 for T-shirts, fishing shirts, and baseball caps. As for the dress made of cash? No actual bills of hers were harmed in the making. Horn told me last week that she had sewn the dress out of shower curtain material. 

Her rationale behind the billboards—“a big rollout for name recognition”—and her dress was simple. “I thought it was funny because everybody thought that Donald Trump would be a good president because he was wealthy,” Horn said. “Some people don’t really understand who they’re voting for, but they vote for somebody that they know has already been successful.” (She did regret an error on her Austin billboard, however, telling me it should have read she was ready to legalize, and not just decriminalize, marijuana.)

Horn knows how unlikely her candidacy is. It wasn’t until this week that she launched a campaign website, and she has yet to start in-person campaigning for the March 1 primary. She has no paid staff, and told me she won’t hire any unless she makes it to a runoff against Abbott, should he fail to win more than 50 percent of the vote and should she place second in the primary field. Asked if she has a political guru to advise her, she said she did but was not ready to reveal her name. Horn seems comfortable with losing: the way she figures it, if her billboards and media blitz and call for legalizing marijuana gain her some traction, great, and if not, she said, “At least I put myself out there as a different alternative as a different choice. Certainly I have some different ideas than all the men that are on the podium.​​” (The other seven Republican candidates for governor are men.) 

But running a campaign she’s okay with losing has not come without a learning curve and moments of panic. When we talked on January 21, she had not filed campaign finance statements with the Texas Ethics Commission, beginning with the report covering the period from her announcement on November 13 to the end of December that was due three days before our conversation. “Well, I wasn’t told that I needed to since I’m funding myself,” Horn told me. 

I explained to her the potential perils of her missing the cutoff: she might receive a $500 fine for each filing period she missed, and under state election code she could face even bigger consequences. All candidates for statewide office must appoint a campaign treasurer and file that name with the TEC before accepting campaign contributions or authorizing campaign expenditures, which Horn had not done. Under an obscure section of the code (Section 253.131), if she failed to appoint a treasurer, each of her opponents could seek damages from her for twice the value of her expenditures, plus “reasonable attorney’s fees.” That meant, theoretically, that if all seven opponents sued, Horn’s $1.4 million in spending could have left her on the hook for $19.6 million, plus legal fees. “Oh goodness,” Horn said in response to my warning. Hours after our conversation, she had filed some of her paperwork, and did the rest by the following Monday. She had appointed herself treasurer of her campaign, which is permissible under state law. 

In a mean campaign season in American political life, a well-heeled amateur campaign does have its quirky charm. But $1.4 million is an expensive indulgence. So why is Horn running?  

While she may be a political neophyte, Horn is an accomplished philanthropist, with a compelling rags-to-riches story. She grew up 25 miles east of Dallas and was raised by a single mother who worked in the cafeteria at Terrell State Hospital. When she was fifteen, she and her mother were in a car accident. The damage wasn’t serious, but because her mother had a history of heart trouble, an ambulance came to take her to the hospital for assessment. On the way there, the ambulance was T-boned at an intersection. Horn’s mother wasn’t well secured in the gurney and was thrown from it, breaking her neck and killing her. Horn, who was also in the ambulance, was unharmed. 

After Horn was orphaned, Jeremiah 29:11—a bible verse that is referenced, but not quoted, on her billboards—provided her life with meaning and inspiration. “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future,’” the passage reads.

The morning after Horn graduated from high school she left Terrell for Sam Houston State University, starting with a summer session, and paid her way through college on financial aid and a work-study program. She finished her degree at Texas Christian University, and then earned an MBA from the University of Texas at Arlington in 1981. After graduating, she became a successful mortgage broker in Houston. 

Years later, in 2014, she founded the Horn Family Foundation with her second husband, Stephen Horn, who works in the energy industry. They began philanthropic efforts, prominently supporting groups including the Salvation Army, the Houston Food Bank, and Career & Recovery Resources Inc., which helps veterans, and those with histories of drug and alcohol abuse or felony backgrounds, overcome barriers to employment. Over the years, she said, the foundation has given away about $6 million. 

