PHOENIX — Democrat Katie Hobbs and Republican Kari Lake don’t agree on much, but their campaigns for Arizona governor did have one thing in common recently — the faint scent of manure.
In Lake’s case, it wafted through the breeze at a western ranch where the GOP nominee was holding a rally featuring a live rodeo and a petting zoo with llamas, alpacas and goats. For Hobbs, it featured prominently during a small outdoor get-together hosted by supporters who raise chickens and peacocks on their property.
Manure, however, is where their similarities ended.
Lake’s event was over-the-top, loud, and had several thousand people. Hobbs’ was intimate, subdued, and had only about a dozen.
The jarring split screen of the two campaigns underscores the candidates’ vastly different approaches in one of the nation’s most competitive gubernatorial races, which is effectively deadlocked less than two weeks from Election Day.
Lake, a former TV anchor, is a carrier of the MAGA torch, including the discredited theory that the 2020 election was compromised by fraud. Hobbs, the state’s top elections official, is proving to be a weak Democratic stalwart against Lake in a prominent swing state that Joe Biden won in 2020.
In the campaign’s final sprint, Hobbs is using small gatherings with local elected Democrats and volunteers to contrast herself with Lake, whom she calls “that Trump-endorsed, election-denying, media-hating, conspiracy-loving GOP nominee” — a phrase she utters in a single breath on the stump.
Lake’s biggest events mimic a Trump rally, and she uses them to similar effect, mocking Hobbs for holding ones a fraction of the size.
“Did you see the picture? [Hobbs] held her biggest campaign event of the season. Guess how many people showed up?” Lake said, egging on the crowd assembled for her rodeo rally in Morristown, Arizona, this past Saturday. “Somewhere between 10 and, like, 15 people showed up. If you don’t know who Katie Hobbs is, I don’t blame you, because she’s been hiding.”
Lake’s special guest that evening, Tennessee Sen. Marsha Blackburn, told the audience that over 5,000 people had assembled to see Lake and a musician from the country band Lonestar, whose song “Amazed” was a 1999 chart-topper.
“They are patriots, and they’re getting ready to make certain that on Nov. 8, Arizona is going to have a great governor named Kari Lake!” Blackburn shouted at the sea of “patriots” in MAGA and Lake campaign gear following an hour of ear-splitting music from Trump’s own campaign playlist as the sun set over the dusty, animal-fragrant ranch.
The forces at play in Arizona — whether it’s Lake’s specific take on Trump or a national climate favoring Republicans or both — appear to be benefiting the former Phoenix newscaster, propelling her to a razor-thin lead in the latest polls. And she isn’t the only GOP nominee pulling ahead: Election-denier and Republican secretary of state nominee Mark Finchem, who cheered on Arizona’s partisan election audit, is also strongly in contention for Hobbs’ current job running elections, an apocalyptic scenario for Democrats.
In the U.S. Senate race, incumbent Democrat Mark Kelly is projected to keep his seat, though venture capitalist Blake Masters, a mentee of right-wing tech entrepreneur Peter Thiel, isn’t far behind.
As Hobbs trails, she’s standing by her controversial decision to skip debating over what she says is Lake’s ability to turn any event into a “spectacle.” The secretary of state doubled down on her stance over the weekend, telling HuffPost “a debate never helps a candidate win.”
At a minimum, Hobbs’ refusal to debate Lake has given her opponent ammunition to brand her a “coward” in the race’s homestretch. “I said, ‘Katie, you pick the questions,’” Lake taunted from the stage at her rally. “Just show up and stand before the people of Arizona. They deserve to hear from you.”
“Lake is a dangerous person. Hobbs is a nice person who knows more and is probably the best person for the job.”
Bob Grossfeld, a Mesa-based Democratic consultant, said the governor’s race is like “watching a tragedy happen in slow motion” as the contest becomes an “uphill climb” for Hobbs.
“Lake is a dangerous person. Hobbs is a nice person who knows more and is probably the best person for the job. Lake just doesn’t know what she’s talking about, other than reciting lines from Trump and whatever else she can dream up,” Grossfeld said, adding that unlike Hobbs, a former social worker and legislator, Lake has no experience to lead a state facing a critical water shortage and the highest inflation in the country.
Even though some were disappointed, the Hobbs supporters at events last weekend were generally understanding of the debate situation. “I would have preferred she debated, but I can’t blame her for not debating,” Martin Quezada, the Democratic nominee for state treasurer who debated his opponent earlier this month, told HuffPost. Most people were more concerned about threats to democracy under a GOP regime.
