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Kari Lake’s defeat in Arizona may only be a temporary blow to Trumpism

Arizona Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake cheers with her supporters at the Republican election night watch party in Scottsdale, Arizona, on November 8. | Ross D. Franklin/AP

We probably haven’t seen the last of this 2020 election denier.

Republican Kari Lake, a far-right former TV news anchor who rapidly built a national profile as one of the most vocal proponents of President Donald Trump’s 2020 election lies, won’t be Arizona’s next governor. But even if she admits that fact — a big if, given her recent attacks on her state’s electoral process and that she’s repeatedly refused to say that she will concede the race if she loses — it’s not likely to be the last we’ll see of her.

The Arizona governor’s race has made Lake a GOP star. She’s been outspoken about her extreme views on election security, abortion, and immigration. She ran an unconventional campaign, eschewing traditional ad buys for viral campaign videos, full of controversial statements that grabbed national headlines, including comments that appeared to make light of the violent attack on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband. All of that won her Trump’s admiration (and endorsement) and praise from other prominent Republicans. She’s even been floated as a potential running mate for Trump in 2024.

The race attracted big outside spending and appeared close until the end, with polls showing Lake, and her Democratic opponent, current Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, in a dead heat before Election Day. It took days for the results to be called, and Hobbs’s victory came down to the margins she was able to drive up in big urban centers in Pima and Maricopa counties.

It’s a big loss for Republicans in this key battleground where President Joe Biden won by a little over 10,000 votes in 2020, and another blow to Trump’s reputation as a kingmaker after his handpicked candidates had a poor showing across the country this year. It’s also a key win for Democrats, who simultaneously picked up a governorship and fended off the rise of another far-right election denier.

 Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Arizona Democratic gubernatorial nominee and Secretary of State Katie Hobbs arrives to an election night watch party in Phoenix, Arizona, on November 8.

But this might only be the beginning of Lake’s political career — and that’s a worrying prospect for Democrats who have seen how formidable she’s been, even as a political newcomer.

Lake’s views are extreme, even for Republican-leaning Arizona

Lake’s views on the 2020 election are especially dangerous in a place like Arizona, where Biden’s margin was incredibly thin and where the state legislature, which might remain under Republican control, could soon be empowered by an upcoming US Supreme Court ruling to undermine the results of future elections.

Lake has said she wouldn’t have certified the 2020 vote for Biden, saying that it was “corrupt, rotten.” She even filed a lawsuit, which has since been dismissed by a federal judge, that made false claims about issues with vote-counting machines and sought to require Arizona officials to tabulate 2022 ballots by hand.

Unlike Lake, most Arizonans are confident in the state’s elections: A Center for the Future of Arizona/HighGround Public Affairs poll released in October found that 70 percent of likely voters in Arizona believed the state’s elections were secure and 77 percent believed the 2022 results would be accurate.

Ahead of Election Day, Lake also repeatedly dodged questions about whether she would concede the governor’s race if she lost, saying that “I’m going to win the election, and I will accept that result,” and that she’d only accept a “fair, honest and transparent” result. During the primary, she even preempted her own win by saying that she would challenge the results if she lost because it would have indicated “there’s some cheating going on.” And before the race was called, she suggested that Arizona election officials were intentionally dragging their feet on releasing the results, while still declaring, “I am 100% going to win.”

Lake’s election denialism could have been disastrous in the governor’s office: She would have had a role to play in the certification of presidential election results and could have sought to use her office to delay or undermine the certification if she disagrees with the result.

Hobbs, on the other hand, rose to national prominence after defending the integrity of the 2020 election results in Arizona against Trump’s efforts to overturn them, calling a Republican-led audit of the results a means of “chasing conspiracy theories.” She refused to even debate Lake because, as she told CNN, she “didn’t want to give her a bigger stage” to spread her lies about the 2020 election.

Lake’s views on abortion have also put her to the right of many Arizonans.

Lake supports existing extreme restrictions on abortion in Arizona. That includes legislation passed earlier this year by Arizona’s GOP-controlled state legislature that banned abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy with no exceptions for rape or incest. The state also has a 121-year-old total abortion ban on the books, which only has an exception for when the life of the pregnant person is in jeopardy. It went into effect immediately after the Supreme Court’s June decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Lake has supported the 15-week ban and the pre-Roe ban, which she has called “a great law that’s already on the books.” She has also called abortion “the ultimate sin,” said abortion pills should be illegal, and said she would support banning abortion around six weeks of pregnancy.

Her positions seem to be out of sync with the Arizona electorate: A September OH Predictive insights poll found that 9 in 10 voters agree that abortion should be legal in at least some cases. That seems to be more in line with Hobbs’s calls to both overturn the pre-Roe ban and the 15-week ban.

The cult of personality around Lake

Lake entered politics after retiring from journalism because she didn’t “like the direction that it’s going,” as she said in a video announcing her resignation from local TV news. Other than covering local and national races for 22 years as a news anchor in Phoenix, she didn’t have any prior experience in politics or government, which is unusual for gubernatorial candidates.

Democrats initially appeared to write off Lake as a fringe candidate. They even published a press release highlighting her primary opponent Karrin Taylor Robson’s past donations to Democrats, which made Lake look like the true conservative in the race and more appealing to GOP primary voters. As in other parts of the country, Democrats appeared to assume that the far-right Lake would be easier to beat in the general election.

 Mario Tama/Getty Images
Former President Donald Trump embraces Arizona Republican gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake, whom he endorsed, during a campaign rally in Mesa, Arizona, on October 9.

But Lake had the backing of Trump, whose endorsement appeared to still carry weight in Republican-leaning Arizona. And she also had something that other 2022 far-right candidates, such as Pennsylvania GOP gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano, didn’t have: more than two decades of experience on air for a Fox affiliate. That resume made her perpetually camera-ready and adept at speaking to voters’ concerns in a way that many saw as authentic and even reminiscent of Trump’s rhetorical style.

“I don’t need a pollster or a consultant from DC or another big city to come into Arizona and tell me what Arizona is about,” Lake told Politico.

That attitude has been reflected in her campaign strategy. Rather than buying TV ads, she had her husband, a former videographer at NBC’s Phoenix affiliate and freelance producer, film her sparring with reporters during interviews and posting the footage online, often with viral results.

Prominent Republicans are starstruck by her. Kenneth L. Khachigian, Ronald Reagan’s former chief speechwriter, waxed poetic in the Wall Street Journal last month: “What makes Ms. Lake’s message different is its simplicity and fearlessness. It’s unapologetic and sincere, not clothed in code words.” Trump reportedly sees something of himself in Lake. Even the current term-limited Gov. Doug Ducey, who accused Lake of “misleading voters” when he was backing Taylor Robson during the primary, has recently warmed to her.

All the praise from Republicans — and speculation that she might be a potential running mate for Trump, even though she didn’t win the governorship — has Democrats worried. Despite her loss, they think she has presidential charisma, and her media savvy and temperament could help Trump mount a tough challenge to President Joe Biden come 2024.

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