PHOENIX — It was a sweltering Arizona evening in late June, and Kari Lake was standing on a stage in a church community center in front of a giant poster of Kari Lake.
The promotional material for Lake’s campaign for governor featured Lake’s head and shoulders, floating alongside Donald Trump’s head and shoulders, with a quote from Trump: “Kari Lake is fantastic. She is going to win big.”
Trump’s endorsee was about to be interviewed by a reporter for a Japanese TV station in Gold Canyon, an upscale Phoenix suburb at the base of a mountain. Lake’s own video team hovered in the background, capturing her every move. It was a million degrees and Lake was dry as a cactus.
It wasn’t long into the interview that Lake turned to two of her favorite subjects: Trump and the media.
“People of this country love Donald Trump,” Lake said. “It’s the corrupt, rotten media that’s been trying to tell them and brainwash them into believing that people don’t like him.”
Lake’s remarks about a “corrupt” and “rotten” media are especially breathtaking considering the source: a former newscaster who, less than two years ago, was still delivering the news in one of the nation’s largest media markets.
“I want you to know if the Arizona ‘Repugnant,’ as I’ve taken to calling it” — Lake’s derisive nickname for the Arizona Republic newspaper — “if CNN and MSNBC are attacking people, those are the people you want to vote for,” Lake told the crowd at a candidate forum just prior to her interview with the Japanese station.
How Lake came to leave the media — or at least the story she tells about why she left the media — is the foundational story of her outsider campaign for governor. It also mirrors the trajectory of the far right’s accelerating break with reality during the COVID pandemic and in the aftermath of the 2020 election, a rupture driven by actual fake news and propaganda.
Lake, whose previous job involved discerning fact from fiction, is now closely aligned with the cowboy-hat-sporting state lawmaker Mark Finchem, a Trump-backed promoter of election falsehoods running for the role of chief elections officer. Together they help form the ranks of candidates who claim the 2020 election was “corrupt” and “stolen,” and both recently suggested, without credible evidence, that 2022’s results may be compromised, too. Lake has also been endorsed by a slate of extremist figures tied to Trump, including former national security adviser Michael Flynn, U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar (Ariz.), MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, and Arizona state Sen. Wendy Rogers — the fringes of the fringe.
Earlier this year, Lake was featured in promotional materials for the America First Political Action Conference, the extremist gathering organized by 23-year-old white nationalist Nick Fuentes. Lake responded that she was “not taking part” in the event and called it a “false photo.” Fuentes’ followers turned on Lake, but Fuentes defended her. “There was a scheduling mix-up with Kari Lake! Just a misunderstanding. Take it easy on her we support her,” he posted on Telegram after the dust-up.
There’s at least one commonly agreed-upon reality in this race: Lake is resonating with the GOP base. With two weeks to go until the Aug. 2 primary, Lake has consistently led in polling of the GOP field. Although more recent polling suggests the race tightened after Doug Ducey, Arizona’s moderate, term-limited Republican governor — who also leads the national fundraising campaign for GOP governors — endorsed her main rival, developer Karrin Taylor Robson, a move that fanned the flames of Ducey’s proxy war with Trump. On Monday, former Vice President Mike Pence also threw his support behind the more establishment-friendly Taylor Robson.
“She’s a diva of her own persona — the television news personality who just doesn’t believe the news.”
If Lake wins the Republican nomination, she will likely face Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs in a general election that Republicans are signaling they may use to relitigate, for the umpteenth time, the 2020 election results in a state that became known for its widely discredited election audit. In a debate this month, Lake pushed the stolen election narrative as a litmus test for the GOP field. In April, she and Finchem sued state and county officials to try and ban the use of electronic voting machines in this year’s election.
“It’s election denier against election defender,” said Chuck Coughlin, a veteran GOP strategist in Arizona, framing the hypothetical matchup between Lake and Hobbs.
Lake, 52, is a charismatic, made-for-TV candidate entirely in Trump’s mold — if Trump happened to be a woman with high cheekbones and a pixie haircut. Like Trump, Lake has spent decades on TV. Unlike the former president, Lake was primarily a local news anchor, spending a majority of her career at Fox’s Phoenix station. Lake even interviewed Trump twice before following him down the golden escalator.
Combative, hard-right MAGA warrior is a new look for Lake, and as a necessary feature of that image, Lake has turned against the reporters who were once her colleagues.
“It’s a vitriolic relationship with the media. She won’t talk to anybody without it being on her terms,” said Coughlin. “She’s a diva of her own persona — the television news personality who just doesn’t believe the news.”
Lake’s remarks about her former profession make you wonder how she stuck it out for as long as she did. Lake has called the media “criminal” and said that some journalists “probably should be locked up.” After leaving her job at Fox in March of last year, Lake launched her campaign for governor three months later by bashing a set of TVs and declaring, “it’s time to take a sledgehammer to the mainstream media’s lies and propaganda.”
