PHOENIX—Not long ago, many in Arizona wondered how Kari Lake—the far-right, Trump-loving, media-bashing former local TV news anchor—could possibly win a campaign for governor in a swing state.
Now many are wondering how Lake could possibly lose.
During a heated primary race, Lake’s GOP rivals tagged her as toxic and unelectable. Many Democrats hoped she’d be the GOP nominee, believing she was a sure bet to collapse under the bright lights of a general election campaign.
In the last three months, however, something else has happened.
Lake quickly consolidated Republican support, and her boisterous, Trump-style rallies have served as a show of the GOP faithful’s remarkably high level of enthusiasm for her gubernatorial bid.
In the process, Lake has overshadowed the cautious campaign of her Democratic rival, Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, who is an experienced public official but a low-key campaign presence. As she struggles to match among Democrats the intensity that Lake sparks among Republicans, Hobbs has focused on policy roundtables and emphasizing issues like abortion access to turn out her base and reach independent voters.
While she has hardly even pretended to tack to the center, Lake has leveraged her name recognition from her decades on Phoenix TV—and the stiff headwinds facing Democrats on the economy—to win over voters outside the diehard GOP base. If polls are any indication, the strategy may be paying off: Lake has led or tied in all recent surveys of the race, though most of the margins are tight.
In the final days of the campaign, there’s an uneasiness spreading among those who are alarmed that Arizona could elevate the next big star of the MAGA right as their governor.
Gay Willits, an interior designer from Scottsdale, said she was “praying to God” that Lake wouldn’t win and hoped Hobbs would “put herself out there a little more.”
“Kari Lake comes across as someone who wants something,” said Steven Martin, a retiree and a loyal Democrat, outside a polling place in Scottsdale. “Katie Hobbs comes across as someone who wants to be left alone.”
One Democratic operative from Arizona, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, said a Hobbs win is still possible, but predicted that Democrats’ ceiling on Nov. 8 might consist of Sen. Mark Kelly (D-AZ) winning re-election and Adrian Fontes defeating the 2020 truther Mark Finchem in the contest for secretary of state.
In an interview after a Planned Parenthood roundtable in downtown Phoenix, Hobbs said she had to run a campaign that’s “authentic to who I am.”
“Kari Lake’s 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 that we’re getting the voters out that we need to to vote for us in this election,” Hobbs said.
“I don’t see that we’re losing ground,” she added. “Every single poll has been statistically tied in the margin of error, and I trust the data we’re seeing in our polling, and I feel really good about our path to victory in this race.”
In Arizona, recent statewide elections here have been among the closest and hardest-fought contests anywhere in the country, and there’s plenty of reason to believe that the governor’s race this year will follow suit. The Cook Political Report rates the governor’s race as a “toss-up,” and in the last two days, a set of polls have shown Hobbs tied with Lake.
Democrats continue to invest money and organizing firepower in the race, and on Wednesday, they’ll get a boost: former President Barack Obama is headlining a Phoenix rally for both Hobbs and Kelly. He’s expected to lob some of the sharp criticisms he’s taken to Republicans running elsewhere in this election season.
How Arizona voters decide in this race will have enormous consequences: a Lake victory would portend conspiracy-fueled overhauls of the state election system, a curtailing of abortion access, and a steady stream of combative stunts like threatening 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 buzzed about as a potential running mate for Trump should he run again in 2024.
“This doesn’t stop here,” the Arizona Democratic strategist said.
Even going to a Lake campaign rally feels like going to a Trump campaign rally, right down to the Elton John that booms over the speakers when the crowd goes home.
On a Saturday night in the liberal college town of Tempe, a crowd of roughly 150 people gathered for the Kari Lake experience. A big TV screen ran anti-Hobbs videos before a long, slickly produced mini-biography of Lake’s life was shown. Senate nominee Blake Masters, whose name technically appears above Lake’s on the ballot, was a mere opening act.
Stepping onstage to a rapturous reception from the crowd, Lake began her stump speech by mentioning that someone had recently asked her if she was enjoying the campaign. “I realized I’ve been working so hard I haven’t thought about whether I’m enjoying this,” she said. “I am enjoying this!”
For roughly half an hour, Lake unleashed a Trumpian balance of hard-right politics, gratuitous media-bashing, and considerable self-regard. She spoke about her decision to end her career in news and run for office as divinely inspired. “I know that God gave me the courage to walk away from my job,” Lake told the audience. “I really do believe that He wanted to free me up to run for office. I know that because of the movement—it’s truly not about me. It is about We the People.”
