On a warm Saturday evening, several hundred people milled around the Old West-style trappings of Frontier Town in Cave Creek, waiting for Kari Lake to take the stage.
The rally was held to “Back the Blue," and the crowd shared the pro-law enforcement sentiment. But more than anything, they were there to back Lake in her bid to become Arizona's next governor.
It was a stunning show of support for a candidate for governor — for anything, really — at a time when few voters are even paying attention to an election that is 13 months away.
Lake has spent the past several months barnstorming the state, packing people in for her campaign events. In Cave Creek on Oct. 2, it was several hundred. A couple weeks earlier, more than 50 people crowded into SoZo Coffeehouse in Chandler on a Tuesday morning. The crowd would be considered large for just about any candidate, but one volunteer said it was the smaller Lake events he'd seen recently.
“I've never seen hundreds of people go to an event over a year out," said Tyler Montague, a longtime Republican operative from the East Valley.
Few, if any, political operatives in Arizona have ever seen anything like Lake. When she left Fox 10 after 27 years as a news anchor in March, she recorded a video declaring that she walked away because she had to read news she didn't believe was truthful and no longer felt proud to be a member of the media. Three months later, she launched her campaign for governor. Since then, she's become a phenomenon: shooting into the lead in the crowded gubernatorial primary, confounding her opponents and surging to the front of the field with a populist conservative message and 27 years' worth of name ID from her career in television.
Lake faces businessman Steve Gaynor, regent and developer Karrin Taylor Robson, former Congressman Matt Salmon and state Treasurer Kimberly Yee. Reliable polling is hard to come by so early in the race. But what little polling has been made public shows her in the lead.
No one questions her frontrunner status. Political observers don't need polls to tell them that Lake is the favorite. The only question is whether she will maintain her momentum through the primary election on Aug. 2, 2022.
A lot can happen between now and then, and other candidates could still pull ahead of Lake, said George Khalaf, a GOP political strategist. But he doubts that will happen.
“Right now, the momentum seems decently unstoppable," said Khalaf, who isn't involved in the gubernatorial race but whose father's company is the treasurer for Lake's campaign.
Following in Trump's footsteps
The parallels between Lake in 2021 and Donald Trump in 2015 are hard to ignore.
Both were celebrities with high name ID who had never run for office, who jumped into their campaigns with populist, conservative messages, buoyed by vigorous social media presences and flurries of rallies that draw in supporters. Both campaigned as outsiders dedicated to shaking up the establishment while decrying the political class they were running against. Both rile up their supporters with pugilistic attitudes toward their opponents, Democrats, the media and anyone else they perceive as enemies. And both quickly vaulted themselves to frontrunner status on a groundswell of grassroots enthusiasm, feeding off the cheers of supporters at large rallies.
It came as little surprise when Trump endorsed Lake in late September. She's done all she can to tie herself to the former president, touting herself as a “Trump Republican," effusively praising his presidency, policies and his style.
“That's the style that the Republican Party is going in — outsider and someone who is taking folks to task. People want to see a fighter," Khalaf said.
Lake rails against vaccine mandates, face mask requirements and other COVID-19 mitigation measures, and speaks at “medical freedom" rallies. She lauds law enforcement, castigating calls to defund police departments, and is a booster of strict border security and enforcement of laws against illegal immigration. And she's made demands for “election integrity" a central theme of her campaign, promoting baseless claims that the 2020 election was marred by fraud and rigged against Trump.
Like Trump, Lake is fond of controversial and outlandish comments paired with combative rhetoric. She calls for the 2020 election to be “decertified" based on bogus fraud allegations, and she's repeatedly claimed that the likely Democratic nominee may be imprisoned for those same discredited allegations. In addition to her endorsement from Trump, she touts the backing of controversial figures like former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn and Congressman Paul Gosar.
She has urged Arizona State University students to defy a face mask mandate and said it's “child abuse" to make children wear masks. When health care officials and pharmaceutical companies began advocating for a third booster shot for COVID vaccines, she tweeted, “The COVID vaccine is a nightmare that will NEVER stop."
Lake's story seems almost tailor-made to appeal to Trump's most fervent supporters — a lifelong journalist who quit the business because she refused to go along with the liberal bias and “fake news" her industry promoted.
Voters are tired of career politicians pushing agendas for special interests and big donors, Lake told the Arizona Mirror. And that's driving the grassroots energy behind her campaign. Everywhere Lake goes, she said, she draws record crowds.
“They've had it. The pendulum's coming back, and it's coming back as a wrecking ball. And there's no returning from this. We're not going back to the way things used to be, with these politicians who run us into the ground, don't give a damn about our issues and what matters to us," Lake said.