Lake now likes to turn the tables on her former industry colleagues.
Last month, Lake’s video team captured and edited a clip of her declining an interview with a CNN reporter outside of an event. The clip went viral, and the reporter’s face during the interaction became a meme on the right. Lake’s campaign suggested to me a day earlier that Lake actually had plans to sit down with the network, but the campaign is known for baiting reporters, then packaging the resulting cringe into viral clips. Lake’s ever-present video team is led by her husband, Jeff Halperin, who owns a video production company. Lake’s teenage daughter is also paid to consult on her campaign, the Arizona Republic reported.
HuffPost sent Lake a detailed request for fact-checking and comments for this piece, but Lake’s campaign declined to provide answers to any specific questions: “It is very obvious that HuffPost is gearing up for a smear piece. Your line of questioning has zero truth behind it ... Dr. Evil’s Washington Post tried the same type of smear. And it backfired. Do you leftist rags not realize that voters see this and laugh at you?”
“Why won’t you write about Kari’s policies? Her homeless policy? Her border policy? Her education policy?” the response continued. “You exist solely as a Propaganda Mill for the Left and no one is buying your BS. Run your trash story, the people of Arizona know Kari Lake look [sic] forward to electing her Governor.”
In Arizona, Lake agreed to a 10-minute interview with HuffPost, on the implied condition that her campaign be allowed to record it, positioning us squarely in Lake’s wheelhouse.
Lake and I sat stiffly facing each other on a bench outside the church building in Gold Canyon. Asked if there was a specific moment when it became clear to her she could no longer be a journalist, Lake went back to the start of the pandemic.
“I’ve always seen that modern-day journalism in America has really pushed to the left, obviously. But I felt that I was a voice of reason in the newsroom,” Lake told me, at the same time that she seemed to be fishing for an opening to meme me.
“Really during COVID is when I went, ‘What is going on here?’ Things weren’t making sense.”
‘Embarrassed By The Mud She Splashed’
Watching them now, Lake’s two MAGA rally-adjacent interviews with Trump don’t give any inkling of what was ahead — except when in early 2020 Trump seems to override his handlers to give Lake extra time to ask him questions (Lake also interviewed President Barack Obama in 2016).
But at work and online, Lake was gaining a reputation for amplifying conspiracy theories that would touch on the election and the coronavirus. Lake was also promoting her presence on far-right social media sites, like the now-defunct Parler and Gab, a platform favored by anti-Semites.
Lake’s connection to a fact-based world became even more tenuous when she began running for office. She has since been linked to Ron Watkins, the rumored leader of the QAnon movement, which believes the nation’s elites are running a secret child sex trafficking ring. The man alleged to be “Q” himself (Watkins has strongly denied being the voice behind Q’s writings, but has admitted his general involvement in the QAnon movement) is also running for office as a Republican in Democrat Tom O’Halleran’s eastern Arizona congressional district. Watkins posted a photo on Telegram last year claiming he had dinner with Lake. Lake’s campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment about her relationship with Watkins or Nick Fuentes.
The events of recent years provide a striking contrast to how Lake describes her younger self to audiences. As a 24-year-old rising TV anchor, Lake drove her “packed, late-model used car” from Iowa to Arizona to pursue a career in journalism, leaving behind a family with seven sisters and a brother. Lake told HuffPost she got into journalism because she “loves telling people’s stories. I like being in the middle of what’s happening. And it really was a wonderful career for most of the time. But it just got to the point where it was becoming propaganda, and when I realized that I had to get out.”
Scott Jones, a former TV news director who runs FTVLive, a gossip blog covering the cable news industry, said Lake was “certainly big and well-liked in Phoenix. And for a long time while she was doing the job, she was a real journalist. And then slowly this change happened, where she became infected with the radical right-wing disease.”
That change unfolded publicly over the latter half of Trump’s presidency, according to people in Lake’s personal and professional orbit who’ve followed her career.
In 2018, while Lake was still at Fox, she tweeted that a grassroots movement to raise teacher pay was actually cover for a ploy to legalize pot. Lake later deleted the tweet and apologized. Another time, Lake was caught on a hot mic ridiculing the Phoenix New Times, calling the city’s spunky alt-weekly a “rag for selling marijuana” after they reported on her joining Parler.
“Lake was starting to make these statements, usually on Twitter or somewhere on social media. She would get in trouble and go off the air for a little while. Fox would never say if they suspended her or not,” Jones said.
“They’re embarrassed by the mud she splashed on the station, and they’re mad with management who let her continue to get away with it, especially late in her career.”
Lake’s station wouldn’t elaborate on her tenure there, beyond confirming her final day of employment on March 1, 2021. Lake’s campaign also wouldn’t comment on her extended breaks or the specifics of her departure.
