Is Arizona’s Kari Lake the most ‘dangerous’ politician in America?
Andrew Romano, West Coast Correspondent – October 25, 2022
Kari Lake, the Arizona Republican candidate for governor and former Fox 10 Phoenix news anchor, seems to be everywhere lately.
Earlier this month, the Atlantic declared her “Trumpism’s leading lady,” then spent more than 3,500 words explaining why. The Washington Post elaborated a few days later. “[Lake] has emerged as a Republican phenom by amplifying Donald Trump’s lie that the 2020 election was stolen,” read the subhead of its even longer profile. Last week, Axios went several steps further and reported that top Democratic strategists now believe Lake has the “potential to soar to a vice presidential spot or a post-Trump presidential candidacy.”
“If you get a candidate who has the performance skills of a major-market local TV anchor and the philosophy and thinking of Steve Bannon, that’s a potent and dangerous combination,” Barack Obama guru David Axelrod told the site. “Look at Italy.”
By last weekend, Lake was sparring with Dana Bash live on CNN — and sparking yet another media tizzy by refusing to say that she will accept the result if she loses in November.
“I’m going to win the election and I will accept that result,” Lake said (twice).
It remains to be seen, of course, whether she can actually defeat her opponent, Democrat Katie Hobbs. Long considered the frontrunner, Hobbs, the Arizona secretary of state, made her own national headlines for holding the line against relentless right-wing efforts to overturn Trump’s 2020 loss there.
Part of the problem, local observers say, is that the subdued, soft-spoken Hobbs has proved to be a limp campaigner whose unwillingness to debate Lake has become almost as much of an issue as the issues themselves.
“Hobbs is a mediocre Democratic politician, and she’s running a mediocre race,” Robert Robb, a longtime columnist for the Arizona Republic and a former GOP political consultant, told Yahoo News. “So it’s no surprise that Lake’s competitive. It’s still a Republican-leaning state in a Republican-leaning year.”
But others see Lake’s own telegenic talent as the bigger factor. The national media has made much of what one might call her style: the “familiar pixie cut”; the large silver cross she took to wearing “for protection” shortly before she announced her campaign; the “impossibly smooth” skin showcased in “ethereal” campaign videos. And then there’s the power of her voice — “deep but still feminine; firm, even severe, but smooth,” as the Atlantic put it. “Like black tea with a little honey.”
“She’s a local celebrity,” Arizona pollster and political consultant Paul Bentz told Yahoo News. “She’s great with an audience. She’s great on camera. She’s a more polished version of Trump. And because of all that, she’s put herself in a position where she’s tied this thing up.”
For all their primary-season success, MAGA candidates haven’t exactly been taking purple states like Arizona by storm. In Pennsylvania, for example, hard-right state Sen. Doug Mastriano is lagging well behind his Democratic opponent for governor. And although he’s risen some in recent surveys, the GOP’s 36-year-old nominee for U.S. Senate in Arizona, Blake Masters, is still polling behind Lake.
So what makes Lake different? At first, Arizona Democrats were publicly rooting for her to beat establishment rival Karrin Taylor Robson in the GOP primary; no less of an authority than former Gov. Janet Napolitano told the New York Times in August that Lake was a “one-trick pony” who would be easier to defeat in November.
“If this is an election about Trump and 2020 in Arizona, then Democrats will win,” Napolitano said. Leading Arizona Democrats even tried to tip the scales for Lake by touting Robson’s past donations to Democratic candidates.
Now they may come to regret that decision. “We wanted these extreme candidates on the Republican side,” Roy Herrera, the Arizona state counsel for Joe Biden’s 2020 campaign, told the Times. “Now we got them and, you know, are we sure we wanted that?”
By any normal standard, Lake remains one of 2022’s most out-there figures. In the wake of the 2020 election, Arizona’s far-right Republican activists and legislators pushed hard to reverse Trump’s 10,457-vote loss — the narrowest margin of any state in the country. But not a single one of the 24 challenges filed in Maricopa, the state’s largest county, since Nov. 3, 2020, was upheld in court. Multiple audits (including a private count funded by Trump supporters) found zero evidence of fraud; in fact, the partisan GOP audit actually widened Biden’s margin of victory by 360 votes.
Yet Lake has described Biden as an “illegitimate fool” who is president only because the election was “stolen and corrupt.” She has unapologetically promoted nearly every debunked conspiracy theory about 2020. Years later, she continues to demand the decertification of the Arizona result. “We’re already detecting some stealing going on,” she said in the lead-up to her primary. “If we don’t win, there’s some cheating going on.”
Lake has also suggested that the Second Amendment protects ownership of rocket launchers. She told a summit of young conservative women that “God did not create us to be equal to men.” She has threatened to imprison Hobbs for fictional election-rigging offenses. She has threatened to imprison journalists as well. She has appeared with QAnon-linked activists at campaign events. She has vowed to deport undocumented immigrants without federal approval. And she has accused Biden and the Democrats of harboring a “demonic agenda.”
