QUEEN CREEK, Arizona—When it came time for Karrin Taylor Robson to take questions at a campaign stop last Thursday, the crowd didn’t waste a moment to confront her with the most uncomfortable issue in her bid to be Arizona’s next governor.
“What will you do,” asked one woman in the front row, “to secure our elections?”
Nods and affirming noises rippled through the crowd of roughly 150 people, who had come to see Robson speak in this far-flung suburb about 40 miles southeast of downtown Phoenix.
“So the one thing I think we can all agree on is, the wrong guy is in the White House. Do we all agree?” Robson asked.
After the predictable response from this audience of Republican loyalists, Robson put forward a conspiratorial explanation of why the 2020 election was stacked against Donald Trump—the media, big tech, COVID, the Democrats—and explained what changes to election rules she’d make if elected.
But what Robson omitted entirely in her 2020 postmortem were the most outlandish theories and falsehoods about the election—the ideas that now dominate that grassroots of Trump’s GOP and are animating the campaign of her Trump-endorsed rival for the GOP nomination, Kari Lake.
Asked by The Daily Beast what she made of Robson’s answer, Peg Ward, a former corporate executive in the audience, had a succinct answer. “She pivoted,” she said.
In an interview afterward, Robson denied that the 2020 election is a difficult issue for her to talk about—even though Lake and her supporters in the MAGA wing of the party are hammering her over it constantly.
“I’ve always been looking out the windshield, I’m looking out the front, and all she’s talking about is 2020,” Robson said of Lake. “That’s all she talks about. She talks about that, and she attacks me, and people are getting tired of it.”
Arizona’s primary election, slated for Aug. 2, will be one of the most important tests yet of whether or not GOP voters are truly tired of Trump and his acolytes’ relentless focus on litigating, and re-litigating, his defeat in November 2020.
It would be hard to find two better distillations of the dueling factions of today’s GOP than the two leading candidates in this primary.
Robson is a lifelong Republican who has hardline conservative views on everything from taxes and abortion to the hot-button culture war issues of the moment. But like her two most important backers—incumbent Gov. Doug Ducey and former Vice President Mike Pence—she has backed away from Trump amid his 2020 election obsession.
Lake is a longtime TV anchor in Phoenix and a former liberal who once spoke gushingly about Barack Obama. But she remade herself into a Trump-loving crusader for the issues nearest and dearest to the MAGA base—chiefly, 2020 election conspiracies—while calling her critics “demonic” and advocating for the Arizona secretary of state to be thrown in prison.
Trump’s personal antipathy toward Ducey has made Arizona something like the second marquee stop on Trump’s 2020 revenge tour in this 2022 primary season. Much like with Gov. Brian Kemp in Georgia, the ex-president continues to blame Ducey for his 2020 defeat and has been hell-bent on ruining his political career.
Robson—and Ducey—are hoping it ends up like the first stop of that tour. Trump’s Georgia crusade culminated in embarrassing defeats for his candidates for governor and secretary of state.
Like Kemp, Robson is walking a fine line. She has to defend Trump’s record and amplify questions about the 2020 election, while also avoiding explicit denials of Biden’s win and averting any conflict with the former president.
Robson’s strategy was abundantly on display in Queen Creek, where another attendee asked Robson—who supported Trump twice and has directed millions of dollars to his campaigns—why she didn’t get the ex-president’s endorsement.
“I will defend his record all day long,” Robson responded, ticking through Trump’s accomplishments. “The endorsement I’m looking for,” she concluded, “is yours.”
Chuck Coughlin, a GOP operative in Arizona whose firm, HighGround, has polled the governor's race, compared Robson’s strategy to that of Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who conspicuously avoided Trump in his successful campaign last year.
“You don’t ever put red meat in front of the bull,” Coughlin said. “You don't do that.”
With less than two weeks to go until the primary day, most observers believe that the race is currently a dead heat between Robson and Lake. A charismatic campaigner and aggressive messenger, Lake began the campaign with a big polling lead, partially thanks to the name recognition afforded by her two decades on Phoenix TV. Lake’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
Unlike Kemp, Robson is a relatively unknown quantity to GOP voters. She welcomed Ducey’s endorsement, but according to a recent Public Policy Polling survey shared with The Daily Beast, the current governor has a 43 percent approval rating among Arizona Republicans—compared to 77 percent for Trump.
Robson has made a bet that Lake’s support has a hard ceiling among GOP voters. Backed by big-spending interests and a prodigious fundraiser herself, Robson has narrowed the gap considerably by targeting Republicans like Peg Ward.
Ward may have said that Robson “pivoted” away from a discussion of 2020 in Queen Creek, but believes that’s a good thing. She said that many Republicans are losing patience with Trump’s incessant 2020 election talk, and acknowledged that Lake’s focus on the issue could doom her in a general election.
Her husband, Jeffrey, a software engineer, was so over it all that he declared he will “never support a Trump-endorsed candidate ever again.”
“His choices are categorically bad,” Jeffrey said. The Wards believe that Lake is such a flawed candidate that they theorized she is a Democratic plant, intended to throw the election.
The battle unfolding in Arizona is important not just because it could signal the future direction of the GOP and whether Trump’s word remains law among the most devoted Republicans.
A Robson victory, many insiders believe, would give Republicans their best shot at holding the governorship against an energized Democratic electorate in Arizona.