Lake emulates Trump's style better than anyone, said Republican political consultant Nathan Sproul.
“For someone who's never run for office before, her instincts about what to say and when to say it are about as good as anybody I've ever seen," Sproul said. “She has a very instinctive understanding of what her voter wants to hear and when."
She has charisma and has an undeniable stage presence. Her background on television is serving her well on the campaign trail, with a level of comfort in front of cameras and crowds that few first-time candidates can achieve, Sproul said.
Steve Martinson, a 69-year-old retiree from Glendale who attended Lake's Cave Creek rally, said few things compare to the energy at her campaign events.
“I've been to Super Bowls, I've been to other things, and just the energy there was just amazing compared to even those. You leave pretty jacked up. You kind of get that similar feeling on a smaller scale here," said Martinson, who said he rarely attends campaign events, outside of Trump's February 2020 rally at Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
Lake's style, along with her message, is a big draw for many of her supporters.
“I thought she was awesome. I love everything that she stands for. I love how she's so forward, that she's not scared to talk about the policies," said Jennifer Nelson, a Chandler housewife, as she left Lake's campaign event at SoZo Coffeehouse. “I'm a big Trump supporter, so I love everything that she has to stand for."
Salmon has repeatedly castigated Lake as a fake Republican, an actress who's just saying what people want to hear, whose true colors will eventually shine through for the GOP faithful to see. She switched her voter registration from Republican to independent in 2006 and to Democrat in 2008, switching back to the GOP in 2012.
An independent expenditure supporting Salmon, Arizona Best, is already running television ads criticizing her for contributions she made to Democratic presidential candidates John Kerry in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008.
Lake has said the $500 she gave to Kerry was due to her disillusionment with the war in Iraq. She said the $350 that federal campaign finance records say she gave to Obama — the money is listed as coming from a K Halperin, her legal, married last name, at the time — was actually given by her husband, not her. As to her time as a registered Democrat, Lake reminded a crowd at a Lincoln Republican Women meeting in Scottsdale last month that Trump, Ronald Reagan and Arizona GOP Chairwoman Kelli Ward used to be Democrats as well.
That is outrageous, it is dangerous and it is not the way a serious leader communicates with the public.
– Kathy Petsas, Legislative District 28 Republican Party chairwoman
Other Lake critics take a similar view. Former Arizona Republican Party Chairman Robert Graham, an ardent Trump supporter since the early days of his first campaign, said Lake has fooled people for now. But as people learn about Lake, Graham predicted, they'll be “stunned" by what comes out.
“People haven't had time to vet her," Graham said. “She's going to have to answer a lot of questions, that's for darn sure."
But those attacks didn't work against Trump in 2016, and Sproul doubted they'll work against Lake now.
“There's a new breed of Republican voter out there that is willing to overlook what, 10 or 15 years ago would've been unpardonable sins for a candidate to have made," he said. “Fifteen years ago, if a Republican candidate contributed a significant amount of money to a Democrat candidate in years prior, that would've been game, set, match."
The line of attack over Lake's contributions to Democrats and her previous voter registration won't get her opponents very far, Montague predicted. Trump has largely inoculated her from that. Numerous attendees of her rally in Cave Creek said the same.
“It's OK to make mistakes. It's just what you personally believe in now. That's the whole point of what's going on," Art Haduch, a 70-year-old retiree from Surprise, told the Mirror as he waited for Lake's rally to begin in Cave Creek.
Mike and Teresa Rowe, of Anthem, weren't bothered by Lake's old contributions, either.
“It matters now, not what happened 15 years ago," Mike said.
“People's eyes were opened over the past four years," Teresa added.
Trump's endorsement will likely make it harder to cast Lake as a fake conservative.
“The party is owned by Donald Trump right now, so it's in fact an endorsement right now by the Republican Party," said Republican strategist Chuck Coughlin.
Sean Duffy, a 49-year-old electrician who moved from Massachusetts to Scottsdale in June, said he wasn't supporting anyone in the race for governor. Then he heard about the Trump endorsement. Four days later, he was at his first Lake rally in Cave Creek.
For some supporters at the Cave Creek rally, Trump's endorsement sent an unmistakable message.
“Kari Lake got endorsed by President Trump, so I know she's going to be for the people." said Stacey Goodman, a retired police detective from Long Island, New York, who now lives in Cave Creek.
Not everyone in Cave Creek was quite as sold on Lake. Brad Nielsen, of Gilbert, is tentatively supporting Salmon for now. But he came to the rally to learn more about Lake.
