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Abortion, border control, a test of Trumpism: Inside the Arizona Senate race

Arizona Republican U.S. Senate candidate and far-right election denier Kari Lake takes questions with U.S. Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) (L) at a news conference on February 29, 2024 in Phoenix, Arizona. Barrasso is one of the senators being discussed as a possible successor to Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who announced he would be stepping down in that role in January. (Photo by Rebecca Noble/Getty Images)
Arizona Republican U.S. Senate candidate and far-right election denier Kari Lake takes questions with U.S. Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) (L) at a news conference on February 29, 2024 in Phoenix, Arizona. Barrasso is one of the senators being discussed as a possible successor to Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who announced he would be stepping down in that role in January. (Photo by Rebecca Noble/Getty Images)

A lot is at stake in Arizona’s senate race between former TV anchor Republican Kari Lake and Democratic Congressman Ruben Gallego.

It could determine control of the Senate — and the outcome of the presidential election.

Today, On Point: Abortion, border control, Trumpism and an inside look at the Arizona Senate race.


Ron Hansen, national political reporter with the Arizona Republic. Co-host of the paper’s weekly politics podcast called The Gaggle.

Samara Klar, professor at the University of Arizona School of Government and Public Policy. Her research focuses on how individuals’ personal identities and social surroundings influence their political attitudes and behavior.

Enrique Davis, Arizona state director at UnidosUS Action Fund, a nonprofit advocating for Latino political power.


Part I

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: The U. S. Senate race in Arizona is projected to be one of the most watched races in the 2024 election, and one of the most expensive. The estimated price tag by November, $300 million. That’s because control of the Senate, and possibly even the fate of the White House, could rest on the outcome of what happens in Arizona. The race became even more heated when current Senator Kyrsten Sinema announced that she would not seek re-election back in March. Sinema left the Democratic Party and is now an independent.

That leaves candidate’s Democratic Congressman Ruben Gallego, who is running unopposed for the Democratic nomination and former television news anchor and former gubernatorial candidate, Republican Kari Lake. She has a GOP challenger in Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb. The July Arizona primary will decide who goes on to run against Gallego in November. Now, even though she lost the 2022 governor’s race.

Kari Lake denied the election results. She’s currently facing a defamation lawsuit for statements she made against a Maricopa County elections official. Lake also never conceded the governor’s race and is still currently challenging the results even as she runs for Senate.

KARI LAKE: A lot of people have been saying, what’s next for you Kari?

What is next? Let me tell you, this mama bear has a whole lot of fight left in her. (AUDIDENCE CHEERS) I got a lot of fight left in me.

CHAKRABARTI: In her most recent campaign for Senate, the current campaign, she says securing the border is quote priority numero uno.

LAKE: We have to secure the border to save lives. It’s, this isn’t partisan guys. This isn’t Democrat, Republican.

This is a crisis that affects all of us. And the solution is so darn simple. Go back to President Trump’s border policy and finish the wall. (CHEERS) Finish the wall.

I will tell you I know for a fact that Joe Biden, Kyrsten Sinema, and Ruben Gallego care a whole lot more about Ukraine’s border than our border. And that’s a crime. When I am your senator, I will make securing that border priority numero uno.

CHAKRABARTI: Meanwhile, Congressman Gallego, who’s been seen as a part of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, is trying to cast himself as a more moderate candidate, while also pointing to Lake’s close relationship with both Donald Trump and Trumpism.

RUBEN GALLEGO: She’s still in litigation. She is still trying to contest the governor’s race to this day. And I say to this day. She actually just recently, actually yesterday, rejected, again, the outcome of the 2020 election and the 2022 election in the rotunda of the Senate. So this, she’s not moving, she’s not moving, she’s not changing, she’s participating in the same election denialism.

That Donald Trump engaged in 2020 and has continued to be a danger to our democracy.

CHAKRABARTI: And here’s Lake pushing that very issue on the campaign trail.

LAKE: I am never going to walk away from the fight to restore honest elections. I don’t care what the fake news says about it. I don’t care what the corrupt people say about it. Fighting for honest elections is not a Republican issue. It’s not a Democrat issue. It’s an American issue.

CHAKRABARTI: But here’s the thing, in Arizona, there’s no evidence that the elections there have been anything but completely honest.

And the issue isn’t resonating with Arizona voters. In fact, no statewide candidate has won a race in Arizona, after campaigning on Trump’s claim of widespread election fraud. And that’s being reflected in the polls, because Lake is consistently trailing Gallego. In the latest poll from the New York Times, it puts Gallego at 46% to Lake’s 43%.

However, in the presidential race, Donald Trump is currently polling ahead of President Joe Biden. So what do those seeming contradictions say about what Arizona voters really want? Is it a test of Trumpism in 2024? And what else do we need to understand about what’s happening in Arizona politics? And can it help give us a new window on what may unfold both there and nationally in November?

So let’s start in Phoenix with Ron Hansen. He’s a national political reporter with the Arizona Republic, also co-host of the paper’s weekly politics podcast called The Gaggle. Ron, welcome back to On Point.

