Kari Lake is a dual frontrunner.
She is more likely than not to win her race for governor of Arizona, and then would have to be considered the favorite to become Donald Trump’s vice presidential pick should he win the Republican nomination again in 2024.
When Lake narrowly won the Republican gubernatorial nomination two months ago, it seemed the Arizona GOP had consigned itself to electoral oblivion. Lake is a “Stop the Steal” die-hard and political novice who, one assumed (certainly, I did), would suffer the fate of another Trump-endorsed true believer, the Pennsylvania GOP gubernatorial nominee, Doug Mastriano, who consistently trails his opponent by about 10 points.
To the contrary, Lake has been a surprise. At the same time, she’s a reminder of the oldest of conventional political adages — candidate quality matters.
You can peddle conspiracy theories about the 2020 election and sink beneath the waves if you are a state senator with no especially notable political skills; or you can peddle conspiracy theories about the 2020 election and achieve liftoff if you are an exceptionally poised former news anchor.
Of course, Mastriano is the former and Lake is the latter, and that’s one key to their different trajectories.
A Lake win is by no means a lock. She’s ahead of Democrat Katie Hobbs by just 1.6 percentage points in the RealClearPolitics average. Still, given the general political environment and how it is tilting further toward the Republicans, she’s clearly in a strong position.
Win or lose, there’s no doubt that a major political talent has emerged. Lake is the latest in a line of female champions of a grass-roots conservative populism that runs from Phyllis Schlafly to Sarah Palin to Marjorie Taylor Greene, spanning the 1950s to today.
These are wildly divergent figures. Schlafly had a deep seriousness of purpose and was one of the most consequential leaders of postwar conservatism; MTG trolls the libs and hopes to finagle a seat on the House oversight committee should Republicans take back the majority.
Yet there are common threads in this line of “momma bear” populists down through the decades: a fervent opposition to the elite; a disdain for the Republican establishment; a hatred for the press; a dark or frankly conspiratorial view of the world; a fervent base of support from activists and ordinary voters immune to influence by critical outside voices; and a fearlessness and instinctive combativeness that made or makes these women even more hateful to their opponents and admirable to their supporters.
What’s new about Lake and MTG is that loyalty to Donald Trump and the insistence that the 2020 election was stolen are now the litmus tests for this grassroots populism. When Phyllis Schlafly got her start in the 1950s, the intensity of someone’s anti-communism was the measuring stick.
A single-minded devotion to 2020 election denialism is not the most natural calling card in a closely contested state like Arizona. This is why Lake seemed like such a poor choice for the GOP. Her other attributes, though, have made up for her poisonously outrageous views on the elections.
As a local news anchor in Phoenix for 20 years, she entered the race with built-in name recognition and a reservoir of credibility that have stood her in good stead. It’s a little as if Walter Cronkite, back when network anchors were still near the height of their powers, up and decided to jump in the Democratic primary against President Jimmy Carter in 1980.
Then, there’s the fact that Lake loves the microphone and camera, and they love her back. She has communication skills that an army of consultants could never impart to a candidate with less experience. Lake has basically had more than 20 years of media training, and it shows.
At a rally with Tulsi Gabbard this week that involved a sit-down conversation with the former Democratic congresswoman on stage, Lake could have been mistaken for the celebrity MC. She was fluid and in control. Not a word was out of place. She seamlessly interwove pleasant chitchat with her campaign message, which, with an emphasis on the border, education and water issues, hardly sounded radical.
TV news-anchoring is about connecting with the viewers and projecting authority, and these are attributes that are directly transferable to the political realm. If you seem unflappable, people will think you are unflappable, and that creates a sense of command.
Lake has made a point of snapping back at the media constantly. Knowing how valuable these exchanges are for motivating Republicans, her campaign is careful to get them on video and spread them widely. The latest such moment had Lake taking a question about her election denialism from a reporter and turning it around by citing chapter and verse regarding Democrats denying the legitimacy of Republican presidential victories since 2000. This doesn’t excuse anything Lake has said, but it showed moxie — and in how she pulled it off — practiced showmanship.
On top of all of this, she is running against perhaps the worst Democratic gubernatorial candidate in the country, the Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, whose campaign is currently consumed with trying to justify her refusal to debate Lake. Hobbs emphatically lacks Lake’s star power and in fact, feels more like a candidate for the board of the Central Arizona Water Conservation District than the highest elected office in the state.
If Lake wins, she instantly has to be at the top of Trump’s potential VP list. There won’t be many other major officeholders as enthusiastic about his 2020 fixation as Lake. She’d be a governor from a crucial swing state. She’s a woman. And she’s thoroughly absorbed the Trumpian practice of politics as combat and theater and can build a crowd.
There’s a long way to go from here to there. If nothing else, though, we now know what a desperate misjudgment it was for Democrats to subtly assist Lake in the GOP primary. They thought they were propping up a patsy, when they were really helping create a star they may have to fear and loathe for years.