Mon. Apr 22nd, 2024

Despite attempts to be less ‘divisive,’ Kari Lake finds it hard to shed her MAGA instincts

By 37ci3 Mar29,2024



PHOENIX — This winter, Kari Lake was facing a daunting reality: The voters who rejected her in her 2022 run for governor could now jeopardize her entire political future. If Lake — “Trump in heels,” as she has referred to herself — didn’t begin to quickly change the minds of those she had shunned or ridiculed, she could lose, again, in her 2024 Senate bid.

“I have never thought of myself as divisive. But it’s not enough for ME to believe that. I need to prove it,” Lake wrote in a social media post in December, acknowledging the need to step away from her tendencies to make incendiary comments, like when she gleefully declared that she had driven “a stake through the heart of the McCain machine” — referring to Sen. John McCain, the popular Arizona Republican who died in 2018 — and broaden her appeal.

But with just over seven months until the election, several key Arizona Republicans tell NBC News that they believe Lake’s campaign is facing an increasingly uphill battle. 

“What I hear is, everybody has just resigned themselves that we’re going to be stuck with a Ruben Gallego — that’s what I hear from all the major players, the big-money people,” Shiree Verdone, a longtime GOP fundraiser in Arizona, said, referring to Lake’s Democratic Senate opponent. “I haven’t heard anyone say, ‘Kari Lake is going to win.’”

Verdone, who voted for Lake in 2022, served as Trump’s campaign finance chair in the state in 2016 and 2020 and was a campaign manager for McCain. She said that she will vote for Trump, again, in 2024 and that she believes Lake’s best hope is to ride his coattails.

But Verdone has shifted her own attention to races other than Lake’s Senate bid, even attending a fundraiser in the Phoenix area last week for a non-Arizona Republican Senate candidate — Pennsylvania’s Dave McCormick. 

“He’s a serious guy. I like what he’s talking about, and I think we all relate to it,” Verdone said. “With Kari, I don’t know what she’s doing.”

Lake continues to deny that Trump lost the 2020 presidential election, tweeting this month about President Joe Biden: “81 million votes, my a–.” She continues to call her 2022 election loss “a sham,” promotes right-wing provocateurs like Laura Loomer — whom she called a “warrior” — and hosts fundraising events with controversial political figures like Roger Stone at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago private club.

Since launching her Senate bid, Lake has set up meetings to mend relationships with other Republicans she cast aside during her run for governor, like Kathy Petsas, a former local party chair in Lake’s home legislative district. Lake’s campaign tweeted at her in 2022: “Kathy, You’re exactly the type of demographic that we feel no need to appeal to.”

“I don’t know one person that she’s gotten on her side of the people who she offended,” Petsas said, suggesting Lake’s overtures have fallen flat. “There’s nobody from my circle that she’s gained, and she’s even alienated some previous supporters, too, who I know.”

Petsas met with Lake last winter for iced tea at the Arizona Biltmore Hotel, where, she said, Lake talked to her about the need to “unify the party.” She said she named a number of Republicans who deserve apologies from Lake.

“She couldn’t even say their names,” Petsas said. “She did not apologize at all. She cannot say, ‘I’m sorry.’”

When asked by NBC News to identify any individuals she had wooed to her corner since her failed governor’s race, Lake responded: “I have reached out to so many that I can’t even name them all, OK, and we’re doing great. A lot of them have jumped in and supported me. I’ve been reluctant to talk about my private meetings with people because I know, frankly, how the press operates and we’re working to come together and solve Arizona’s problems.”

Another target Lake has sought to win over: her former gubernatorial primary rival Karrin Taylor Robson, whom she previously derided as a “gold digger.”

Robson has also withheld her endorsement in the Senate race so far. Two sources familiar with her conversations with Lake said that the two are in talks to meet again. 

Lake’s actions, however, have often not mirrored the pitch that her campaign team has often made to those reticent to lending their support.  