RON HANSEN: Hi, Meghna. Thanks for having me.

CHAKRABARTI: Are Arizona politics always this interesting?

HANSEN: (LAUGHS) They are these days. It wasn’t always thus, but we will take what we have now, if drama is what you’re looking for.

CHAKRABARTI: (LAUGHS) Usually I’m not looking for drama, right? Usually, I’m just looking for competence in a functional government. But like what would you say are the sources of, or the most important source of the drama? Is it Kari Lake and her kind of multiple lawsuits that she’s both facing and still trying in the courts?

What is giving the Senate race its particular flavor at the moment?

HANSEN: I think that there are a lot of Arizonans who remember when this state was not politically competitive, when people like John McCain or John Kyl, were elected, reelected. It’s only been since 2018 that Democrats won a Senate race.

And at that time, it was the first time in 30 years. Because of the death of John McCain and just some other things, we have had now several cycles in a row where we have had a U.S. Senate race, and in each occasion, we’ve had a Democrat win. That’s new and different, and there are a lot of Republicans who are frustrated by this.

And there’s a lot of frustration and angst on the right again. Kari Lake seems unbeatable in a Republican primary, but they’re concerned that she will lose in November, and that will add to that string of losses.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So in a few minutes, I want to talk with you a lot more about Congressman Gallego and what the Democratic Party looks like in Arizona.

But obviously, let’s take some time to learn more about Kari Lake here. So first of all, at 30,000-foot level, Ron, how much does the current Arizona GOP, state level party match the Arizona GOP as we knew it in the era of the maverick of John McCain?

HANSEN: Night and day difference is how it strikes me.

The party and —

CHAKRABARTI: Ron, you still there?

HANSEN: To the Trump wing of the Republican party. And this is something that has been a source of concern, again, to those older Republicans. They are troubled by what they see. And in some cases, those voters have actually crossed the line and voted for Democrats. And that helps explain a lot of the Democratic success of late. For a lot of the Republicans, they are troubled by things like the way that the COVID pandemic was handled, and they look at the conditions along the border, for example, as well as inflation these days. And they see a lot of reason for leaning in on the Trump presidency. Once again.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. We know we lost you there for a couple of seconds. So I just want to be sure that I understood clearly what you were saying in that momentary drop, that it’s night and day, the GOP now in Arizona versus what it was under John McCain.

And were you saying that it was a more centrist Traditional GOP in the McCain era. And now it’s much more aligned with Donald Trump?

HANSEN: Yeah. Yeah, I would say so. And I would say that there are a couple of issues that help contribute to that. You have things like the border conditions, you have the COVID pandemic and inflation.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So that’s the party though. And you were also saying that some more traditional Arizona Republicans, in terms of voters, were rather concerned by this Trumpian shift in the state party, and have even crossed over to vote Democratic. So how much would you say that the areas of focus of the Arizona state GOP as a party really matches what voters want.

Is there a disconnect there or not?

HANSEN: It depends on what voters you’re talking about. Republicans in Arizona are still happy, I think, on the whole with the Trump agenda that the state party and its leading nominees continue to talk about. The problem is that they are seeing defections of a sliver of Republican voters.

In many cases, these are traditional Republicans, have been voting Republican for decades. They are not enamored with this kind of agenda and the election denialism and just the more over the top behavior is something that they see is unseemly and they’ve crossed the line.

CHAKRABARTI: I see. So the concern is that in Arizona today, that Trumpian take on politics may not be successful in winning a Senate election.

Okay. So about Kari Lake in particular, she’s had quite an interesting career, television anchor, gubernatorial candidate. Can you tell me why she and the folks around her say that they’re still contesting that gubernatorial result from 2022?

HANSEN: Yeah, boy, it was a close election and remember 2022 was supposed to be a Republican wave.

There were a lot of expectations that Republicans were going to win. Very much, including Kari Lake, who became a political star in Arizona that cycle. She didn’t win. Like all the other election deniers running statewide that cycle, she lost. It was close. It was very close. But there’s no evidence that is worth talking about that she did not lose, and she has not let go of that. And we just find ourselves in this never-ending cycle of re-litigating, rehashing 2022.

She has not dropped that rhetoric and it continues to trail her to this day.

CHAKRABARTI: And then there’s also that defamation case that she’s facing, the Maricopa County Recorder, I believe, suing her for defamation based on election denial comments that she made, and Kari Lake has decided to not even defend herself in that case?

What does that even mean?

HANSEN: I think what it means is that she did not want to participate in the discovery phase of that lawsuit, that the evidence that might be gleaned from that portion could be very damaging. And it’s not just financially damaging in that case, but it could also be politically damaging, as well.

The concern by folks who are watching this from afar is that there would be evidence that Kari Lake knew that the claims she was making against the Maricopa County recorder were false, that she had no basis to actually be contesting the election, and certainly not use the over-the-top rhetoric that she used so many times.

CHAKRABARTI: She was hoping the case would go away and it’s not. It’s still proceeding, as far as I understand, in court in Arizona.

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