“It’s just scary and helpless,” said Josh Winston, a veterinarian and Democrat from El Mirage who fears the outcome of this year’s election will amplify hate, especially antisemitism. “Every election year, there’s hyperbole, that’s just the nature of politics. But to us, it doesn’t seem like hyperbole anymore. How do you combat it when there’s no accountability, no objective facts? How do you do that? You can’t.”
At campaign stops, Hobbs stressed the stakes of this year’s election — which, due to the GOP’s wild claims about election fraud, has given way to armed vigilantes patrolling dropboxes in Arizona’s largest county.
Finchem has defended the vigilantes, and, as secretary of state alongside Lake, would enjoy sweeping authority over election administration. He would also be the de facto lieutenant governor in a state that doesn’t have one, meaning he would take over for Lake if she were tapped to join Trump’s presidential ticket in 2024.
“This race is critical. I know you all know that,” Hobbs said in El Mirage at the home of the supporters with chickens and peacocks. “In 2020, the foundation of our democracy faced the most serious challenge of our lifetime. There were false accusations of fraud about the election, questions about the systems in place and the leaders in charge of them. Those accusations and questions led to threats against election workers around the state, against me and my family. There were even armed protesters outside my house.”
While the vibe was low-key and even a bit serious at Hobbs events, Lake’s rally was an actual party, with beer, cigars, hot dogs, live music and a petting zoo.
It’s hard to say whether the several thousand people who showed up for Lake’s hoedown reflect a larger base of support or just the hardcore MAGA base that turned out for Trump (who still lost Arizona two years ago by less than one percentage point despite holding bigger rallies than Biden). Judging by much of the campaign gear, it seemed to be both.
“She doesn’t take any shit! She tells it straight. We’ve been waiting for that,” said Betsy Walsh, a 65-year-old from Goodyear who echoed others in liking that Lake isn’t a “career politician” — something that attracted many voters to Trump in 2016.
“Everything is just so messed up. We’re going into another recession,” said Dawn Goetz, a 57-year-old small business owner from El Mirage who, when prompted, said that Lake and Trump would make a good presidential ticket. “Kari Lake is all for us. She loves America and she loves Arizona.”
Lake didn’t address the crowd for more than three hours after doors opened at Western Trails Ranch, where a giant inflatable red MAGA hat greeted people at the parking lot entrance.
Following a sleekly produced video in which Lake describes the change of heart she experienced as a journalist during the pandemic, she took the stage and spoke for more than 30 minutes, railing at Hobbs and Democrats in misleading and sometimes gruesome fashion.
“[Hobbs] voted against legislation that would provide life-saving care to a baby that survives an abortion. She would rather that baby die on a cold metal tray. She’s sick; she’s a monster,” Lake said, referring to a 2017 anti-abortion law that all but one Democrat in the state legislature voted against.
“And I’ll tell you what, she loves Anthony Fauci ... she wants to force our children to get a vaccine of experimental shots in order to get an education. I’ll tell you what, when I’m your governor, we will not make our kids guinea pigs. We will not force them to get that shot,” she said to a round of applause. The vast majority of scientific research on vaccines shows they are safe for children.
Lake kept touting her plans for “common-sense” solutions to Arizona’s homelessness and border crises, and her desire for Arizona not to become like its liberal neighbor, California, which she painted as a dystopian haven for drugs and lawlessness under Biden’s Democratic rule. “Under President Donald J. Trump ... life was so good, even the leftists have to admit it,” she said.
It’s not all rosy for Lake, who is widely considered too extreme for Arizona moderates and independents. Chuck Coughlin, a GOP consultant whose firm conducts statewide polling, suspects a large number of undecided voters will break for Democrats.
“I just don’t know — if you’re not a Lake voter at the outset, how do you become one?” Coughlin said. “Because you know she’s there. You cannot miss the freight train running by your door. There’s no narrative that’s like, come on over, I’m really OK.”
That seemed to bear out in a conversation with Rosemarie Mike, a self-described independent who attended a Mark Kelly event in Mesa to ask him questions that would help her decide whether to vote for him. Kelly, a Democrat, pitched himself as a centrist, praising both GOP Gov. Doug Ducey and the late Republican Sen. John McCain, whom he succeeded. “Kari Lake and Blake Masters have similar beliefs that I feel are dangerous,” Kelly said.
In the governor’s race, Mike is leaning toward Hobbs.
“I still want to see a little more of [Hobbs], because I don’t see a lot of her,” Mike said, waiting for Kelly to show up at a parking lot in a municipal government center where a truck was offering free ice cream on behalf of the campaign. “I think she’s too radical. I don’t see her as a uniter.”