While Lake was taking family medical leave from her job in early 2021, Jones reported that she was spotted at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Florida (which Lake attended this year as a featured speaker). Lake announced her resignation from Fox 10 not long after.
Lake left the station with people “completely embarrassed by her,” Jones said. “They’re embarrassed by the mud she splashed on the station, and they’re mad with management who let her continue to get away with it, especially late in her career.”
Diana Pike, a former HR director for Fox who was one of Lake’s supervisors for 20 years, said Lake generally had good performance reviews and doesn’t ever recall her being formally reprimanded. But Lake’s wielding of social media to share her opinions eventually became a headache for her managers.
“That’s where 2018 and 2019 start to become real hot for her with regards to her posting information on Parler. We had to talk to her and say, ‘You can’t say this,’ ‘You can’t say any of this stuff,’” said Pike, who retired from the station in 2019. Pike said Lake was told “she couldn’t represent Fox with radical comments.”
Another former station employee said Lake was “really good” in a supportive role with her former co-anchor. “I don’t have any ill will toward her or any negative feelings about her personally. All I can say is that I’m perplexed, like a lot of people, why she turned into this mean girl. She’s like a mean girl in middle school.”
Lake’s long career allowed her to enter politics with a recognizable name and brand, although a number of Republicans at GOP events questioned Lake’s conservative credentials. Borrowing liberally from her personal reserves to fund her campaign, Taylor Robson has run several ads underscoring for voters that Lake was a registered Democrat from 2008 to 2012. Lake also gave money to Barack Obama and John Kerry under her married name, contributions she described to local media outlets as being on behalf of her family.
But more were won over by Lake’s disavowal of a corporate media industry that’s viewed on the right with intense skepticism, if not outright scorn.
“I’ve always liked Kari and I’ve always liked what she has to say because she’s articulate and she understands the business of the media.”
“All we want is the truth and we don’t feel like we’re getting the truth,” said Gold Canyon GOP co-chairman Pam Burks, who was impressed with Lake and introduced her to the group as a “symbol of truth in journalism.”
“I’ve always liked Kari and I’ve always liked what she has to say because she’s articulate and she understands the business of the media,” said Kevin Brislawn, a retired 70-year-old who also heard from Finchem and Senate candidate Jim Lamon, an Alabama-born businessman, at the forum.
“Communication is a gift of hers,” another attendee said of Lake. “I feel like she’s going to speak the truth and not be so aggressive about it.”
‘Defending All That’
While Lake throws bombs in her primary, Katie Hobbs, Arizona’s Democratic secretary of state and the presumed front-runner for her party’s nomination for governor, has been trying to steer clear of the wreckage.
Hobbs is also someone you’d recognize from TV. At the height of the circus surrounding the 2020 election and the GOP’s partisan election audit, Hobbs was on the cable news circuit, providing commentary as Arizona’s top election official, and blasting the partisan audit as a “joke.”
I met Hobbs last month for morning coffee in an artsy neighborhood on the outskirts of downtown Phoenix. Hobbs, 52, wears her hair in a silver-gray bob with cat-eye glasses. She was friendly but guarded. It was clear Hobbs understands how the race will be framed if she and Lake are opponents.
“I don’t want to say overshadow, but the 2020 election is playing such a huge role in this race — and not just the election overall, but this race in particular,” Hobbs said, adding that Lake is “the biggest cheerleader promoting Trump’s lies about the election and my role defending all that.”
Hobbs’ role “defending all that” has become an all-consuming aspect of the job the former social worker has held since 2019. “That’s the situation I’ve been in for a while,” she said. “I’m not gonna back down from telling the truth of what happened — that our elections were conducted with integrity and according to the laws that are in place, that every voter can have confidence that the results are accurate, and there’s literally no evidence to the contrary.”
Defending the election also means that Hobbs routinely faces violent threats, which began pouring in regularly after her criticism of the partisan audit. Hobbs usually travels with a private security detail paid for by Every Eligible American, a nonprofit.
Against that backdrop, Hobbs paid extra close attention to a man who started scaling a parking structure in the middle of our interview. It was weird, but also not the kind of city occurrence you would necessarily bat an eye at unless you happened to be a frequent recipient of death threats. Hobbs looked rattled.
“I don’t think about it,” Hobbs said of the specific threats she’s faced since the 2020 election, “or else I would never leave my house.”
While Hobbs is well positioned for the Democratic nomination, her campaign has been dogged by a yearsold discrimination case brought by a former Black female staffer for state Senate Democrats, and the campaign’s bungled response. As the Arizona Senate’s top Democrat at the time, Hobbs apologized for the staffer’s firing, but it has become a potent line of attack for Hobbs’ primary opponent, former Nogales mayor Marco Lopez. Hobbs told HuffPost that she has taken “responsibility” and “accountability” for her role in the firing.
