Arizonans Trusted Kari Lake to Tell It Straight on TV. Will They Trust Her as Governor?

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PHOENIX — Kari Lake worked her way through television interviews at her election night party, fielding a barrage of questions about her bid to be Arizona’s next governor. Votes were still being counted, and she’d been up all night. But Ms. Lake, a first-time candidate, didn’t flinch.

Instead, she grabbed a reporter’s microphone, locked eyes with the camera and delivered her campaign message as seamlessly and authoritatively as if she were reporting from behind the local anchor desk she left just last year.

Ms. Lake is among a crop of hard-right Republican candidates winning primaries this year with a potent mix of election lies and cultural grievances. But her polished delivery and ruthless instincts, both honed through decades in TV news, have landed her in a category all her own.

The 52-year-old former journalist has drawn on a reservoir of credibility and familiarity to turn former viewers into voters. Donald J. Trump has praised her camera-ready discipline, privately telling other candidates to be more like Ms. Lake. Her say-anything bravado has won cheers from a base eager to stick it to the state’s old guard. Her lack of experience with policy and her fixation on fictions about the 2020 election have left the establishment white-knuckled, bracing for how she might wield power.

Some Republicans have discussed her as a potential vice-presidential contender if Mr. Trump runs again in 2024. National Republican groups are planning to pour millions into her race to help keep the party in control of a key political battleground.

“I am beloved by people, and I’m not saying that to be boastful,” Ms. Lake said in an interview last week at her campaign headquarters.

“I was in their homes for the good times and the bad times,” she added. “We’ve been together on the worst of days, and we’ve been together on the best of days.”

Polls show Ms. Lake as an underdog in her race, having survived a narrow primary race last week in which Gov. Doug Ducey and most of the Arizona Republican establishment opposed her.

But if she can unite her party and expand her appeal to independent voters, Ms. Lake has history on her side: Arizona Republicans have won six of the last eight governor’s races. On Saturday, Mr. Ducey released a statement urging his party “to unite behind our slate of candidates.”

Raised in Iowa, Ms. Lake has spent more than two decades on the air at KSAZ-TV, a Phoenix station owned by Fox. From her perch in the nation’s 11th largest TV market, which covers about two-thirds of the state’s households, she delivered straight news. She interviewed Barack Obama and Mr. Trump during their presidencies, a rare feat for even the most ambitious local news figure.

But in recent years, she began to hint at her personal political leanings on social media. In 2021, she complained about biased reporting in the media: “I promise you if you hear it from my lips, it will be truthful,” she said, in a statement announcing her departure from the network.

Since then, Ms. Lake has embraced Mr. Trump’s falsehoods about the 2020 election, claiming that the contest was “corrupt and stolen.” She supported a partisan review of the results in Maricopa County and claimed that electronic voting machines were not “reliably secure.”

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Her combative campaign has touched on other trigger points of America First populism.

She has rallied against vaccine mandates, and one of her best-selling campaign T-shirts features a graphic of a cloth face mask on fire. She’s opposed to letting transgender people use bathrooms that are consistent with their identity and has assailed drag queens as dangerous to children.

She suggested that the Second Amendment protects ownership of rocket launchers, and she told a summit of young conservative women, “God did not create us to be equal to men.”

In response to the F.B.I. search of Mr. Trump’s residence this week, Ms. Lake declared, “Our government is rotten to the core.”

When one Republican rival, Matt Salmon, offered a counterpoint to Ms. Lake’s proposal to install cameras in classrooms, she smeared him as sympathetic to pedophiles. When he objected, she said that his complaints showed he was too weak to be governor.

Mr. Salmon — who has served in Congress, in the state legislature and as state party chairman — dropped out of the governor’s race in June and endorsed Ms. Lake’s main rival, Karrin Taylor Robson.

“I’ve never run in a nastier campaign in my life,” Mr. Salmon said in an interview.

Ms. Lake defeated Ms. Robson by more than four percentage points despite being outspent five to one. She was part of a slate of victorious Trump-endorsed primary candidates, along with Blake Masters, the party’s U.S. Senate nominee; Mark Finchem, who is running for secretary of state; and Abraham Hamadeh, the party’s pick for attorney general.

The group, whose campaigns have all garnered national headlines for embracing election denialism, has occasionally campaigned together. But when they’re all in the same room, Ms. Lake tends to take the spotlight.

At an event in Phoenix on the night before the primary election, she was mobbed by supporters seeking selfies, autographs or trying to shake her hand, while other Republican candidates looked on.

On the campaign stage, Ms. Lake blurs the line between seriousness and showmanship with the ease of someone who has spent three decades as a TV reporter. During her election night speech, she wielded a sledgehammer as she strutted across the stage, vowing to “take this to the electronic vote machines when I’m governor.”

“The same God who parted the Red Sea, who moved mountains, is with us now as we save this republic,” Ms. Lake said.

