BY CAROLINE VAKIL – 06/20/23
Republicans are facing a dwindling number of alternatives to mount a challenge to Kari Lake in the Arizona Senate primary, raising concerns for the party over what should be a prime pickup opportunity next year.
Lake, who narrowly lost her gubernatorial election to Gov. Katie Hobbs (D) last November, is weighing a potential Senate run for Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s (I) seat. Rep. Ruben Gallego (D) has already thrown his hat in the ring, while Sinema has not yet announced whether she’s running again.
Republicans concede Lake would be the party’s frontrunner if she officially launched a bid and see almost no serious alternatives who could take her on. But they also worry her emphasis on baseless allegations of election fraud could cost them.
“I think most people are facing reality that if she runs for that seat, she has a significant number of Republican primary voters who are going to vote for her, and why put good money after bad, I think is what a lot of people are thinking,” said Republican strategist Chuck Warren, who has worked in Arizona.
“So unless somebody comes in and throws $15 [million], $20 million of their own money, I think it’s very difficult, and that person’s not popping up,” he continued.
Lake’s gubernatorial candidacy made headlines last cycle as the Trump-aligned former local news anchor centered much of her campaign on baseless claims about the 2020 election. A clip of a moderated primary debate, in which she asked her contenders to raise their hands to poll whether they believed they had a “corrupt, stolen election,” made the rounds on social media.
Although Lake won the gubernatorial GOP primary by close to half the primary vote, beating chief GOP opponent Karrin Taylor Robson by 5 points, she lost to Hobbs in November — an election loss Lake has baselessly disputed. Lake’s final lawsuit over the election was dismissed last month, though the former gubernatorial candidate said she’ll appeal.
A source close to Lake’s team told The Hill they expect her to launch a Senate bid in the fall after she kicks off her book tour this summer. While Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb has launched a GOP bid for the Senate bid, Republicans increasingly see few other candidates likely to wade into the race.
Robson announced last month she would not run, while former Gov. Doug Ducey (R) appears uninterested in a bid. Former Senate candidate Blake Masters is reportedly weighing another run. Businessman Jim Lamon could also potentially enter the race.The Hill Elections 2024 coverage
“Should Kari Lake decide to run for the U.S. Senate, there is no doubt she would win the primary and go on to win the general election,” Caroline Wren, senior adviser to Lake, told The Hill.
Meanwhile, Democrats and Republicans alike are awaiting Sinema’s official decision on reelection. The Wall Street Journal reported in April that the Democrat-turned-independent was gearing up for another run, though she has been largely aloof about her plans — meaning strategists are bracing for a potential three-way race.
“It is definitely too early to say who would be a front-runner in a … two- or three-way race. I do know that Republicans are concerned if it’s Kari Lake, that you’re gonna give away an eminently winnable seat to the Democrats or Sinema, whichever,” said Republican strategist Barrett Marson.
Polling from Noble Predictive Insights released in February suggests Lake saw a 21-point decline in net favorability with independents — a key voting bloc that makes up roughly a third of the voting electorate — since a similar survey was conducted in September.
“She did good with suburban men, but not great at all with suburban women,” explained nonpartisan pollster Mike Noble about Lake’s performance in November, adding she also fared poorly with moderate Republicans.
“It wasn’t … a lack of Republican voters last cycle in Arizona, it was an R+8 turnout,” he added.
In a three-way race between Lake, Gallego and Sinema, Gallego leads by 8 points, according to February’s poll. Gallego received 34 percent support, whereas 26 percent and 19 percent of respondents backed Lake and Sinema, respectively. A separate 21 percent said they were undecided or didn’t know.
When the polling did a hypothetical head-to-head between Gallego and Lake, the Arizona Democrat’s numbers jumped to 43 percent, with Lake in second at 33 percent and 24 percent undecided.
“Republicans, they’re going to have to really work hard to get their act together, because if they don’t, the business community could [end] up partnering up with the Democrat, and then they’d be in for a world of hurt electorally here in the state,” Noble said.
Some Republicans have sought to project confidence about the seat. Tate Mitchell, a spokesman for the Senate GOP’s campaign arm, called the state a “great pickup opportunity” in a statement.
“It’s been fun to watch Chuck Schumer refuse to say whether he’ll back Ruben Gallego or Kyrsten Sinema,” he added.
Kari Lake waves to the media in Phoenix on Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
But some top Senate Republicans — at least for now — are focusing their sights on a handful of states where they believe they’ll be able to best compete, excluding Arizona from their prime list.
“I didn’t mention Wisconsin; I think clearly you’d have to have an outstanding candidate. And I think there are some other places where with the right candidate, we might be able to compete — in Nevada, Arizona,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told CNN in an interview last month.
“But as of right now, the day that you and I are talking, I think we know that we are going to compete in four places heavily, and that would be Montana, West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania,” he continued.
Democrats, too, have taken an early victory lap over the Arizona Senate race and have touted the fact some Republicans’ most-wanted candidates have decidedly passed on runs in several key battleground states.
“Republicans have no good answer to their Arizona headache. After the most sought after GOP recruits like Mike Gallagher in Wisconsin and Doug Ducey in Arizona refused to run, it’s clear their party’s toxic agenda and vicious primaries are continuing to cripple their recruitment efforts,” said Senate Democrats’ campaign arm spokesperson Maeve Coyle in a statement.
Still, Republicans reject any notion that the state is turning blue — arguing the voting electorate overall tends to lean right of center and that the last several election cycles have only underscored that Trump-aligned, far-right candidates turn off the kinds of voters that cast ballots for former Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
But can the GOP turn the tides on its fortune in the state? That hinges on whether Republicans decide to change course after the last few election cycles.
“I would just urge Republicans — look at the data, look at the trends. If we want to be successful in Arizona, we can’t do what we’ve been doing the past few election cycles. And they can’t be these extremist Republican candidates coming out of a primary because you’re just going to hand everything over to Democrats in a general election in this state,” said GOP strategist Lorna Romero.