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Arizonans relied on Kari Lake to tell it straight to TV. Will they trust her as governor?

PHOENIX – Kari Lake worked her way through televised interviews at her election night party, answering a barrage of questions about her bid to become Arizona’s next governor. Votes were still being counted and she’d been up all night. But Mrs. Lake, a new candidate, didn’t flinch.

Instead, she grabbed a reporter’s microphone, closed her eyes to the camera, and delivered her campaign message as seamlessly and authoritatively as if she was reporting from behind the local anchor desk she left last year.

Ms. Lake is among a group of far-right Republican candidates winning primaries this year with a potent mix of election lies and cultural grievances. But her polished delivery and relentless instincts, both honed by decades in TV news, have put her in a category all her own.

The 52-year-old ex-journalist has tapped into a reservoir of credibility and fame to turn former viewers into voters. Donald J. Trump praised her camera-ready discipline and privately told other candidates to be more like Ms. Lake. Her bravado to say it all has won cheers from a base eager to stick with the old guard of the state. Her lack of experience in policymaking and her fixation on fictions about the 2020 election has left the establishment scolding and bracing for how to wield power.

Some Republicans have been discussing her as a possible candidate for vice president if Mr. Trump runs again in 2024. National Republican groups plan to pump millions into its race to keep the party in control of a major political battlefield.

“I’m loved by people, and I’m not saying that to be boastful,” Ms. Lake said in an interview at her campaign headquarters last week.

“I was in their homes for the good times and the bad times,” she added. “We’ve been together on the worst days and we’ve been together on the best days.”

Polls show Ms. Lake is an underdog in her race, having survived a narrow primary last week in which Governor Doug Ducey and most of the Republican establishment in Arizona opposed her.

But if she can unite her party and increase her appeal to independent voters, Ms. Lake has history on her side: Arizona’s Republicans have won six of the last eight governor races. On Saturday, Mr Ducey released a statement: urged his party to “unite behind our list of candidates.”

Raised in Iowa, Ms. Lake spent more than two decades on the air at KSAZ-TV, a Fox-owned Phoenix station. From her position in the country’s 11th largest TV market, which makes up about two-thirds of the state’s households, she made headlines instantly. She interviewed Barack Obama and Mr. Trump during their presidency, a rare feat for even the most ambitious local news figure.

But in recent years, she started hinting at her personal political affiliations on social media. In 2021, she complained about biased media coverage: “I promise you if you hear it from my lips it will be truthful,” she said in a statement announcing her departure from the network.

Since then, Ms. Lake has embraced Mr. Trump’s lies about the 2020 election, claiming the contest was “corrupt and stolen.” She supported a partisan review of the results in Maricopa County, claiming that electronic voting machines were not “reliably secure.”

Her militant campaign has touched upon other trigger points of America First populism.

She has opposed vaccine mandates, and one of her best-selling campaign T-shirts features an image of a cloth face mask set on fire. She opposes allowing transgender people to use toilets consistent with their identities and has attacked drag queens as dangerous to children.

Suggesting that the Second Amendment protects rocket launchers’ property, she told a summit of young conservative women, “God did not create us to be equal to men.”

Commenting on the FBI search of Mr. Trump’s residence this week, Ms. Lake stated, “Our government is rotten to the bone.”

When a Republican rival, Matt Salmon, countered Ms. Lake’s proposal to install cameras in classrooms, she branded him sympathetic to pedophiles. When he objected, she said his complaints showed he was too weak to be governor.

Mr. Salmon — who has served in Congress, in the state legislature and as chairman of the state party — quit running for governor in June, backing Mr. Lake’s main rival, Karrin Taylor Robson.

“I’ve never been involved in a vicious campaign in my life,” Mr Salmon said in an interview.

Ms. Lake defeated Ms. Robson by more than four percentage points, despite being outmatched five-to-one. She was part of a string of victorious Trump-approved primary candidates, along with Blake Masters, the party’s US Senate nominee; Mark Finchem, who is running for Secretary of State; and Abraham Hamadeh, the party’s choice for Attorney General.

The group, whose campaigns have all made national headlines for embracing election denial, have occasionally campaigned together. But when they’re all in the same room, Ms. Lake tends to be in the spotlight.

At an event in Phoenix the night before the primaries, she was harassed by supporters who wanted selfies, autographs or tried to shake hands with other Republican candidates.

On the campaign stage, Ms. Lake blurs the line between seriousness and showmanship with the ease of someone who has worked as a TV reporter for three decades. During her election night speech, she wielded a sledgehammer as she stepped across the podium and vowed to “take this to the electronic voting machines when I’m governor.”

