just asking questions

Why Won’t Katie Hobbs Fight Back Harder Against Kari Lake?

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After the 2020 election — and Fox News’ infamous early call of the state — Arizona quickly became a hotbed for the “Stop the Steal” movement. And this year, Arizona’s Trumpist, election-denying Republican flank swept the primaries, with Peter Thiel protégé Blake Masters gunning for the Senate against Mark Kelly and the even more extreme Mark Finchem vying for secretary of State. At the top of the ticket is Kari Lake, a telegenic, locally famous former news anchor who has taken a page from the Trump school of outrageous rhetoric in her gubernatorial campaign against low-key Democrat Katie Hobbs. I spoke with Brahm Resnik, an anchor and government reporter at Arizona’s KPNX TV, about the Grand Canyon State’s momentous midterms.

Arizona secretary of State Katie Hobbs emerged as a prominent Democrat on the national stage a couple years ago, as she pushed back against the election-denying lies coming from Donald Trump and other Republicans. But this year, she’s gotten quite a bit of negative press around her bid for governor. It’s been characterized as low-key and sluggish. Her refusal to debate her opponent, Kari Lake, has drawn a lot of criticism in particular. Hobbes’s justification seems to be that Lake shouldn’t have a forum to spout nonsense, which doesn’t strike me as sound logic. Is it fair to say that Hobbes has run a lackluster campaign?
Describing this as a lackluster campaign is very fair. Many Democrats would agree with that. Many are frustrated that when she’s going up against a puncher like Kari Lake, that she’s not punching back. Instead, we’ve seen a largely TV ad-driven campaign. Her focus has been almost exclusively on reproductive rights and protecting democracy. But the polls here, and across the country, show that what voters most care about now is inflation.

This is a theme that a lot of intra-party Democratic critics are hitting — that the party should be punching back harder on the economy.
Punching back here is different. It means punching back on the issues, but also punching back as a politician at someone who is a relentless puncher, even more so than Trump. Kari Lake will punch you, she’ll punch the media — whoever she thinks is in her way.

I’ve known Katie Hobbs for more than a decade. She’s not that kind of politician. What you’re seeing is who she is. As for her debate decision, the evidence from the emails I’ve obtained between her campaign and the debate organizer indicate she never intended to debate, so take that for what it’s worth. She didn’t debate her primary opponent either. As to why, well, she’s not a very good debater. That’s clear. She’s just not. Just in terms of spontaneous discussion, she’s just not good at that, certainly not the way people who work in TV as news anchors are. That’s your stock in trade. Talking about something when there’s nothing to talk about — it’s just part of the job.

Hobbes is behind Lake in most polls. Is she losing this race more than Lake is currently winning it?
Just a note regarding the polls. I don’t really trust them, for lots of reasons. This is my ninth election cycle here in Arizona. It’s gotten a lot harder to do polls, and now you see pollsters doing them in all kinds of different ways, many of which I can’t explain to viewers. You also see a lot of polls that are politically motivated, designed to make a political point as opposed to an actual data point.

It’s true that they were pretty far off a couple years ago. They showed a comfortable victory for Joe Biden and Mark Kelly, and there turned out to be a razor-thin margin in both.
Yeah, which was not surprising to those of us who have covered this place for a while. I’ll throw out a data point you should know: In Arizona, Republicans have the largest number of registered voters in the state, and they have a projected +8 point advantage in turnout, so Democrats have to overcome that in order to win statewide. That’s just the lay of the land here. It’s important to know when you look at these polls. Ultimately, it comes down to winning over Republican or Democrat winning over Republicans and winning independents by 10 to 15 percent.

Which Democrats managed to do in 2020 and 2018.
Exactly. That was the formula for Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly in their successful Senate races. Regarding the races as a whole, a conservative columnist here, Bob Robb, who I really respect, says, “You know what? If this weren’t a Trump ticket, Republicans would likely be running away with several of the statewide seats.” Given the headwinds that Democrats here face, that they face all over the country, and the vote-share advantages I just described, it should be a fairly easy win for Republicans. But it’s not. Robb says that’s because we have, I believe, the Trumpiest ticket in the country, in terms of candidates running for statewide office who reject the results of the 2020 election.

A lot of Democrats see Lake as a fearsome candidate — she’s both fire-breathing and charismatic — but you’re saying that somebody in the mold of the current Republican governor, Doug Ducey, would be doing quite a bit better.
There are many people who agree that the person Kari Lake defeated in the primary, Karrin Taylor Robson, would likely be up by five points or more in this race. Robson is a more traditional conservative who disavowed the election deniers who are now up and down the ticket. Some of these Republicans are pretty troubling candidates. I think it’s safe to say this is the most extreme ticket we’ve ever seen.

