Kari Lake was supposed to be non-selective. Now she is the favorite.
PHOENIX—Not long ago, many in Arizona wondered how Kari Lake — a far-right Trump darling and former local TV news anchor — could win a gubernatorial campaign in a volatile state.
Now many are wondering how Lake could possibly lose.
During the heated primary race, Lake’s GOP rivals labeled her as poisonous and unchosen. Many Democrats had hoped that she would be the GOP nominee, believing that she was it will surely crash under the bright lights of the general election campaign.
In the last three months, however, something else has happened.
Lake has quickly consolidated Republican support, and her raucous Trump-style rallies have served to demonstrate the exceptionally high level of enthusiasm among the GOP faithful for her gubernatorial bid.
In the process, Lake overshadowed the cautious campaign of her Democratic rival, Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, who is a seasoned public servant but not a campaign presence. As she struggles to match the intensity among Democrats that Lake engenders among Republicans, Hobbs has focused on policy roundtables and highlighting issues like abortion access to engage her base and reach independent voters.
While there is he barely pretended To take hold of the center, Lake used her name recognition from decades on Phoenix TV — and the headwinds Democrats face in the economy — to win over voters outside the hardline GOP base. If the polls are any indication, the strategy may be paying off: Lake has been leading or tied in all recent polls of the race, though most margins are slim.
In the final days of the campaign, uneasiness is spreading among those worried that Arizona could elevate the next big star of the MAGA right as its governor.
Gay Willits, an interior designer from Scottsdale, said she’s “praying to God” that Lake doesn’t win and hopes Hobbs “gets some more exposure.”
“Kari Lake seems like someone who wants something,” said Stephen Martin, a retiree and staunch Democrat, outside a polling place in Scottsdale. “Katie Hobbs looks like someone who wants to be left alone.”
An Arizona Democratic operative, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, said a Hobbs victory was still possible but predicted the Democratic cap on Nov. 8 could consist of re-electing Sen. Mark Kelly (D-AZ). and Adrian Fontes defeating the real Mark Finchem from 2020 in the race for Secretary of State.
In an interview after a Planned Parenthood panel discussion in downtown Phoenix, Hobbs said she had to run a campaign that was “authentic to who I am.”
“Kari Lake is running the campaign she’s running, we’re running the campaign we’re running, and we’re focused on talking to those undecided voters and making sure we get the voters we need to vote for us in this election,” Hobbs said.
“I don’t see us losing ground,” she added. “Every single poll is statistically tied within the margin of error, and I believe the data that we’re seeing in our polls, and I feel really good about our path to winning this race.”
In Arizona, recent statewide elections have been among the closest and tightest contests anywhere in the country, and there’s plenty of reason to believe this year’s race for governor will follow suit. The Cook Political Report rates the governor’s race as a “toss-up,” and in the past two days, a series of polls have shown Hobbs tied with Lake.
Democrats continue to pour money and organize firepower into the race, and on Wednesday they’ll get a boost: Former President Barack Obama is leading a rally in Phoenix for Hobbs and Kelly. This election season, he is expected to deliver some of the harsh criticism he has leveled at Republicans running elsewhere.
How Arizona voters decide this race will have huge ramifications: A victory in Lake would represent a conspiracy-fueled overhaul of the state’s election system, restricting access to abortion and a steady stream of combat stunts such as threats to arrest certain federal officials upon arrival in Arizona.
But one outcome of this contest is already assured: the unleashing of a powerful new force in the Republican Party. Before the votes are even counted, Lake is being talked about as a potential Trump running mate if he runs again in 2024.
“This doesn’t stop here,” said the Arizona Democratic strategist.
Even going to a Lake campaign rally feels like going to a Trump campaign rally, right down to Elton John blaring over the loudspeakers when the crowd goes home.
On Saturday night in the liberal college town of Tempe, a crowd of about 150 people gathered for the Curry Lake experience. A large TV screen played anti-Hobbs videos before a long, slickly produced mini-biography of Lake’s life was shown. Senate candidate Blake Masters, whose name technically appears above Lake’s on the ballot, was just the opening act.
Taking the stage to a rapturous reception from the crowd, Lake began her sharp speech by mentioning that someone recently asked her if she was enjoying the campaign. “I realized I was working so hard that I wasn’t thinking about whether I was enjoying this,” she said. “I’m enjoying this!”
