“No matter what you ask Kari Lake, ‘How’s your family?’ And she says, ‘The family is fine, but they’re never going to be great until we have free and fair elections,” the former president has often told donors, according to a source close to Trump’s political operation. “He said: ” You can ask him, how’s the weather? And he’ll turn it into an election. “Oh, the weather in Phoenix is fine, but you can never have good weather unless the election is fair.”
Over the past year, Lake has appeared with Trump at rallies and been spotted at Mar-a-Lago events. She is a favorite guest on conservative shows, though she only appeared once on Fox News during prime time. There has been so much buzz surrounding Lake that it has led to speculation in his circles and among his right-wing supporters that he could be on Trump’s short list for a potential running mate, should he eventually become governor and he return to run for the presidency. Those familiar with Trump’s thinking say they are not familiar with any such talk and that the speculation is painfully premature.
“Kari Lake is honored to have the support of President Trump,” said Lake campaign spokesman Ross Trumble. “She’s just focused on defeating Katie Hobbs and advancing the Arizona First agenda.”
Lake formally secured his party’s nomination Thursday after a primary fight. At CPAC in Dallas on Friday, she was greeted like a rock star by the crowd of conservative activists.
“Kari Lake won this hard-fought race in which she was outspent 10 to 1 by sticking to the key and vital issue that the 2020 election in Arizona and across the country was rigged and stolen,” said Boris Epshteyn, former special assistant to Trump in the White House who worked on the ground in Arizona challenging the election results. “The main reasons Kari Lake is widely praised is that she hasn’t swerved and isn’t afraid of the mainstream media, Democrats, or RINOs. Kari stuck to the MAGA theme and won.”
Arizona Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake gives the crowd a thumbs up as former President Donald Trump speaks at a Save America rally on July 22 in Prescott, Arizona. | Ross D. Franklin/AP Photo
Lake’s rising status in Trump’s world isn’t just a testament to the power of the former president’s endorsement and the importance of 2020 election conspiracies in modern GOP politics. It also underscores Trump’s success in putting his stamp on governorships across the country.
While Trump has played a central role in pushing MAGA candidates in races for seats ranging from statewide to the U.S. Congress, he has particularly focused on governors. Allies and aides say he was often stymied by Republican governors he felt were not aligned with him while in the White House. He also sees governors as critical to their potential political future, noting that much of the electoral infrastructure is under their sway.
This is especially the case in swing states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Arizona, where Trump has felt cheated out of a victory. In Pennsylvania, he supported Doug Mastriano, who has promoted the former president’s false claims of a stolen 2020 election, attended Trump’s Jan. 6 Capitol rally and march, and won the Republican nomination. In Michigan, Trump endorsed conservative commentator Tudor Dixon, who won the Republican primary for governor. Dixon said he believes Trump won the state in 2020 even though he lost to Biden by thousands of votes, and has talked about his belief that there were irregularities in the 2020 election, even though it wasn’t that far. away like other state Republicans in 2020. saying the election was stolen.
In Arizona, Trump-endorsed Lake faced Karrin Taylor Robson, who had the support of former Vice President Mike Pence and outgoing Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, among others. While Robson spent $18 million, Lake spent just $3.8 million, relying heavily on Trump’s endorsement and media appearances to get voters’ attention.
Trump failed to unseat incumbent Brian Kemp from the governor’s seat in Georgia, despite fueling a primary campaign against him over his refusal to overturn the state’s 2020 election results. And the Trump-endorsed candidate in Nebraska, Charles Herbster, an attendee of the “stop the theft” rally, did not win the primary there.
But the president has affected GOP gubernatorial races elsewhere, including in Maryland, where Trump’s favorite candidate, Dan Cox, beat Kelly Schulz by double digits. Schulz was backed by more establishment Republicans, while Cox called Pence a “traitor” for his actions on Jan. 6. And in Arkansas, Trump endorsed former White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who won the Republican primary and is seen as a shoemaker. in replacing Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a critic of Trump’s behavior on January 6.
Political observers warn that the rise of GOP gubernatorial candidates who trumpet Trump’s lies about the election could have a profound impact on American democracy. Should Mastriano, Lake and Dixon end up in office, they would be in critical positions to affect the course of the 2024 election. If Pennsylvania, Michigan and Arizona had gone to Trump in 2020, he would have won a second term.
But these candidates must first be elected to office. And a number of Republican strategists have warned that they are deeply flawed in the general election showdowns, precisely because of their loyalty to the former president and the 2020 election lies.
“I think it’s a problem for Republicans in the general election. Voters in general want to look forward, not back,” said Mike DuHaime, a Republican strategist who ran Rudy Giuliani’s 2008 presidential bid and Chris Christie’s 2016 bid. “Even Republican voters who voted for Trump and they may even agree with him on some level they are focused on gas prices and inflation and are just not focused on the 2020 election. It’s over no matter what. It is better for the Republican party that the 2022 and 2024 elections be a referendum on Biden and not on Trump.”
Lake is among those who could end up rising big because of his closeness to Trump, only to find that he doesn’t play to a larger constituency. Arizona Republicans say he’ll have to go beyond MAGA stalwarts and embrace the state’s moderates if he wins against Democratic candidate Katie Hobbs, who is Arizona’s top election official and passed the year spent fighting Lake’s claims of voter fraud.
Arizona Democratic gubernatorial candidate Katie Hobbs speaks to the media before casting her primary ballot July 21, 2022, in Scottsdale, Arizona | Ross D. Franklin/AP Photo
After Biden narrowly won Arizona in the 2020 election, Trump and his allies went on a political crusade to litigate and try to overturn the results. Over the next year and a half, a flurry of partisan election “audits,” conspiracy theories and lawsuits made Arizona ground zero for efforts to cast doubt on the 2020 results. Many of Trump’s claims and his allies turned out to be false. This week Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich ruled that a claim by the Cyber Ninjas, the group that led one of the so-called “audits” in the state, that nearly 300 dead people voted in the election, was not true. Only one person on the Cyber Ninja roster died.
“Electoral denialism absolutely works in a Republican primary, but when you go into the general election, it’s up to Kari to reach out to both Republicans who didn’t vote for her and independents or Democratic voters who are upset with the way the country is being run.” , said Barrett Marson, an Arizona-based Republican strategist. “Yes, he plays in the primaries, but I don’t know if he will play in the general election. Trump did lose Arizona.”
After his victory in the primary, Lake met with officials of the Republican Governors Association to work to support him in the general election. The RGA, which helps GOP candidates across the country, is currently chaired by outgoing Arizona Gov. Ducey, who endorsed Robson in the primary.
“The RGA congratulates Kari on her primary win and we look forward to working to get her governor elected this November,” RGA Vice President Kim Reynolds said in a statement.
The day after Tuesday’s primary election, before the results had been called, NBC News asked Lake if he had a message for establishment Republicans, including Pence and Ducey, whom he excoriated personally.
“I want to bring the Republican party together. We’re one big happy family, sometimes, sometimes dysfunctional, but we can come together,” Lake said. “I want to bring people together.”
But at that press conference, he again spoke about the baseless fraud claims.
“We have a lot of evidence of irregularities and problems, and we will deal with them. I’m not going to put them on the fake news,” Lake said.