Kari Lake expected to join US Senate race. How does that shift its trajectory?

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Former TV news personality Kari Lake burst onto the political scene in Arizona two years ago, embodying the essence of Donald Trump but losing to the most liberal governor in modern state history.

Can she really win a U.S. Senate seat next year in an increasingly purple state by appealing to the hard right wing?

Former Yuma County GOP Chair Phil Townsend, who endorsed Lake in the 2022 election, doesn't believe she can — nor that she deserves to. He counts among the Arizona Republicans who hold a more traditional view of how party members should act and feels that Lake has taken the party "in a direction that I'm not comfortable with."

He's particularly concerned with her incessant complaints about the 2022 election and how she's used the issue to raise money.

"I think she's proven herself to be a grifter and a sore loser, and I'm not going to be able to support her in the primary," Townsend said.

Polls have shown that Lake, who is reportedly set to officially launch her campaign on Oct. 10, is likely to win next year's Republican primary election.

But strategists believe Lake may struggle to find voters outside of her base. She needs to slice off a section of Arizona's biggest voting bloc, unaffiliated and independent voters, to win November's general election in a likely three-way race with incumbent Kyrsten Sinema, now an independent, and U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz. That's going to be tougher if she can't sway Republicans like Townsend.

In a phone call Thursday, Townsend referenced Lake's repeated attacks on the legacy of the late Sen. John McCain as indicative of the sort of divisive politics that Townsend believes will risk the chance for Arizona to "get back to being a red state with a Republican senator."

Lake is "incredibly strong" as a GOP primary candidate, said Arizona pollster Mike Noble.

"The problem is the same one Trump has — a massive image disconnect between Trump support and the overall electorate in Arizona," Noble said.

Lake's a "very well-defined candidate," meaning most voters have a sense of where she stands politically, and most don't like her, polls in January and July have shown, he said. About 35% of Arizona voters view her favorably, he said, while more than 50% view her unfavorably.

Polls also show that if a MAGA candidate like Lake enters the race, Sinema's chances of winning reelection look positive, Noble said, because she can attract far more Republican and right-leaning independent voters than Gallego, a progressive, can.

Sinema has not yet announced that she'll run for reelection. Gallego launched his campaign for Senate in January.

From Democrat to hero of the far-right

Lake, 54, grew up in Iowa and moved to Arizona in her late 20s, where she met her current husband, Jeff Halperin, a cinematographer and entrepreneur whose videos have helped promote Lake's campaign. They have two children and celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary on Sept. 26.

She's had significant political swings in her life, switching registrations from Republican to independent in 2006, then to Democrat in 2008, when she supported Barack Obama, and then back to Republican in 2012. Her public persona took a rightward bent with the political ascension of Trump, who she strongly supported, and she faced liberal criticism of her social media comments, which included retweeting a debunked COVID-19 video in 2020. Lake took personal time off from her job at Fox 10 News in early 2021. On Jan. 8, 2021, she publicly lamented the decision by Facebook and Twitter to suspend Trump's accounts after the Capitol riot two days before.

She left the station after 22 years that March and launched her campaign for governor three months later. She focused heavily on baseless Republican claims of massive election fraud in 2020 that allowed Biden to win and expressed a Trump-esque hatred of media outlets that scrutinized her rhetoric. A staunch Trump acolyte, Lake even tweeted a photo of herself personally vacuuming a red carpet that had been laid out for Trump before a Mesa event.

She promoted conservative issues like firearms rights, abortion bans and strict border control but became a national icon of election denialism and conspiracy theories, deepening the rift between state Republicans who supported Trump-style politics and those who didn't. She won the August 2021 primary election handily against her next closest competitor, developer Karrin Taylor-Robson, who had campaigned as the moderate alternative.

Lake began raising questions about her 2022 loss in the general election before all the votes had been counted. After Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs' victory by more than 17,000 votes, Lake took her complaints on tour across the country. Since the election, she has raised millions of dollars — mostly from people outside of Arizona. But her success as a losing candidate has frustrated many Republicans who worry about a repeat of the general failure of MAGA-aligned Republicans in 2022, which included not only Lake's loss but also that of the Republican candidates for secretary of state and attorney general.

Lake could help Sinema bid

Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz., meets with migrant aid nonprofit leaders at the Casa Alitas Drexel Center in Tucson on Sept. 8, 2023.
Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz., meets with migrant aid nonprofit leaders at the Casa Alitas Drexel Center in Tucson on Sept. 8, 2023.

The stakes couldn't be higher for either party, with the U.S. Senate currently controlled by Democrats and three left-aligned independents — including Sinema — by just one vote. A failure by Lake next November would dash Republican hopes of having at least one GOP U.S. Senator in a state that used to be solidly red. A victory by the progressive Gallego in November would be a political nightmare for Republicans, many of whom — like Townsend — would consider voting for Sinema rather than Lake or Gallego.

A two-page prospectus produced by Sinema's campaign and obtained by NBC News this week outlines a path in which Sinema could win next year.

"If the parties nominate extremists, as expected," the document stated, Sinema will win a majority of independents, "at least a third" of Republicans and "a percentage" of Democrats.

Noble, who runs Noble Predictive Insights in Phoenix, agreed the theory had merit. McCain supporters and moderates — who make up about one-third of GOP voters in Arizona — will find Sinema "the next best thing" if they decide not to vote for Lake, he said.

"Against a Trump-style Republican" like Lake or her potential primary competitors Blake Masters or Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb, Sinema "has a shot," Noble said.

Chuck Coughlin, a strategist who has worked for two former Republican governors, said Lake will likely find difficulties as a MAGA candidate considering that Arizonans haven't elected one to a statewide office since 2016. Republicans have a four-point advantage over Democrats in Arizona going into the 2024 election cycle, Coughlin said his predictions show, but because of the ideological split in the Republican Party, Lake will need to win over a majority of unaffiliated voters to achieve victory in the general election.

To do that, Lake would need to ease her rhetoric, but there's been no sign yet she'll do that, he said, adding that she'll probably continue her tactic of making robust attacks on her opponents.

Lake's talent at raising money from supporters may not help her in the coming election season, either, Coughlin said. He noted that Sinema has a war chest of about $10 million and can spend the money now, reserving airtime in key months.

Republican strategist Kevin DeMenna said fundraising by Lake could still make a difference.

"It will be interesting to see who steps up and bankrolls this campaign," he said.

A spokesperson for Lake's campaign didn't respond to a request for comment for this article.

Reach the reporter at rstern@arizonarepublic.com or 480-276-3237. Follow him on X @raystern.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Kari Lake poised to join U.S. Senate race. What that means