When Kandy Kaye divorced Stephen Horn in 2015, she got the foundation. Two years later, she assumed the title “baroness.” But there is no baron, no castle, and no noble bloodline. “I bought that title from the house of Marlborough, England,” she explained. “That’s Winston Churchill’s family.” She had read about the practice of purchasing baronies in the New York Times, and said hers cost 15,000 pounds sterling (at today’s rate, just more than $20,000). “I just thought it was quirky and might get me some upgrades on hotels, or a cruise ship,” she told me. (Pressed for details about acquiring the title, Horn said the purchase was made on the internet, and that she received a certificate from England attesting to her being the “baroness of Churchill,” but couldn’t vouch for its legitimacy.) She promptly changed the name of the Horn Family Foundation to the Baroness Kandy Kaye Horn Foundation

Horn’s politics seem shaped by her philanthropic philosophy. “She has an unusual combination of empathy, but also follows the bootstrap theory,” said Kelly Young, the CEO of Career and Recovery Resources. “So she cares and she wants things to go well for people, but she also expects people to do what they’re supposed to do to make their lives work.”

Indeed, the baroness appears to have a sense of noblesse oblige to match her aristocratic nomenclature that is guiding her run for governor. “I know you can’t drink diamonds and you can’t chew gold,” she told me. “You can’t digest currency. And you can’t take it with you. There’s not a U-Haul behind the hearse. So you have to decide what the purpose of your life is, and I decided my purpose in my life is to be a cheerleader, to be someone that cares—a caretaker.” 

Horn has been considering running for governor for a couple of years. “I just thought if I can make a change, if I can make a contribution, I could try to do something, because I had the means to do it and I think I have some answers.” 

While she doubts Abbott can be beaten, she believes he merits opposition for what she views as his meanness of spirit. She recalls that when he was running for governor in 2014, he supported tort reform that would make it harder to win the kind of settlement he received after he was hit by a falling tree while jogging in Houston in 1984, leaving him paralyzed. “I thought that was kind of duplicitous of him, to first make money from a lawsuit and then stop other people from having that same privilege and right to justice,” Horn said. (When her mother was killed, Horn noted, she could have brought a wrongful death suit, “but when you’re just suddenly orphaned at fifteen, that’s really not the first thing on your mind.”)

Horn said she has identified mostly as a Republican since the Reagan era, though her voter file shows she has oscillated between casting ballots in GOP and Democratic primaries. She told me she especially admired George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, and John McCain. But she also noted an affection for Ann Richards, who she said “was funny and good and all of that.” She is not a fan of Donald Trump, and during the 2020 nominating process repeatedly promoted a Mike Bloomberg/Elizabeth Warren ticket on her Facebook page. She also supported Beto O’Rourke in his 2018 bid to unseat Senator Ted Cruz, though she considers her support for the politician now running for the Democratic nomination for governor to have been “short-sighted.” Her pitch to voters leans into her softer conservatism. “I can offer a different type of conservative Republican,” she said. “I’m a woman, I can be compassionate, I can be empathetic, but also I can be strong and make some hard decisions.” 

On many issues, Horn treads familiar GOP ground. She supports an “impenetrable” border wall and an increase in deportations. She complains that “there’s practically no deportation of criminals back to Mexico, I mean real criminals.” But she hits both Trump and Abbott for their responses to the pandemic. She didn’t support the two stimulus packages signed by Trump in 2020. “That’s basically mailing free money to people,” she told me. “Free money is not appreciated or saved.” And although she stayed very close to home from February 2020 to April 2021, she faults Abbott’s early pandemic shelter-in-place order. “Ordering Texans to stay home, I think that was a mistake. We’re kind of in a state of wide-open spaces.” 

Marijuana legalization is her platform’s other linchpin. “It will transform our state in terms of sales tax revenue, enterprise, more businesses,” Horn says. She plans to use the new tax revenue to increase teacher compensation. Legalization might, she noted, also be good for her long-shot candidacy. “Let’s just say all the youngsters come out and the marijuana legalization is a big deal, it’s a big punch item for them and so they say, `Well, let’s go with this Kandy Kaye Horn. We know she’s gonna do that. That’s concrete.’”