Also like Trump, Lake’s campaign events have revolved around preaching to the choir. At one point at her event, she asked everyone who was voting Republican to raise their hands. When basically every single hand shot up, she said, “Alright then, let’s just party.” Her stump speech offers lip service to topics like vocational training, but the heart of it is red meat on issues like immigration and crime and vicious attacks on the media and Democrats.
In literally the same breath, Lake said Republicans were for “common-sense” policies before giving a shout-out to Wendy Rogers, the far-right state senator, who was in the audience on Saturday and regularly shows up at Lake campaign events. A member of the Oath Keepers militia group, Rogers has promoted events run by the white supremacist leader Nick Fuentes and praised Confederate general Robert E. Lee as a “great patriot.”
The Kari Lake show is illustrative of why many Republicans were wary of nominating her—and why she might win despite those concerns. In the primary, her main rival Karin Taylor Robson argued that Lake’s views rendered her unelectable. Pointing to Lake’s past as a liberal journalist, some GOP voters even worried that Lake was a plant designed to throw the election to the Democrats.
The closing days of the primary did not especially engender confidence in Lake’s bid. When a Phoenix drag queen alleged she had performed at Lake’s house and called her out on hypocrisy regarding LGBT issues, the candidate threatened to sue and fumed about Democrats’ “demonic” agenda.
But Lake ended up winning the primary anyway. And those who have watched her since her years on TV news knew not to discount her in the general election.
“Folks dismissed Kari Lake when she got in. They don’t know Arizona,” said the Arizona Democratic strategist. “Kari Lake is extremely telegenic and mastered the art of speaking into a camera and grabbing an audience. That’s just something that was going to be hard to beat for Democrats, regardless of how extreme she’s gotten.”
The back-and-forth between the two candidates has showcased that dynamic. One of the flashpoints of the campaign has been Hobbs’ decision not to appear at a debate. She said participating in a debate would give Lake a larger platform for her views and devolve into a sideshow.
Many Democrats agreed with that assessment—but have wondered in retrospect about the impact of Hobbs not taking an opportunity to show a direct contrast between her views and Lake’s. Ultimately, Lake and her allies managed to turn the debate story into a multi-week news cycle, sprouting many news stories and TV segments focused on Hobbs’ decision.
“My opponent and people like her are running on a platform designed to undermine our democracy, dismantle it, and her rhetoric is directly contributing to people’s mistrust of the system,” Hobbs told The Daily Beast.
“I have no intention,” she added, “of giving her a bigger stage to continue to spout those conspiracy theories, and then doing everything I can to make the case directly to the voters and not be engaged in her spectacle.”
Democrats are left to hope that the backlash to Lake’s views will help lift Hobbs to victory. In the home stretch of the campaign, she has hammered home the issue of access to reproductive care in Arizona. There is currently a legal fight over an abortion ban that predates its statehood and could be enforced because of the overturning of Roe v. Wade.
At her event with Planned Parenthood officials and Attorney General candidate Kris Mayes last week, Hobbs argued that abortion would still be top-of-mind to Arizona voters, despite ongoing concerns about the economy. “Most voters can juggle a lot of issues,” she said. “I’m hearing every day from folks that they’re still concerned about their reproductive rights and access to safe legal abortion.”
Throughout the campaign, but especially now, it has been hard for Democrats not to think about what Arizona would look like under Lake’s governorship. That includes Fontes, the Democratic candidate for Secretary of State. He believes, like many Democrats, that it is vital for Hobbs to win. But the same polls that show Lake leading show him ahead in his own race, and Arizonans have split their tickets on these offices before.
Asked if he had thought about what would happen if he and Lake won, Fontes said he had. “What I would hope is that both myself and a potential Governor Lake would approach our jobs with open hearts and open minds and understand we’re governing for the entire state of Arizona, and not just one political faction,” he told The Daily Beast.
“I hope that we can be civil at the very least, and really, what I hope is that we can find whatever common ground that we have,” Fontes said.
With the election days away, Lake has signaled little willingness to find common ground. On Monday, she made national headlines for making an entire room of supporters laugh about the vicious attack on Paul Pelosi, Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband. Less noticed at that event was her comment that she hoped Republicans would take back the Senate in order to repeal Obamacare—a goal the GOP all but abandoned 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 respond.