Editor’s Note: Robert Robb writes about politics and public policy at robertrobb.substack.com. He was an editorial columnist for The Arizona Republic for 23 years. Follow him on Twitter at @RJRobb or reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed here are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.
There’s been quite a boomlet in the national media recently regarding the Republican candidate for governor in Arizona, Kari Lake.
For example, Kenneth Khachigian, chief speechwriter for former President Ronald Reagan, wrote a panegyric about her for The Wall Street Journal, which went so far as to compare her to the Gipper. As Reagan implored, Khachigian gushed, Lake is “raising a banner of bold colors, no pale pastels.”
Now, Lake is an acolyte of former President Donald Trump. She’s a practitioner of Trump’s scorched-earth style of politicking, leaving no ad hominem attack behind. The way Lake and Trump play politics couldn’t be more different from the way the affable and uplifting Reagan conducted himself.
Khachigian, however, is far from being alone in seeing Lake as a rising star, at least in the MAGA political universe. There has been a string of such stories in the national media. Some are even speculating about her being a potential running mate on Trump’s 2024 ticket.
It’s hard to fathom what the basis is for all this hype and hyperbole.
Lake did win a primary election against a credible and better-funded opponent. But it’s hard to credit that to her political chops. She was endorsed by Trump. Trump endorsees swept the Arizona primary — including for secretary of state and attorney general, where the winners had nothing going for them except Trump’s endorsement.
Arizona is still a Republican-leaning state. In registration, Republicans outnumber Democrats by more than 160,000 voters, or about 4 percentage points. In an off-presidential election, the GOP advantage in turnout should be even greater.
This is a Republican-leaning election. Economic conditions and a general sense that President Joe Biden and his administration aren’t up to the job are this election season’s backdrop.
In Arizona, in this election cycle, a Republican candidate should be able to win the open seat for governor in a cakewalk. Yet polls show Lake running neck and neck with a weak and floundering Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs.
How the current Republican governor, Doug Ducey, performed in his election for an open seat is a useful point of reference. Ducey, whom Lake and Trump routinely disparage, first won election to the governorship in 2014 by a margin of about 53% to 42%. Running for reelection in 2018, Ducey increased his spread — 56% to 42%.
That Lake is doing better in her race than Blake Masters, another Trump-endorsed MAGA candidate, in his US Senate race is sometimes attributed to her superior political skills. But Masters is running against an incumbent, Sen. Mark Kelly, who is a prodigious fundraiser and runs skillful campaigns aimed directly at Arizona’s independents, a third of the electorate, and disaffected Republicans. Yet Masters is within shouting distance of Kelly in the polls.
The comparison of the current status of the races reveals far more about the difference in candidate and campaign quality between Hobbs and Kelly than it does about that between Lake and Masters.
Arizona being a purple state is a post-Trump phenomenon. In the four election cycles before Trump became President, Democrats didn’t win a single statewide election. In 2018, after two years of Trump in the White House, Democrats won four of nine statewide races. And two years later, Trump lost Arizona in his bid for reelection.
While Trumpism has swallowed the Arizona Republican Party whole, Trumpism hasn’t fared very well in general elections. And Lake is the Trumpism standard-bearer this time around.
Lake is widely acknowledged as a polished performer from her years as a television anchor. But the only political skill she has shown thus far is the ability to wow Trump crowds. And more importantly, to wow Trump, who endorsed her early in a field then full of candidates pledging fealty to him.
Lake won the primary due to Trump’s endorsement, not her political chops. If she wins the general election, it will likely be due to the lousy job Biden has done as President and the lackadaisical Hobbs campaign, again not because of Lake’s political chops.
Perhaps Lake will win by a surprising and impressive margin. Perhaps she will show some governing skills and expand her political appeal beyond the Trumpian base. Perhaps she will broaden support for MAGA policies.
If that happens, then the hype and hyperbole about her being a rising star would have some substance to it. Right now it seems, at best, grossly premature — and not based on anything she has actually achieved politically.
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There is, however, one rich irony to the premature boomlet. The more she is touted as a rising star, the more her standing with Trump is likely to fade.
In Trump’s view of the political universe, there is only room for one star: Trump. He turns on those in the MAGA movement who develop a political stature independent of him.
If the Lake boomlet continues, and particularly if it acquires some justification in what she actually achieves, she may be in for the DeSantis treatment.