If you go to one of Kari Lake’s rallies, I believe she’s one of the most charismatic candidates in the country right now. She is very skilled at what she does, presenting herself and presenting her ideas to a crowd. But what’s interesting is that in these larger crowds, you don’t see the election denial very much. You don’t see the COVID denial, which is how she started her campaign a year ago.

But the candidates are bringing in their closers now, the people who will help them close the deal with voters. On the Democratic side, you have Barack Obama and Jill Biden, who’s going to be here on Saturday. Who came in for Kari Lake? Steve Bannon, who she called a 21st-century George Washington. So there’s this duality. And if you follow her policy positions — not to diminish news anchors because I am one, some of the time, and I work with them — she has a very thin understanding of policy. I should add that she’s never run anything.

If she does win, what do you see her actually doing in office in the short term on an issue like abortion, which hangs in the balance there? Do you think her actions will match her for tough talk? 
A court will decide whether our Civil War-era, near-total ban on abortion is legal. It’s at the Appeals Court, and is likely to go to the Arizona Supreme Court, let’s say in the first six months of the next governor’s term. There will be two laws on the books: a 15-week ban and a near-total ban. Which one is going to prevail? The courts may settle that, and then that will give you a sense of what the politicians are going to do. One of the first challenges a governor would face with each one is to deal with the question of “will you protect women who get pregnant via rape or incest?” That’s a big question. Kari Lake has not answered it very clearly. The closest she came was saying she believes rapists should die, not babies. She said she thinks the good thing about this law is, we’ll capture or kill more rapists. Maybe the thinking is that more women will carry their babies to term and thus tell police who the rapist was. It’s strange.

A lot depends on what the legislature looks like — we could end up with a very far-right legislature. And a lot depends on who the attorney general is, who the secretary of State is. Those races have never been more important.

That’s another angle to the whole election-denial piece. There is a scenario where you have either a Governor Lake and/or a Secretary of State Mark Finchem with a far-right Trump legislature that goes to work and changes our election laws. They could ban ballot-counting machines. They could end early voting.

This touches on your earlier question. I think what you might see at the start of a Lake term is a lot of lawsuits. I think what you’d see at the start of a Hobbs term would be ultimately sometime as bills got going, a lot of vetos.

Finchem is down in the polls, but he’s a really flamboyant character, even compared to Lake in terms of the extremity of his views.
He has no off button. He’s a full-on election denier: “The election was stolen, period. We’re going to fix it. All you cheaters get onboard or you’re going to be in jail.”

To turn to the Senate contest for a minute: As with a couple other races around the country in Georgia and Pennsylvania, the dynamic has been that the Democrat there, incumbent Mark Kelly, was maintaining a pretty healthy polling lead, if the polls are to be believed — and that the Republican, Blake Masters, has now almost caught up. What do you think accounts for that?
I don’t think anybody can give you a specific answer. He started campaigning with Kari Lake, so maybe there was a halo effect there. And Masters already went through the longest primary campaign we’ve ever seen, and faced a lot of tough ads there. But the behavior we’re seeing now by voters is fairly typical. The best explanation I can come up with is just that people are making up their minds, and they’re going to their respective corners. Early voting started here three weeks ago. The late coalescing usually begins to happen around the time when people get early ballots in the mail. And 80 to 90 percent of voters here are going to cast an early ballot.

So I guess the big question, and the big question writ large around the country, is whether swing voters’ concerns about inflation and the economy outweigh some level of queasiness about the kinds of stances the Trumpy Republicans have taken.
It’s a really good question. A friend who’s a pollster told me, “Democrats are doing this all wrong.” Low-information voters, God bless them, are going to decide who wins elections. In general, if you talk about democracy with a capital D, people don’t quite get it, and I don’t mean that as an insult. They get paying five bucks a gallon for gas. They get not being able to afford rent. But capital-D democracy doesn’t quite hit them. Democrats need to argue their position more as — “Do you like your vote? You want to keep your vote. Well, these folks here, they don’t agree with that. They might take it away. They might change your ability to vote.” They’ve got to make it more personal.

Now, would that work better? I don’t know. Because ultimately, all voters are paying $5 gallon gas. All voters have kids or themselves who can’t afford the rent. It’s a tough argument to make. In Katie Hobbs’s case, her platform is reproductive rights for all and protecting democracy. Kari Lake runs the gamut, including the pandemic. I think that’s a sleeper issue that doesn’t get enough attention. She’s not really called out on her COVID denial, but she will touch on the pandemic and parents can relate. It was tough bringing up kids and schooling kids during that time. It was tough just living during that time. Attitudes toward government, education, and your community changed. I think Kari Lake does tap into something.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why Won’t Katie Hobbs Fight Back Harder Against Kari Lake?