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Kari Lake: A Cautionary Tale for Democratic Candidates Nationwide

Image via PBS

After decades at Fox 10, Kari Lake, a once beloved and joyful news anchor, announced that she would be abandoning her career, citing the media’s turn to unbalanced news as the reason for her departure. Following Lake’s rocky exit from journalism, her loyal viewers encouraged her to enter state politics, and, by adding her name into the Republican primary race for governor of Arizona, she did just that.

Proclaiming herself as the media’s “worst fricking nightmare,” Lake swore revenge on the industry to which she gave two decades of her life. Besides going to war against the free press, Lake also set her sights on restricting women’s healthcare, targeting “woke school curriculum,” and promising to block vaccine mandates. Clearly a loyal disciple of Trumpism, she also affirmed that she would not have certified Arizona’s electoral votes in the 2020 election. 

As one of the most important swing states in recent elections, Arizona is no stranger to political battles—even still, Lake was quite a shock to state politics. State conservatives wondered whether they should embrace Lake’s campaign in the wake of Trump’s popularity or give up the fight for the far-right in favor of moderation and docility. When the primary election came around, the Arizona Republican party was caught in a great divide, which allowed Lake to attain the GOP nomination with a plurality of the party’s vote.

Lake’s Democratic opponents, fearing her quick rise to popularity, wondered if they should combat her extremism head on or simply wait for the conspiracies to get old and fade out. Given that opponents to Trump had yet to figure out a national strategy to combat the far-right, there was little precedent for Arizonans to follow. Ultimately, when Lake called on her Democratic opponent Katie Hobbs to engage in gubernatorial debates on live broadcast, Hobbs’ team refused; they did not want to provide Lake with a bigger platform to push election denialism. Although Hobbs’ risky choice went against campaign norms, it paid off in an unlikely victory—albeit by less than 1 percent of the vote. 

When Lake was met with quite a wounding defeat, she did not go silently into that good night. Although her claims to be the rightful governor of Ariona amounted to little, her fight for conservative extremism is not quite done. Abandoning her claims to the governorship, Lake announced in October that she would challenge Kyrsten Sinema (I-AZ) for her senate seat in 2024. The Democrats only have a one-seat majority in the Senate, and if this Arizona seat flips in 2024, it could spell a Republican Senate for years to come. The decisions Arizona makes during this election evidently have even greater implications than in 2022—ones that could affect the trajectory of the entire country.

With such a high stakes election, Representative Ruben Gallego (D-AZ) has risen to challenge Lake for the seat as the Democratic frontrunner. Yet again, Arizonans opposed to Lake are wondering what the approach to defeat her should look like. Is it best to follow Hobbs’ technique of avoiding confrontation, or should someone finally attack her hard-right views on the debate stage? Given that Hobbs’ victory was so narrow, some Democrats are wondering if a different strategy of direct confrontation may prove more effective to rid the state of Lake once and for all.

To truly understand the sensational power of Lake, it is important to contextualize her campaign within her previous career as a news anchor. Lake is literally a trained professional at attracting viewers and appealing to Arizona’s political scene; although not as a politician, she has done that job for decades on Fox 10. She knows how to take control of a live broadcast, make herself attractive on screen, and get people hooked on whatever she is talking about. Conspiracies to overturn elections and attack the free press suddenly do not look so dangerous when they are delivered by someone with a charismatic persona and a perfectly manicured face. Giving Lake the opportunity to spread her lies on television allows her to take control of the narrative and distract viewers on her home turf.

We have already seen what a Lake home-field advantage looks like. Just a few weeks ago, Gallego found out that Lake was on the same flight as him and asked to talk with her about Arizona’s border situation. In typical Lake fashion, instead of taking part in a quality conversation on the flight, after deplaning, she ambushed him in the airport with her cameras and microphones at the ready. Gallego remained civil, trying to have a productive conversation about border communities. Lake, however, returned his politeness with a promise to never work with him on any common issues, explicitly proclaiming her intention to beat him in the election. This sneaky confrontation accomplished little in the domain of productive discourse, left Gallego looking unprepared, and immortalized the entire situation in new internet video clips. Lake is sure to have ample fodder to feed her base of supporters who care more about “owning liberals” than engaging in any form of productive discourse. 

Despite this unfortunate interaction, Gallego is still leading Lake in a majority of polls so far. Due to the large Independent and Democratic voting bloc in Arizona, Lake’s flamboyant extremism may finally be alienating former moderate supporters. Although Trump remains popular among Republicans, the rest of America is growing exhausted by the same rhetoric over and over again. The MAGA campaign is losing support among Independents, pointing to a larger trend of Republican election failures. For candidates like Lake, disturbing the status quo has become the status quo, and moderate voters feel alienated and detached from the MAGA cause. Although the 2022 midterms were predicted to be a “Red Wave,” Lake’s failure was one of many defeats that made the Republican showing resemble something much closer to a ripple. In their continued refusal to confront Lake in a debate, Democrats have let the fiery flames of her extremist agenda lose their grandeur on their own. 

Arizona is not alone in its disinterest in flashy far-right frenzies. In Michigan’s Attorney General race, Democratic incumbent Dana Nessel refused to give her opponent a platform to spread “blatant lies.” Nessel won the race by 9 percent in a swing state with similar voting trends to Arizona—both voted for Trump in 2016 but narrowly reversed course in 2020. In the race for Governor of Pennsylvania—another swing state—Democratic Attorney General Josh Shapiro refused to debate his Republican opponent Doug Mastriano under the terms proposed, claiming Mastriano was attempting to orchestrate an unfair competition. Shapiro won by 15 points. The trend is clear, and the Gallego campaign should take notes. As Democrats in swing states refuse to engage conspiracy theorists in formal debate, they strip the MAGA candidates of what they want most: sound bites and confrontation. 

The tale of Lake’s failed campaign teaches Arizona’s left-wing candidates an important lesson in addressing extremism in the wake of Trump’s presidency: Democratic candidates are able to win statewide elections without confronting MAGA disciples in formal debates. Democrats ought to let their policies speak for themselves. Extremist campaigns like Lake’s rely on pure shock value to quickly fire up their support bases. With months and months of flagrantly abrasive political messaging, Lake’s campaign is beginning to lose its ability to shock, pointing to the unsustainability of the larger far-right movement. Evidently, when MAGA policies are separated from their flamboyant and snappy debate performances, they quickly lose their luster. 

MAGA candidates rely on being uncivil—whether online, at ambush airport interviews, or on a debate stage—to make their opponents look weak and unprepared. Moderation looks like a wet blanket next to a polished Trumpist candidate, distracting people from digging beneath the surface to uncover the bigotry underneath. If Gallego wants to win, he should watch Lake alienate Independent voters from afar and refuse to let a trained media personality use a televised debate to further her agenda of lies, hatred, and misinformation.

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