“He has a proven track record. So, we'll see. I don't know what Kari stands for," he said.
Heidi Grande, who attended the rally with Nielsen, also wanted to know more about Lake.
“Not just what she stands for, but what does she bring to the table? I know her experience, but what does that do for us when it comes to a governor position? I'd like to know," said Grande, a Republican precinct committeeman in legislative District 12.
Ken Varichak, a retired Scottsdale police officer who now works in casino surveillance, said he likes a lot of what Lake has to say and appreciates her support for law enforcement. But despite wearing a Lake shirt to the rally, he expressed reservations about her.
Varichak said he was a big supporter of Trump's policies. But he isn't a fan of Trump's rhetoric and his “turning on people," like he did with Gov. Doug Ducey when the governor certified the 2020 general election results, and he has some concerns that Lake's rhetoric is similar. Varichak said he also likes Salmon. He has a good, conservative résumé, Varichak said, and thinks he, like Ducey, wouldn't be afraid to certify the election and flat out tell Trump that he lost.
“Honestly, if it's too close to a Trumpian thing, I probably will lean away and go towards more of like a Matt Salmon," Varichak, who lives in the community of Desert Hills, near New River, said of Lake.
Some Republicans worry that Lake's outlandish statements and enthusiastic support for conspiracy theories could be a problem if she's the GOP nominee next year.
Lake has unabashedly embraced the false narrative that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump, including in Arizona, where Joe Biden won by just 10,457 votes. She has touted the dubious findings of the so-called “audit" commissioned by Senate President Karen Fann, and has joined the vocal chorus of people on the Republican fringe who are calling for the 2020 election in Arizona to be decertified, something that constitutional and legal scholars largely agree is impossible.
She has even demanded that Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, the Democratic frontrunner in the gubernatorial race, be imprisoned for an undefined role in the unproven fraud that Lake claims took place last November.
“Frankly, I think she should be locked up," Lake told the crowd in Cave Creek, which responded by starting a Trumpian chant of, “Lock her up!"
Lake's campaign spokesman, Ross Trumble, wouldn't say what specific crimes she believed Hobbs had committed or whatever there was of any malfeasance on the secretary's part. No such evidence has ever become public, though supporters of the “Big Lie," as many have dubbed the discredited election fraud claims, have at times become so threatening to Hobbs that Ducey provided her with a Department of Public Safety security detail.
Kathy Petsas, a lifelong GOP activist and the Republican chairwoman in legislative District 28, found Lake's rhetoric about Hobbs to be concerning.
“That is outrageous, it is dangerous and it is not the way a serious leader communicates with the public," Petsas said.
Sproul doesn't see the electability argument getting much traction among primary voters. And it may not even be as true as some might wish, he said. After all, critics said Reagan and Trump were unelectable, too.
“I don't for one second think she's unelectable in Arizona," Sproul said.
Other paths to victory
Lake may be in the lead, but it's still early in the campaign cycle, and most primary voters are still undecided.
If the Republican nomination can be wrested from Lake, most GOP observers believe it's up to either Robson or Salmon to do it.
Robson is almost completely unknown to voters. She's never run for office, and though she's long been a mainstay in the political world, her work has been out of the spotlight. She's served on the Arizona Board of Regents, a relatively low-profile entity that few voters follow closely enough to know who serves on it, and been active behind the scenes in things like overseeing a political action committee that helped Republicans maintain their slim majorities in the legislature.
The biggest advantage that Robson may bring to the table is money. She and her husband are wealthy, and observers predict that she may spend tens of millions on the campaign. Robson has also assembled a large campaign finance committee — its members include many establishment GOP establishment donors — indicating that she won't rely on personal wealth alone.
“Karrin Taylor Robson's going to have the resources to reach every Arizona Republican in this state. She will not be outspent in this campaign, and in a race like this that is going to stretch well over a year, it's going to take a lot of money to get over the finish line," said Matthew Benson, a spokesman for Robson.
There are still a lot of undecided voters in the race, Montague said, and Robson can win them over. But she may need to spend $20 million to do it, he said.
Kari Lake got endorsed by President Trump, so I know she's going to be for the people.
– Stacey Goodman, a Republican voter from Cave Creek
Salmon has the advantage of name recognition from voters from his two stints in Congress, the second of which ran from 2013-2016, as well as his narrow loss to Janet Napolitano in the 2002 governor's race. He had a reputation as a conservative renegade in Congress in the 1990s, and after his return to Congress years later he helped found the conservative House Freedom Caucus. Since jumping into the race in June, he has released a ceaseless torrent of endorsements, ranging from local law enforcement officials to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.