In about half an hour, Lake unleashed Trump’s balance of hard-right politics, gratuitous media onslaught, and considerable self-regard. She spoke of her decision to end her career in news and run for office as divinely inspired. “I know God gave me the courage to leave my job,” Lake told the audience. “I really believe he wanted to free me to run for office. I know that because of the movement—it’s really none of my business. It’s about us the people.”
Also, as with Trump, Lake’s campaigns revolved around preaching to the choir. At one point at her event, she asked everyone who voted Republican to raise their hands. When basically all hands went up, she said, “Okay then, let’s just have fun.” Her smooth talk talks about topics like vocational education, but at heart is red meat on issues like immigration and crime and fierce attacks on the media and Democrats.
In literally the same breath, Lake said Republicans are for “common sense” policies before praising Wendy Rogers, a far-right state senator who was in the audience Saturday and a regular at Lake campaign events. Member of the Oath Keepers militia, Rogers promoted the events which was led by white leader Nick Fuentes and praised Confederate General Robert E. Lee as a “great patriot”.
Kari Lake’s show is illustrative of why many Republicans have been wary of nominating her — and why she could win despite those concerns. In the primary, her main rival Karin Taylor Robson argued that she made Lake’s views unelectable. Pointing to Lake’s past as a liberal journalist, some GOP voters are even worried that Lake was a factory designed to throw the election to Democrats.
The final days of the primaries did not particularly inspire confidence in Lake’s offer. When the Phoenix drag queen said she performed at Lake’s house and called her out for her hypocrisy on LGBT issues, the candidate threatened to sue and raged at the Democrats’ “demonic” agenda.
But Lake still won the primary in the end. And those who have watched her since she was a teenager on TV news knew that they were not going to let her down in the general election.
“People dismissed Kari Lake when she came in. They don’t know Arizona,” the Arizona Democratic strategist said. “Kari Lake is extremely telegenic and has mastered the art of speaking into the camera and capturing an audience. That’s just something that’s going to be hard for Democrats to overcome, no matter how extreme she gets.”
The back and forth between the two candidates showed that dynamic. One of the focal points of the campaign was Hobbs’ decision not to appear at the debate. She said participating in the debate would give Lake a bigger platform for her views and turn it into a sideshow.
Many Democrats agreed with that assessment — but questioned Hobbs’ influence in retrospect, missing the opportunity to draw a direct contrast between her views and Lake’s. In the end, Lake and her allies managed to spin the story of the debate into a weeks-long news cycle, spawning many news stories and TV segments focused on the Hobbs decision.
“My opponent and people like her are running on a platform designed to undermine our democracy, to dismantle it, and her rhetoric directly contributes to people’s distrust of the system,” Hobbs told The Daily Beast.
“I have no intention,” she added, “of giving her a bigger stage to continue to spread those conspiracy theories and then do everything I can to make the case directly to the voters and not be involved in her spectacle.”
Democrats are left to hope that the backlash against Lake’s views will help lift Hobbs to victory. On the home stretch of the campaign, she raised the issue of access to reproductive care in Arizona. A legal battle is currently underway over a ban on abortion that predated her statehood and could be enforced due to overturning Roe v. Wade.
At her event with Planned Parenthood officials and attorney general candidate Chris Mayes last week, Hobbs argued that abortion would remain a top issue for Arizona voters, despite ongoing concerns about the economy. “Most voters can juggle a lot of questions,” she said. “I hear from people every day that they are still concerned about their reproductive rights and access to safe, legal abortion.”
Throughout the campaign, and especially now, it’s been hard for Democrats not to think about what Arizona would look like under Lake’s governorship. That includes Fontes, the Democratic nominee for secretary of state. He believes, as do many Democrats, that it is vital for Hobbs to win. But the same polls that show Lake leading show him ahead in his race, and Arizonans have filed their tickets in these offices before.
Asked if he thought about what would happen if he and Lake won, Fontes said he did. “I would hope that both myself and potential Governor Lake would approach our jobs with an open heart and an open mind and understand that we govern the entire state of Arizona, not just one political faction,” he told the Daily Beast.
“I hope we can at least be civil, and really, what I hope is that we can find whatever common ground we have,” Fontes said.
With the election days away, Lake signaled little willingness to find common ground. She made national headlines on Monday for making a room of supporters laugh with a scathing attack on Paul Pelosi, the husband of Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Less notable at the event was her comment that she hoped Republicans would take back the Senate to repeal Obamacare — a goal the GOP had all but given up on some time ago.
On Tuesday, The Daily Beast reached out to Lake’s campaign with Fontes’ comments and asked if she would work with him to find common ground. They didn’t answer.
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