A Lake victory, meanwhile, could give Democrats—who are poised to back Katie Hobbs, the secretary of state Lake wanted to jail—their best chance to flip control of the state. The cost of a Democratic failure would be the elevation of one of the country’s preeminent election conspiracists to the helm of a key 2024 battleground state.
“As an observer of campaigns, I’d love to read a book about this,” said Tony Cani, who was the deputy director of Biden’s 2020 operation in Arizona. “If the stakes weren’t so high—it’s just a wild campaign.”
Most everyone would agree with Cani’s assessment. Even Arizona, a state with a high bar for weirdness and wildness in politics, has seen little like the Karrin vs. Kari battle royale.
The two candidates have not meaningfully sparred on any issues. When asked to name her biggest policy disagreement with Lake, Robson couldn’t come up with one. “It’s, you know, not policy in the traditional sense, but it’s integrity and truthfulness and character,” she said.
Instead, personal attacks have dominated this contest, with the two candidates hurling out various accusations to show that the other isn’t a real Republican.
Robson has tapped into conservatives’ suspicion of Lake’s origin story as a liberal journalist turned conservative firebreather. “Quite frankly, she found God, guns, and the GOP about a day and a half before she decided to run for governor,” she told FOX’s Laura Ingraham recently.
Both candidates, and outside groups supporting them, have spent heavily to amplify the name-calling and sideswipes. Last week, a pro-Robson super PAC rolled out a headline-making ad that focused on a topic that has become oddly central to this race: drag queens.
In June, a longtime Phoenix drag queen alleged that Lake—who has embraced hardline anti-LGBT rhetoric in this campaign—had previously partied with drag queens and had them over to her home.
The anti-Lake ad featured a drag queen on camera, narrating the allegation that Lake has been hypocritical on the issue. The spot concludes with the drag queen taking off their wig and saying Kari Lake is “not just a fake; she’s a phony.”
According to federal campaign finance records, American Focus PAC is bankrolled by a number of wealthy Republicans—including Robson’s own family, who have a deep history in Arizona politics. Through an entity called CBY Holdings, they gave $100,000 to the PAC. Her brother, Greg Kunasek, confirmed to The Daily Beast that the family was responsible for the donation.
Lake, meanwhile, has called Robson a “globalist,” a “swamp creature,” a “continuation of mediocrity,” and a “RINO.” In an interview with OANN, Lake fumed that Robson was “Doug Ducey in a dress.”
The candidates’ media strategies and endorsements also reveal a sharp split in tone, if not substance, emerging in today’s GOP.
Robson is a regular on Fox News’ cable and talk radio channels, and touts the endorsements of dozens of state and local officials.
Lake, who has tapped into the emerging MAGA distrust of the right-wing media giant, is a fixture on OANN, Newsmax, and Steve Bannon’s influential podcast. The epitome of her campaign probably came earlier this year, when she did an interview with OANN personality Chanel Rion live from Trump’s Mar-A-Lago club.
Though she has been loath to hit Lake too directly on her most extreme positions, Robson did tell The Daily Beast that Lake is too far to the right to be a viable GOP candidate.
“She has really gone to, you know, the extreme, extreme rhetoric, and it’s going to be very hard for her to walk that back,” Robson said. “I’m much more pragmatic.”
Democrats, and many Republicans, believe that Lake would be far easier to beat than Robson. Katie Hobbs, the likely Democratic nominee, has already raised nearly $5 million for her campaign.
Faced with a difficult midterm election environment, Democrats elsewhere in the country have spent money to elevate far-right candidates in GOP primaries in hopes of creating easier matchups in November.
Last week, a press release from the Arizona Democratic Party attacking Robson for her past donations to Democrats sparked chatter that the same might be happening in this race.
However, no Democratic money has been spent to boost Lake, and a Democratic operative told The Daily Beast that the move was more of a classic case of trolling—intended to provoke Lake and cause “a day of headaches” for Robson.
Lake could be more viable than Democrats think if she wins the primary, argued Cani, the Democratic strategist. “In a year that’s going to be difficult for Democrats, some of these wild extremists who have no business being in office can be swept into office,” he said.
Cani also offered a preview of the Democratic case, should Robson win: that despite their bitter fighting, she and Lake really aren’t that different. He argued that the essence of Robson’s campaign strategy is alleging that Lake is simply pretending to have the hardline conservative views that Robson genuinely holds.
Many self-described “real conservatives” are baffled that Robson, who has impeccable conservative credentials, is fending off attacks on her authenticity by Lake, whose only real GOP credential is Trump’s endorsement.
That includes Matt Salmon, the archconservative former Arizona congressman who dropped out of the governor primary and endorsed Robson. On Thursday, Salmon was Robson’s warm-up speaker; in his rousing stump speech, he compared a Lake victory to “falling in a pile of horse manure.”
Afterward, as attendees filtered out of the rally, Salmon mused that Trump’s endorsement of Lake was prompting hardcore Republicans to question if the ex-president really understood the pulse of the majority, not just the fringe, of his party.
“It breaks my heart that the standard that he has is, basically, who will regurgitate everything I tell him to say,” Salmon said. “And if you don’t say it word for word, you’re out of the will.”
Additional reporting from Jackie Kucinich.