“What’s odd is that she says one thing one day and then acts completely counter to that the next,” a Republican strategist with ties to Arizona said. “You open up Twitter, and there’s the Nimarata tweet.” 

On March 6, the day that Nikki Haley exited the 2024 GOP presidential race, Lake used Haley’s birth name, Nimarata — and misspelled it — in a post on X to knock her: “Nimrata Haley will suspend her campaign today after more humiliating, landslide loses on Super Tuesday.”

The strategist continued: “Her instincts seem to be to quadruple down on ultra MAGA and all that entails.”

This week, Lake also chose to not contest her liability in a defamation suit filed against her by Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer, a move that most likely allows her to avoid turning over evidence that Richer sought in order to prove that she had made claims against him with actual malice. Lake had repeatedly accused Richer of having “sabotaged” Election Day voting and costing her the governorship in 2022. 

Richer, a fellow Republican, posted on X in response: “You will now have a judgment entered, in court, against you, for lying about our elections and me.  It was all B.S. Now on to damages.”

A looming cash crunch

Beyond the ever-fraying personal relationships, Lake is also facing a cash imbalance.

At the turn of the year, Lake had raised just over $2 million toward her Senate bid, compared to the more than $13 million hauled in by Gallego, the Democratic congressman who started his campaign more than eight months before her, according to Federal Election Commission filings. 

A Lake adviser said the campaign expects to report a stronger fundraising haul in the beginning of this year than in its first three months in the race. Another source close to major GOP donors said that Lake has remained in active contact this spring trying to court new financial backers and raise significant money. 

The National Republican Senatorial Committee has also backed her bid. The group’s chair, Sen. Steve Daines of Montana, who is campaigning next week in Arizona with her, said in his February endorsement: “Kari Lake is one of the most talented candidates in the country. Kari is building out an effective campaign operation that has what it takes to flip Arizona’s Senate seat in November.”

The NRSC and the Senate GOP’s major outside group, the Senate Leadership Fund, have said they are prioritizing Ohio, Montana and West Virginia as their best Senate pickup opportunities.

SLF and its affiliated groups have booked more than $135 million in advertising time to boost Republicans in Montana and Ohio. Like Lake, Montana Republican candidate Tim Sheehy and Ohio Republican nominee Bernie Moreno, who won his primary earlier this month, are both backed by Trump.

But none of those GOP groups has booked advertising time in Arizona as of now, as they survey the other battleground Senate races to play in. By comparison, a major Democratic super PAC has reserved $23 million of air time in Arizona this fall to help Gallego.

Lake has also not revealed how much she has raised through the Save Arizona Fund, a 501(c)4 organization that she launched with her key political aides in the aftermath of her gubernatorial defeat, or how she has used or intends to use the funds.

NBC News has requested the Save Arizona Fund’s 990 tax filing, a financial disclosure form that the IRS requires nonprofit organizations to file annually; neither Lake’s senior adviser nor her lawyer have responded to the request.

The money cannot be spent directly on her Senate bid. A person close to Lake said “a lot of the money” was spent on her lawsuits around the 2022 campaign.

Lake must also still defeat Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb in the GOP primary in July, though, at the end of the year, he had only $256,000 in his campaign coffers. 

In recent days, close allies of Lake have called Lamb to urge him to drop his bid, according to a senior adviser to Lamb. 

In mid-March after publicly challenging Gallego to a debate, Lake dismissed the relevance of Lamb’s candidacy when asked if she would agree to a debate with him: “I am focusing on the general election.”

But Lamb, a one-time ally of Lake, refuses to leave the race, contending that he has the best chance to win in November.

“If I didn’t think I was the best candidate in the general election, I’d certainly step aside and let that Republican go forward,” Lamb said in an interview with NBC News. “But I do believe we’re in the best position for the general election.”

He also noted that he would like the opportunity to debate Lake.

“I think a lot of the issues we’re going to be aligned on,” he added. “What I think it’ll show is the unevenness in experience — the experience I bring to the table on the border, crime and the economy.”

