Can Kari Lake Be Stopped?

By Matt Lewis, Senior Columnist –

Beating back Donald Trump and beating back Trumpism are both vital, if different, goals.

Although there are signs his hold is weakening, Trump, the man, still holds plenty of sway in the Republican Party. But his ability to spread Trumpism, by virtue of his endorsed acolytes, is not nearly as impressive.

Arizona’s primary voters have another chance to stop Trumpism in its tracks on Aug. 2. It’s two weeks to slow the spread.

I’m talking, of course, about the upcoming Arizona governor’s race, pitting Kari Lake, a former local TV news anchor endorsed by Trump, against Karrin Taylor Robson, a developer and Republican Party stalwart endorsed by Mike Pence. While Pence’s endorsement sets up a “surrogate war” narrative against his former boss, it was the state’s governor, Doug Ducey, who really went to war with Trump’s endorsed candidate this weekend.

“Kari Lake is misleading voters,” Arizona Gov. Ducey (who is term-limited and cannot seek re-election) told CNN’s Dana Bash on Sunday’s State of the Union. “She’s been tagged by her opponent, ‘Fake Lake,’ which is sticking and doing some damage.”

But Ducey didn’t just bash Lake, he also voiced support for the more mainstream Robson, who has closed the gap,making this race a dead heat. “I think Karrin Taylor Robson will be the best person to be a fresh new leader for the state of Arizona,” Ducey continued. “Her opponent, on the other hand, bears no resemblance—her campaign or even her personal interactions with me—to anything she’s done over the past 30 years. This is all an act.”

We’re two weeks out from primary day, and Ducey’s efforts to stop Trumpism’s spread in Arizona may be too little, too late. But the governor—who angered Trump in 2020 when he certified that Joe Biden had won the state—is following a template that has allowed other Republican “adults” to beat back MAGA candidates in recent months.

The formula seems to be: a) Do not directly confront or invoke Donald Trump, but b) Fight like hell to thwart his endorsed candidates. (As long as Republican leaders avoid confronting Trump, they can otherwise defy the former president without many repercussions.)

In recent months, this strategy has been deployed effectively in Georgia and North Carolina.

Let’s start in Georgia, where Ducey’s fellow governor, Republican Brian Kemp, similarly angered Trump by failing to help him steal the state. Trump attacked Kemp and went all-out to defeat him, even going so far as to recruit former Sen. David Perdue to challenge him.

How did Kemp survive the onslaught and crush the competition? “We’re going to go fucking scorched-earth,” Kemp adviser Jay Walker reportedly told the campaign when they met to plan the strategy. In this case, “scorched-earth” didn’t mean running a negative campaign, just an aggressive attempt to outmaneuver Perdue and hamstring his potential funding sources. It worked, and Kemp won easily.

The other example was seen in North Carolina, where Republican Sen. Thom Tillis endorsed state Senator Chuck Edwards and helped defeat MAGA Rep. Madison Cawthorn in an April primary. “Madison Cawthorn has fallen well short of the most basic standards Western North Carolina expects from their representatives, and voters now have several well-qualified candidates to choose from who would be a significant improvement,” Tillis declared in late March.

More importantly, a Super PAC connected with Tillis spent hundreds of thousands of dollars attacking Cawthorn in TV ads. One such ad said that “Madison Cawthorn lied about being accepted to the Naval Academy to get elected. Now, Cawthorn’s been caught lying about conservatives. In perpetual pursuit of celebrity, Cawthorn will lie about anything.”

(The effort to defeat Cawthorn was also aided by an outside group that was not affiliated with Tillis, The American Muckrakers PAC, who helped dig up and spread dirt, including publishing a leaked nude video of Cawthorn.)

The campaign to stop Lake in Arizona has similar, albeit not quite as graphic, ingredients. Gov. Ducey’s comments about Lake come on the heels of a devastating ad put out by American Focus PAC called “Phony,” which noted Lake’s past support for Barack Obama, her defense of Hillary Clinton’s emails, and her affinity for drag queens.

If there is a major flaw in comparing what Ducey is up to in Arizona with what Kemp and Tillis pulled off in their respective states, it’s that the anti-Lake forces might have waited too long.

“The difference between Kemp and Tillis is Ducey got on this much later than they did,” said Republican strategist Chuck Warren, who consults on Arizona campaigns, and gave the maximum contribution to both Lake and Robson. (Note: Tillis’s official endorsement of Cawthorn’s opponent came only a few weeks before the primary election, but Tillis’s criticism of Cawthorn began months earlier.)

Unlike Ducey (who faces term limits), Kemp himself was on the ballot in Georgia. And because Trump telegraphed his attempt to seek revenge immediately after losing the November 2020 election, Kemp knew right away that he would have to run an aggressive re-election campaign to survive in 2022. He leveraged all the political capital that comes with being an incumbent governor.

Still, Kemp had the luxury of time. As Politico reported, “By the time Perdue launched his campaign in December [of 2021], he found that Kemp had used the levers of his office to rally the support of state power players and pass legislation that assuaged pro-Trump voters. Kemp had won the backing of many of Perdue’s former longtime advisers, making it difficult for Perdue to build a political operation.”

This is where the analogy breaks down. Ducey didn’t even get around to endorsing Robson until July 7. So why is the cavalry just now riding to the rescue? It seems likely that Ducey was drawn into this fight by Lake’s continual attacks on him, including saying that he’s weak on the border.

We probably underestimate how many of the things that happen in politics are the result of personal slights. Text messages published in The Washington Post this May suggest that Tillis’s campaign against Cawthorn may have been avoided but for Cawthorn’s criticism of the senator.

For those hoping to stop Lake and deal a blow to Trumpism, the good news is that Ducey is following a tried-and-true method. When local leaders step up and show courage, they can leverage their resources. (Remember, Gov. Ducey was elected and re-elected by wide margins; in the 2016 general election, Trump failed to exceed 50 percent of the vote in Arizona.)

Ducey’s gambit is dicier because it’s coming together pretty late in the game.

“When you talk to people in Arizona, from pollsters to elected officials, to activists,” Warren says, “it’s a flip of the coin who’s going to win.”

Still, if he can pull it off, this would be one more major setback for the forces of MAGA, providing yet another data point for anyone who is questioning whether opposing Trumpism in the GOP is just a fool’s errand.