Some of Arizona’s political elders are skeptical about how Ms. Lake will go over with independent and moderate voters.

Jan Brewer, a former Arizona governor and a Republican who supported Ms. Robson despite a friendship with both candidates, described Ms. Lake’s primary campaign as mean, untruthful and untethered to public policy.

“She went so far to the right that I don’t know if she can recover,” Ms. Brewer said in an interview. “And if she can’t, we’ll have a Democratic governor.”

Ms. Brewer said she’d support Ms. Lake only if she promised to prioritize policy and tell the truth about elections.

“I want to hear her tell me she did all this because she wanted to win and that it got a little bit out of control,” Ms. Brewer said.

Ms. Lake said she had plans to reach out to Ms. Robson and her supporters with the hope of uniting the party. Her message: “The media wants us warring with one another.”

In the general election, both Ms. Lake and the Democratic nominee, Katie Hobbs, the Arizona secretary of state, saw their national profiles rise as Mr. Trump and his allies spread falsehoods about fraud in the 2020 election. Liberal activists hailed Ms. Hobbs for her role in protecting the state’s vote-counting apparatus against a flurry of attacks. At the same time, Ms. Lake became a conservative hero for helping lead the charge to overturn the results.

Some Democrats were rooting for Ms. Lake to win her primary, including former Gov. Janet Napolitano, who said Ms. Lake was a “one-trick pony” who would be easier to defeat than Ms. Robson.

“If this is an election about Trump and 2020 in Arizona, then Democrats will win,” Ms. Napolitano, a Democrat, said in an interview.

But it’s not clear that the November election is about 2020. A favorable national political climate for Republicans has left some Democrats nervous that Ms. Lake is one step away from a four-year job as the state’s chief executive.

Roy Herrera, the Arizona state counsel for the Biden 2020 campaign, said that he experienced a strange brew of optimism, anxiousness and fear about Ms. Lake’s win.

“We wanted these extreme candidates on the Republican side,” Mr. Herrera said. “Now we got them and, you know, are we sure we wanted that?”

Ms. Lake has undergone political shifts before. She acknowledges voting for Mr. Obama in 2008, although she described it as a blip in her otherwise steady Republican voting record. There are signs she’s moderating her positions.

She has already become less definitive on abortion. During the primary, she said she wanted to sign a “carbon copy” of the Texas abortion law that bans the procedure after six weeks of pregnancy with no exceptions for rape or incest.

But when asked last week about the issue, she said she supported Arizona’s current law.

“At the time, I wasn’t even aware that we have this law on the books,” she said. “So I don’t think that’s ever going to have to come up.”

After this article was published online, Ms. Lake’s campaign sought to clarify her response. But a spokesman gave a series of conflicting explanations about whether Ms. Lake supports a state law signed this year that allows for abortions during the first 15 weeks of pregnancy or a pre-statehood law that bans abortion.

The campaign declined to make Ms. Lake available to address the discrepancy.

While calling Mr. Trump’s endorsement “the most powerful in all politics,” Ms. Lake downplayed its significance.

“I had a really good shot at winning even before that, to be honest,” she said.

Ms. Lake rocketed to the top of the Arizona Republican Party with little help from the traditional political infrastructure. She has mostly kept her distance from consultants and doesn’t employ a campaign manager.

Her most influential aide is Lisa Dale, a longtime friend who is a former pro golfer with a Scottsdale-based real estate business. On the campaign trail, Ms. Lake is often surrounded by operatives from Arsenal Media Group, a Republican advertising company, and Caroline Wren, a senior adviser who was a Trump campaign fund-raiser.

Another constant presence is Ms. Lake’s husband, Jeff Halperin, a videographer who watches his wife’s every move on the campaign trail through the frame of his digital camera, compiling footage for political ads and recording interviews with reporters. Her campaign has occasionally posted such clips to show her battles with the media, which she has increasingly portrayed as hostile to her candidacy.

Ms. Lake’s campaign has also paid her daughter, Ruby Halperin, a modest salary, according to campaign finance reports.

“I don’t think there’s anybody running a campaign like ours,” Ms. Lake said. “We’ve got these people who are high-priced consultants, who’ve been doing it for decades, and their heads are spinning. They don’t know what to do with us.”

There are reinforcements on the way.

Dave Rexrode, the executive director of the Republican Governors Association, met with Ms. Lake’s campaign for more than 90 minutes last week. He told her team that the group, led by Mr. Ducey, had increased its advertising budget for the state to $12 million from $10.5 million.

But if establishment Republicans are waiting for Ms. Lake to stop attacking the legitimacy of the 2020 election, they will need to wait a little longer.

“Deep down, I think we all know this illegitimate fool in the White House — I feel sorry for him — didn’t win,” she said. “I hope Americans are smart enough to know that.”

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