Lake and her allies once urged Lamb to run for the Senate seat that they’re now trying to get him to step away from. 

Lamb said that Lake had told him to run for months and even introduced him to Trump in December 2022 one evening at Mar-a-Lago. The sheriff said he had been speaking at an event in West Palm Beach earlier that day.

“[My wife and I] met her husband [and two advisers] — and they said, ‘You have to run for Senate. You have to do this. This is how you can do it. It’ll be great,’” Lamb recounted. “Then we walked over to Trump’s table — she said, ‘He’s going to run for Senate.’”

Months later, Lake changed course and announced her own run for the Senate seat — now held by Kyrsten Sinema, an independent who is not seeking re-election — and the effort to readjust her public persona commenced. 

‘I got MAGA in my bone marrow’

When asked by NBC News this month whether she regretted any of her past statements, Lake responded: “We’re all human. We make mistakes occasionally. I do as well. I’m not perfect, and I never want to hurt anyone’s feelings. But you know, politics is a rough and tumble game, and sometimes things are said.”

Lake also rejected the premise that she needed to change.

“I haven’t changed,” she argued after casting her ballot for Trump in Arizona’s GOP presidential primary last week. “I’m still the same person that people invited into their homes for nearly 30 years here in Arizona.” 

Before her first run for office two years ago, Lake was a prominent local news anchor on Phoenix television.

Despite that history, Trump is outperforming her in Arizona, but in a state that’s seen three competitive Senate races in a row, this year’s Senate matchup is not expected to be an exception. However, in a February poll by Noble Predictive Insights, 49% of Arizona voters already held an unfavorable view of Lake, compared to just 26% for Gallego.

The last Republican to lose statewide office twice in Arizona was Martha McSally, who lost both her 2018 and 2020 Senate races by a margin of 2.4% and struggled in those campaigns to find a balance between embracing the MAGA wing of her party and not dismissing figures opposed to Trump’s grip on the GOP, like McCain and then-Sen. Jeff Flake. 

In turn, Lake has worked hard to not lose her close relationship with Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, paying his senior advisor Jason Miller to also consult for her campaign and even traveling to Trump’s election night victory parties in Iowa and New Hampshire as well as multiple events at his Palm Beach estate. 

“I got MAGA in my bone marrow,” Lake boasted at a rally in Cave Creek, Arizona, this month before telling the crowd that she had just filed a case with the U.S. Supreme Court “to get rid of those damn machines that are so corrupt.”

Lake’s petition claims electronic voting machines used in Maricopa County are “susceptible to hacking.” It’s the same argument that has repeatedly failed to pass muster in several courts and led to a $787.5 million settlement between Fox News and Dominion Voting Systems last spring. 

Despite Lake alienating some of the Arizona electorate, her would-be general election opponent, Gallego, is untested statewide, only having run in a Democrat-dominant Phoenix congressional district.

“Kari Lake is going to not only win the Republican primary in a landslide, which every poll shows, she is also best positioned to defeat Ruben Gallego in every single private and public poll that we have,” Garrett Ventry, a senior adviser to Lake, said. “She is President Trump’s endorsed candidate, and the NRSC and Arizona grassroots voters are behind her.”

Jon Seaton, a former McCain aide and a longtime Arizona GOP consultant, said he believes the current race is a “toss-up.”

“Gallego obviously has the advantages of money and, for the most part, a unified Democratic Party behind him,” Seaton said. “But I think our side has a lot to shoot at in terms of his voting record. He’ll be perceived as very weak on the border, and well to the left of most Arizona voters.”

But Verdone, the longtime fundraiser, surmised that Lake’s window for changing the trajectory of the race is narrowing. 

“She needs to reach out and show that she’s willing to — the only term I can think of is — normalize,” she said. “But I think it’s almost too late. There would have to be something drastic for folks to say, ‘Let’s go rally around Kari.’”

Verdone paused, then added: “Maybe that happens.”





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