None of these positions is mainstream. Yet Lake may soon show that with the right combination of poise, polish and bravado, none of them has to be disqualifying either — not even in a swing state like Arizona.
“It’s all based on personality,” Bentz told Yahoo News. “I mean, she’s an incredible actress. It’s not clear how much of this stuff she believes. Maybe it’s all of it. But she is absolutely the party’s next ‘great communicator.’”
And that’s why Democrats like Axelrod are starting to think that Lake might be one of the most “dangerous” politicians in America.
The danger, according to democracy advocates, isn’t so much that Lake might beat Hobbs and implement the policies we expect from Republican governors. Rather, they worry that, given the chance, she will try to steal the 2024 presidential election for the GOP nominee.
If Lake and her Republican ticketmates and fellow 2020 election deniers Mark Finchem (secretary of state) and Abraham Hamadeh (attorney general) win as well, they and Arizona’s almost-certain-to-be-Republican-led Legislature could make all kinds of changes to help Trump win the state two years from now, regardless of the actual results.
For his part, Finchem — who argues that Marxists conspired to manipulate the 2020 election, that people cast ballots with “software that flips votes” and that Biden is “a fraudulent president” — has already said he would ban early voting and sharply restrict mail-in ballots. More worryingly, he’s thrown his weight behind efforts to empower the state Legislature to overturn election results.
In May, Finchem assured his supporters that if he had been secretary of state last time around, “we would have won. Plain and simple.” Last month, he implied to Time magazine that he would not certify the state’s electoral votes for Biden in 2024.
“I’m extremely concerned about candidates who make false claims about the 2020 election — and who applaud the things that were done to not only discredit the results, but to undermine the results and change the outcome,” Robb, the former GOP strategist, said.
“[Lake and Finchem] are not forswearing doing that again in the future. That’s deeply worrying.”
But the stakes go beyond 2024. The hope among Democrats — not to mention many Trump-wary Republicans — was that only Trump, with his all-consuming celebrity and shameless showmanship, could really sell pure, uncut Trumpism to the masses, and that without him MAGA would wither.
Lake’s emergence, however, suggests a new way forward for Trumpism after Trump.
The youngest of nine — eight girls and one boy — Lake grew up “off a gravel road” in rural eastern Iowa. Her father was a public high school teacher; her mother was a nurse. “My family was very poor,” she has said. “You had to work if you wanted shampoo.”
Describing Lake as someone who “sought attention in the newsroom,” a former Fox colleague recently told the Washington Post that “everything starts with her being the ninth of nine kids.” But when a reporter from Phoenix magazine asked Lake how her childhood shaped her, she batted the question away.
“I’ve read that young kids in big families sometimes have to fight for recognition and attention,” the reporter asked.
“We had to fight for food, not recognition,” Lake shot back.
Either way, the spotlight found her soon enough. A few months after graduating from the University of Iowa, she was on the air as a weekend weather anchor in her native state; by the time she was 25, she was doing the same job in Phoenix. Lake went on to spend 22 years as a Fox 10 anchor, mostly covering the evening news — and becoming a household name in the process.
“I am beloved by people, and I’m not saying that to be boastful,” she told the New York Times in August. “I was in their homes for the good times and the bad times.”
It was a successful career — she was one of the few local news anchors to land interviews with both Obama and Trump — but it ended last year in controversy.
Although Lake was reportedly a Republican before she donated to John Kerry in 2004 — then registered as an independent in 2006, a Democrat in 2008 and a Republican again in 2012 — she didn’t come off as conservative. In fact, Fox colleagues have described her as a head-over-heels Obama fan who dabbled in Buddhism, wore a red Kabbalah string around her wrist and befriended John McCain’s son Jimmy as well as popular Phoenix drag queen Barbra Seville. (Lake “was the queen of the gays!” a former co-worker told the Atlantic.)
In 2016, Lake pitched mass amnesty as a “humane and fair” solution for the roughly 11 million immigrants living in America illegally. In 2017, she shared a meme on Facebook declaring Trump’s inauguration a “national day of mourning and protest.”
But something flipped after Trump took office. In 2018, Fox 10 hung a widescreen monitor in the newsroom to rank on-air talent by social media likes, retweets and replies; that same year, Lake took to her official Fox 10 Twitter account to dismiss a movement for teacher pay raises as “nothing more than a push to legalize pot.”
Although she later apologized, colleagues noticed a shift. “When she found something that garnered attention,” one told Phoenix magazine, “she gravitated toward that.”
In 2019, Lake joined the right-wing social media platform Parler. Viewers complained; lawyers got involved. “F*** them,” Lake said, on a hot mic, when her co-anchor warned that the station could get blowback from outlets like the local alt-weekly. She later described the next year or so — when she started retweeting debunked COVID-19 misinformation and clashing with producers over calling Biden the “president-elect” — as the period in which “I got canceled.”