Even with a candidate that some consider flawed, Democrats have a better shot of winning the governorship against a polarizing Republican like Lake, who may have a tougher time pulling together a coalition of moderates and independents to win a general election in a diversifying state. The presumptive GOP front-runner has tried to strengthen her appeal with plans to tackle border security and homelessness.
Lake has mastered messaging around “the media is bad, Trump was cheated out of the election, big brother’s forcing us to wear a mask, as all that. That’s her game. She talks it up better than anybody,” said Tyler Montague, an Arizona-based GOP operative. “But she’s a quarter-inch deep. She literally can’t get off those topics, otherwise she’s in trouble.”
Carolina Rodriguez-Greer, the Arizona director for Latino GOTV organization Mi Familia Vota, said people are sick of looking back to the 2020 election, when Joe Biden won the state by less than a percentage point, setting off all manner of election conspiracy.
“We still have people that believe that the election results were not true, even though we’ve already gone through two audits that have been paid for by the taxpayers,” she said. “That narrative is extremely dangerous.”
‘This Is All An Act’
Probably one of the more unexpected narratives to arise from the governor’s race came last month, when Phoenix drag star Barbra Seville, aka Richard Stevens, released photos and private messages he exchanged with Lake over the course of their two-decade acquaintanceship.
Stevens took issue with Lake tweeting, “They kicked God out of schools and welcomed the Drag Queens. They took down our Flag and replaced it with a rainbow.” Lake has also echoed GOP hysteria over drag and “grooming” children.
According to Stevens, his former friend had once hired him to perform at a baby shower in drag, in front of children, a bomb meant to show Lake’s hypocrisy on the issue. Stevens also performed for Lake once at her birthday and at “some of the seediest bars in Phoenix,” he wrote on Facebook.
The story caused enough of a stir that Lake’s campaign sent a cease-and-desist letter to Stevens warning him to stop making certain claims about Lake. Her campaign confirmed to The Washington Post that Stevens was “a friend” and that Lake once attended an event with “a Marilyn Monroe impersonator.” A campaign spokesperson told the newspaper that Stevens’ Facebook post contained “defamatory lies” and that Lake would pursue legal action.
Lake and Stevens bonded over makeup and Madonna, Stevens said over the phone last month, sounding almost wistful about his onetime friend. He said Lake started coming to his shows in the late ’90s and they struck up a casual friendship that lasted years. Lake’s campaign didn’t respond to questions about her relationship with Stevens.
“I knew her as very level-headed. I found her to be middle-of-the-road liberal. She and I, we didn’t have in-depth conversations about politics, but it wasn’t uncommon to talk about news and current events because that’s what we bonded over,” he said.
The idea that Lake isn’t who she says she is has haunted her entry into politics. And it might be what undoes her campaign.
“I think Karrin Taylor Robson will be the best person to be a fresh new leader for the state of Arizona,” Ducey, Arizona’s governor, said last weekend on CNN, lending his political heft to Lake’s rival. “Her opponent, on the other hand, bears no resemblance — her campaign or even her personal interactions with me — to anything she’s done over the past 30 years. This is all an act.”
Days later, Fox News uncovered a Facebook post from Lake where she called Trump “not my president” just before his 2017 inauguration, raising the question of exactly when Lake became a full-throated Trump supporter. Fox reported the post disappeared from Lake’s page once a reporter had reached out for comment.
“I can’t imagine her as governor. She couldn’t lead a newsroom of 100 people. She can’t lead a state.”
Pike, Lake’s former supervisor, said Lake “makes it sound like she’s everyman, and she’s not everyman,” adding that Lake was “well paid” for working at the station, something Lake also acknowledges on the campaign trail when she discusses walking away from a “very large salary.”
A Republican and a Trump voter in 2016, Pike posted critically on Facebook about Lake’s run for governor and several of her former Fox colleagues chimed in with similar comments. Taylor Robson’s campaign found Pike and cast her in a campaign ad, in which Pike calls Lake an “actress” and a “pretender.”
Pike said she spoke out because many of her former colleagues are bound by nondisclosure agreements.
“I just don’t see Kari as an ethical person, an adult,” she said. “I can’t imagine her as governor. She couldn’t lead a newsroom of 100 people. She can’t lead a state.”
Asked whether she’s tried to bring up her concerns with how the news is being reported with her former colleagues, Lake said: “Now, I don’t really have a lot of relationships [with them] ... I’m so busy.”
Lake continued: “Every journalist pushes stories. They push an interesting topic they want to get covered. Obviously, those stories weren’t being covered. So as a journalist, when you’re pushing them and they’re not being covered, you start to read the writing on the wall and you go, ‘Wow, not an interest in these stories. Not an interest in the full truth.’ And so I walked away.”