“Governor's races often come down to trust and results, and Republican Primary voters in Arizona are looking for a trusted and proven conservative with a record of getting things done," Salmon campaign spokesman Colin Shipley said in a statement to the Mirror.
Montague said Salmon is still in the mix, but he'll need Lake to stumble first. And he'll need to pivot away from the platform he's been running with so far. Salmon has tried to emulate Lake's message, Montague said, but that won't work when Lake is doing it better.
“Can he reinvent himself or can he hang back if she stumbles?" Montague asked. “He's going to have to help voters find a reason to vote for him."
Lake has little to say about most of her opponents, but regularly trashes Salmon. As a career politician and a former lobbyist, most recently for Arizona State University, she describes Salmon as the embodiment of the “swamp" that Trump campaigned against, and questions why he thinks he can win despite losing the governor's race in 2002.
“On Day One, he owes 30 years of political favors," Lake said during the event at SoZo Coffeehouse. “Not to mention he's been a lobbyist and has a soft spot in his heart for the communist Chinese regime."
Lake's comments about China refer to the Chinese-government funded Confucius Institute at ASU that provided Chinese language and cultural education. The ASU branch of the institute opened in 2007, long before Salmon joined the university in 2017. ASU shut it down in 2019 after the National Defense Authorization Act for that year barred universities that receive U.S. Department of Defense funding for Chinese language study from hosting the Confucius Institute.
As for Robson, Lake said, “I don't want to attack the people who are running. It takes a lot to run. I'm working very hard. … Anybody who wants to run can run. Anybody who wants to pour their own money into a race to try to drum up support can run."
Most observers believe Gaynor and Yee have tougher roads ahead of them.
Gaynor has the potential to bankroll his own campaign, Sproul noted, but it's unknown how much he's willing to spend. In 2018, he spent about $2.6 million of his own money, defeating an embattled incumbent in the Republican primary for secretary of state while narrowly losing the general election to Hobbs.
Yee spent nine years in the legislature before getting elected as treasurer in 2018. But the Treasurer's Office is a relatively anonymous post and she's not well known to the public. Ducey was state treasurer before getting elected governor in 2014, but accomplished that feat through self-funding and prolific fundraising.
The long game
Lake is formidable and her early lead is daunting, but it's still early.
“We're not even a year out right now. In politics, a month can be 10 years, practically. So much can change a week from now, a month from now and certainly a year from now," Petsas said.
For now, Sproul said Lake's opponents are better off saving their money until the race heats up. But there may be only so much time left if they hope to stop Lake from locking up the nomination early.
“Do you want to spend significant cash early doing rallies, or do you want to hold onto your resources until later in the campaign, when most voters are paying attention? There's obviously a danger of the candidates not doing enough because she can get too far ahead and they can't catch up," he said.
And despite the similarities between Trump's 2016 run and Lake today, there are significant differences, Sproul said. Trump tapped into the populist wing of the party early, taking a sizable minority of the vote while 15 other candidates vied for the rest of the votes. He didn't really expand that lead until he locked up the nomination. Meanwhile, the rest of the field was so crowded that the other candidates couldn't clear the way and expand their leads in the way they needed to have a better shot at dislodging Trump from his position at the front of the pack.
Perhaps the most important difference, said Barrett Marson, a consultant with the pro-Salmon Arizona Best committee, is that Trump's rise to the top of the field in 2015 was fueled by saturation media coverage that simply won't exist in the Arizona governor's race. Trump dominated every news cycle: If cable news outlets weren't showing his speeches or allowing him to call into their shows, they were still talking about him around the clock.
And though the big crowds are impressive, that alone doesn't mean she'll win, Marson said. After all, Trump packed thousands of people into Veterans Memorial Coliseum last year but still lost Arizona to Biden.
“I'm not saying she doesn't have her rabid fans. But you need more than rabid fans to win an election. You need some money. You need media exposure. You need TV ads. You need grassroots efforts. You need a lot," Marson said. “They came together for Donald Trump. I'm not denying that. But Kari Lake is not Donald Trump."
Sproul, too, said Lake's support and the turnout at her rallies represents a large amount of enthusiasm from a small segment of the electorate. He's seen candidates start their primary campaigns with a dominating share of the vote, only to lose to people who started out in single digits.
The race isn't over, Khalaf said. But he had a hard time seeing how anyone else will defeat her in the primary.
“Something dramatic would have to happen for anyone else to have a serious shot at taking her out in the primary at this point," he said.
Arizona Mirror is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Arizona Mirror maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Jim Small for questions: email@example.com. Follow Arizona Mirror on Facebook and Twitter.
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