“That’s when all of this started going downhill,” Fox 10’s former human resources director told the Washington Post. “Her thing became, ‘It’s freedom of speech, I have the right to say what I want to say.’”
In March 2021, Lake resigned. “Journalism has changed a lot since I first stepped into a newsroom, and I’ll be honest, I don’t like the direction it’s going,” she said in a video posted to Rumble. “I found myself reading news copy that I didn’t believe was fully truthful, or only told part of the story. … I’ve decided the time is right to do something else.”
She launched her campaign for governor three months later.
Lake has explained her transformation as typical: a lifelong Republican becoming disenchanted with the overseas adventurism of the George W. Bush era, then reverting back to her roots. She claims to be in good company, citing other famous party switchers such as Ronald Reagan, Donald Trump and Arizona GOP Chair Kelli Ward.
None of which, of course, has stopped rivals from questioning her sincerity. “I believe she’s an opportunist,” Robson, her primary opponent, told Fox News shortly before the August election. “She’s actually a fraud, a fake. She’s not who she says she is. She’s a fabulous actress.”
Old colleagues have advanced more nuanced theories. “The only thing I can come up with in watching this is that her conservative views, little by little, brought her power and recognition that she had never felt before,” Marlene Galán-Woods, another former Channel 10 anchor, told the Post. “It’s intoxicating. The Kool-Aid is the power and all these people fawning over you — you forget what the truth is anymore.”
Whatever Lake really believes, however, most observers seem to agree on one thing: She knows how to perform. The power of her MAGA magnetism — and the unusual skill set she brings to the table — have been on full display in the closing days of the campaign.
Two moments in particular stand out.
The first came Sunday, Oct. 9, at a Trump rally in Mesa, just east of Phoenix. Lake spoke in complete, composed sentences — without notes, or a teleprompter, or a single crutch phrase like “um.” But more important than how the former newscaster spoke is what she spoke about. Or rather, what she didn’t.
Instead of fanciful election denialism, she focused on mainstream, meat-and-potatoes fare: Her plan for more career and technical education opportunities; her plan to counter what she calls “Bidenflation” by barring local government from taxing groceries or rent payments; her push to secure the border so that fentanyl stops “kill[ing] our babies”; her desire to “replace the woke garbage with common sense” in public school education; her call for “tough love to get [unhoused] people into treatment.”
In her framing, “the new Republican Party” — the party, presumably, of Trump and Lake — isn’t the party of “very fine people on both sides” and Jan. 6. Rather, it’s “the most inclusive party in the history of politics.”
“I don’t care if you think you’re a Democrat. If you don’t like the way the Democrat Party is going, chances are you’re a Republican,” Lake said, throwing open her arms. “We don’t care what color your skin is. We don’t care what zip code you come from. We love all of you. And if you like common-sense solutions, then welcome.”
In July, the last time Trump stumped for her in Arizona, Lake had “railed about a stolen election five times during [her] 20-minute speech,” according to the Arizona Republic. Now her message was tailored for the broader electorate. One-third of Arizona voters are Latino; one-third are independents. To win in November, a Republican like Lake can’t afford to just rile up the base.
“If the focus is on who’s a potential rising star within the MAGA universe, Lake is a contender,” said Robb. “She does unquestionably well with Trump crowds and with Trump. But she’s got a way to go in the next few weeks just to squeak out a victory that ought to be a walk in the park for a Republican candidate for governor.”
The second moment came exactly one week later, after a “Black Voices for Kari” event at Phoenix’s Bobby-Q barbecue restaurant. Lake might not have mentioned 2020, but the press did. “Over the weekend your name was trending everywhere,” a reporter said right out of the gate. “And most of [those mentions] were asking, ‘Is she an election denier?’”
Lake didn’t hesitate. “Let’s talk about election deniers,” she said as an aide handed her what was presumably a GOP research document. “Here’s 150 examples of Democrats denying election results.”
She mentioned Hillary Clinton saying that “Trump is an illegitimate president.” She mentioned 2018 Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams — who is running again in 2022 — “claiming she never lost.” She even invoked Al Gore, who won the popular vote in 2000 but lost the election to George W. Bush after conservative Supreme Court justices stopped the recount in Florida.
“Since 2000, people have questioned the legitimacy of our elections,” Lake said. “And all we are asking is, in the future, we don’t have to have that happen anymore.”
Never mind that Lake’s argument here — that her denialism, and by extension Trump’s, is just politics as usual, and nothing to worry about — bears little resemblance to reality. Trump’s refusal to accept the results of the 2020 election, and the embrace of his conspiracy theories by Republicans nationwide, is without parallel in American history.
Regardless, Lake sounded like she believed every word of what she was saying. The next morning, she posted a video of the exchange on Twitter. It now has more than 2.1 million views.