In Arizona’s governor’s race, the question is, ‘Where’s Katie?’

In Arizona’s governor’s race, the question is, ‘Where’s Katie?’

Arizona Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake with Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin at a campaign rally in Tucson, Ariz., on Oct. 19, 2022. (Rebecca Noble/The New York Times)

Arizona Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake with Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin at a campaign rally in Tucson, Ariz., on Oct. 19, 2022. (Rebecca Noble/The New York Times)

PHOENIX — Republican needling began after Katie Hobbs, Arizona’s Democratic candidate for governor, refused to participate in the ritual of an election-year televised debate, saying she did not want to give the platform to Kari Lake, denying her election Republican rival.

Then came the awkward encounter earlier this month, when Hobbs, the Arizona secretary of state, was approached by a member of the conservative group Project Veritas while eating alone at a fast food restaurant. In her haste to escape, she spilled her drink and ran into the bathroom.

And this week, Arizona reporters covering a major interview Hobbs gave with a Phoenix public television station tweeted that Hobbs snuck out of the building afterward without facing their questions.

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Now, in the final weeks of a race that recent polls show is nearly tied, Republican taunts follow Hobbs and worry her supporters: “Where’s Katie?”

Republicans are portraying Hobbs as an absentee candidate who isn’t tough or transparent enough to be governor. Her rival, Lake, a heat-seeking missile for the spotlight, performed a series of increasingly Barnumesque stunts to bring her to the finish line.

She appeared with an empty chair on stage to represent Hobbs. Her campaign brought a man in a yellow chicken suit on stage to dance around. Two of her supporters appeared at a Republican rally in “Where’s Waldo?” red striped shirts.

Hobbs and her campaign dismiss the criticism. They point out that Hobbs has given at least 23 interviews over the past month with mainstream journalists, left-leaning media and even one appearance with a conservative radio host from Arizona. She’s appeared at a pride parade, women’s march and phone banking events, and is spending the weekend campaigning with Latino leaders across the Phoenix area.

“I’m fighting every day to win this race,” Hobbs said Thursday as she answered questions after speaking with supermarket workers at a union hall in downtown Phoenix. Her campaign advertised the event in the media, but only two local news outlets sent reporters to cover it.

As for withdrawing after her appearance on Arizona Public Television, Hobbs said she didn’t know reporters were present, and her campaign said she had to leave for a full day of campaigning and official work as secretary of state.

This week, that work included resolving a voter registration database error that affected as many as 6,000 voters, and rejecting plans by a rural Arizona county to manually count all of its ballots.

Even her supporters worry that Hobbs, an underrated elected official who heads an office responsible for managing elections and overseeing state archives, may be ill-suited to run against a Trump protégé like Lake, who enjoys political combat.

Their differing styles have turned the campaign for the state’s highest office more into a clash of personalities than a battle of ideas — a dynamic Hobbs acknowledged after her campaign event Thursday.

“Kari Lake, as dangerous as she is to our democracy and the future of our state, is a good candidate,” Hobbs said.

In an email, Ross Trumble, a spokesman for the Lake campaign, responded that Hobbs was “single-handedly destroying a 20-year tradition of debate in Arizona while hiding from reporters in freight elevators.”

Hobbs, a social worker who worked for a domestic violence shelter, won the 2018 secretary of state race by less than 1 percentage point against a political newcomer; she was the first Democrat to win the office since 1995. The position of secretary of state is especially important in Arizona because the secretary of state is next in line for governor; the state does not have a lieutenant governor.

The 2018 election illustrates Hobbs’ narrow path to victory in a swing state that has supported Democrats in recent national races but returns Republicans to power in the state Capitol year after year.

Hobbs, who describes the race as “sanity versus chaos,” has been the target of death threats since defending Arizona’s election system against false allegations of fraud in the 2020 presidential race. Hobbs said Lake called for her arrest, a call Hobbs said could lead to vigilantism. Her campaign, worried about its security, is coordinating its moves with the police and security guards.

The race appears to reflect a broader midterm trend that has seen politicians cut back on debates and choose their public appearances carefully to avoid the possibility of hostile questions or run-ins with opponents. But in a bare-knuckle battle for control of Arizona, a state that could be key in the 2024 presidential election, even Hobbs’ supporters say they want to see him put up more of a fight.

With early voting already underway in the state, some of Hobbs’ supporters worry that attacks on her visibility are resonating. In interviews, they said they thought Hobbs could be drowned out by an opponent who supports a total abortion ban and has pledged to militarize the southern border.

“I really like what she stands for, the many qualities she has and what she’s already done, but I’m concerned,” Gloria Solorio, a City Council member in the Phoenix suburb of Avondale, who supports Hobbs. “We don’t see a debate. We don’t see that side of the story. We’re seeing another candidate put herself in the spotlight.”

Solorio said she is concerned that some of her co-workers at the hotel where she oversees housekeeping are wandering toward the lake. “Kari is really hungry for it,” she said. “You can tell.”

Brent Kleinman, who teaches business classes at Glendale Community College and supports Hobbs, said he thinks she may be playing it too safe by appearing with abortion rights supporters or union members instead of seeking an audience of Republicans and independent voters.

“You have to get in front of those people and tell them why it’s okay to vote Democrat,” Kleinman said. He said he hoped Hobbs could be a check on the Republican-led Legislature, which expanded school vouchers and conducted a party-based audit of the 2020 election results, but “she’s not selling that message.”

Lake, a former news anchor for a local Fox station, tried to turn the media into a campaign whipping boy. Like former President Donald Trump, she calls journalists “the enemy of the people”; she adds her theological embellishment, saying that the media is also “the right hand of the devil.”

At news conferences, Lake fields friendly questions from various conservative media outlets, but declined to answer questions from The Arizona Republic, the state’s leading newspaper. During the Republican primary, her campaign objected to having a reporter from the Arizona Republic moderate the only primary debate.

Lake has also been interviewed by various other news outlets, including CNN, local television stations and the New York Times.

Some Democrats have grown frustrated with what they describe as a misleading focus on the candidate’s personality that distracts from real issues such as Arizona’s rising housing costs, water shortages, deadly summer heat and wildfires, and underfunded school systems.

“Karie’s approach to the press is to shut down, accuse and insult, until she hopes Arizonans don’t realize she has no plans to improve their lives,” said Christina Amestoy, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Governors Association, which has spent $8 million in support. Hobbs.

On Thursday morning, the questions a group of grocery store workers asked for Hobbs barely mentioned a debate issue or a Republican barb. Instead, people wondered about paid leave, poverty in old age, and how the warmer climate made it dangerous to collect loose grocery carts in the 120-degree heat of an asphalt parking lot.

Estevan Rodriguez, 70, who works at a Fry’s supermarket in Tucson, said he is a staunch Hobbs supporter and is concerned that some co-workers and acquaintances are turning away and not planning to vote.

“She does a lot, but it’s hard to deal with all the lies,” Rodriguez said. “The choice could not be clearer. I don’t know why it’s not more clear to more people.”

© 2022 The New York Times Company

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