“The same God who parted the Red Sea, who moved mountains, is with us now as we save this republic,” said Ms. Lake.

Some Arizona political elders are skeptical about how Ms. Lake will deal with independent and moderate voters.

Jan Brewer, a former Arizona governor and Republican who named Mrs. Robson supported despite a friendship with both candidates, described Ms. Lake as mean, untruthful and detached from public order.

“She went so far to the right that I don’t know if she can recover,” Ms Brewer said in an interview. “And if she can’t, we have a Democratic governor.”

Ms. Brewer said she would only support Ms. Lake if she promised to prioritize policy and tell the truth about elections.

“I want to hear her say she was doing all this because she wanted to win and it got a little out of hand,” Ms. Brewer said.

Ms. Lake said she had plans to reach out to Ms Robson and her supporters in hopes of uniting the party. Her message: “The media wants us to go to war with each other.”

In the general election, both Ms. Lake and Democratic nominee, Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, saw their national profiles rise as Mr. Trump and his allies spread lies about fraud in the 2020 election. Liberal activists praised Ms. Hobbs for her role. in protecting the state vote counter from a wave of attacks. At the same time, Mrs. Lake a conservative hero because she helped lead the attack to undo the results.

Some Democrats hoped Ms. Lake would win her primary, including former Governor Janet Napolitano, who said Ms. Lake was a “one-trick pony” who would be easier to beat than Ms. Robson.

“If this is an election about Trump and 2020 in Arizona, the Democrats will win,” Ms Napolitano, a Democrat, said in an interview.

But it is not clear that the November elections will be around 2020. A favorable national political climate for Republicans has made some Democrats nervous that Ms. Lake is one step away from a four-year job as chief executive of the state.

Roy Herrera, Arizona State Counsel for the Biden 2020 campaign, said he was experiencing a strange brew of optimism, apprehension and fear over Ms. Lake’s victory.

“We wanted these extreme candidates on the Republican side,” Mr. Herrera said. “Now we have them and, you know, are we sure we wanted that?”

Ms. Lake has gone through political shifts before. She acknowledges that she voted for Obama in 2008, although she described it as a blemish in her otherwise stable Republican voting record. There are signs that she is getting ready to move downtown.

Ms. Lake once said she wanted to sign a “copy” of the Texas abortion law banning the procedure after six weeks of pregnancy with no exceptions for rape or incest. When asked about the matter last week, she called the current 15-week ban in Arizona “a great law.”

“At the time, I didn’t even know we have this law on the books,” she said. “So I don’t think that will ever have to come.”

While calling Mr Trump’s endorsement “the most powerful in all politics,” Ms. Lake downplayed its significance.

“I had a very good chance of winning, even before that, to be honest,” she said.

Mrs. Lake rocketed to the top of the Arizona Republican Party with little help from traditional political infrastructure. She has mainly kept her distance from advisers and does not employ a campaign manager.

Her most influential assistant is Lisa Dale, an old friend who is a former pro golfer at a Scottsdale real estate company. During the campaign, Ms. Lake is often surrounded by agents from Arsenal Media Group, a Republican advertising company, and Caroline Wren, a senior adviser who was a fund-raiser for the Trump campaign.

Another constant presence is Mrs. Lake’s husband, Jeff Halperin, a videographer who watches his wife’s every move on the campaign trail through the frame of his digital camera, collecting footage for political advertisements and recording interviews with reporters. Her campaign has occasionally posted such clips to show her battles with the media, which she increasingly portrays as hostile to her candidacy.

Ms. Lake’s campaign has also paid her daughter, Ruby Halperin, a modest salary, according to campaign finance reports.

“I don’t think anyone is campaigning like ours,” Ms. Lake said. “We have these people who are expensive consultants, who have been doing it for decades, and their heads are turning. They don’t know what to do with us.”

Reinforcements are on the way.

Dave Rexrode, the executive director of the Republican Association of Governors, had a more than 90-minute meeting with Ms. Lake’s campaign last week. He told her team that the group, led by Mr. Ducey, had increased its advertising budget for the state from $10.5 million to $12 million.

But if incumbent Republicans wait for Ms. Lake to stop attacking the legitimacy of the 2020 election, they will have to wait a little longer.

“Deep down, I think we all know that this illegitimate fool in the White House — I feel sorry for him — didn’t win,” she said. “I hope Americans are smart enough to know that.”

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