Exactly one week before Election Day, Kari Lake, the Republican gubernatorial nominee in Arizona, held a boisterous rally with Steve Bannon, the indicted former Donald Trump aide whom Lake dubbed a “modern-day George Washington.” Local and national media outlets covered the event.
On the same day, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee, Katie Hobbs, hosted a housing policy roundtable to draw attention to her affordable housing plan. Eleven people participated, including Hobbs. The event did not receive media coverage.
The contrasting campaign appearances capture the campaign dynamic. Lake wanted the spotlight. Hobbs wanted Lake to have the spotlight.
Hobbs was widely counted out after she refused to debate, saying, “It’s clear that Kari Lake is much more interested in creating a spectacle and having the spotlight than actually having a substantive discussion about the issues.” Lake pounded Hobbs as a coward, a message bolstered by pundits and even fellow Democrats. Laurie Roberts, the left-leaning columnist for the Arizona Republic, wrote in mid-October that Hobbs “played right into the hands of a delighted Lake” and “Hobbs isn’t just letting down Democrats; she may well be letting down Arizona.” Sandra Kennedy, who cochaired Joe Biden’s Arizona campaign in 2020, fretted to NBC News, “I would debate, and I would want the people of Arizona to know what my platform is.”
But the wisdom of Hobbs’s decision became apparent throughout the fall campaign.
To be blunt, Hobbs is not good on television. She awkwardly clings to talking points. Her sentences are infected with “um”s. Lake, however, is a literal pro, a 30-year on-air veteran of TV news. The gap between Hobbs’s media skills and Lake’s is as wide as the Grand Canyon. Like history’s greatest demagogues, Lake dazzled on the stump. She famously did her own makeup for TV interviews. When broadcasting from her home studio, she looked absolutely ethereal.
However, to say Hobbs was “afraid” to debate Lake is to embrace the logic of the schoolyard playground. Let’s not forget: This is the secretary of state who presided over Arizona’s wafer-thin 2020 election and is the target of the most ridiculous and dangerous conspiracy theories peddled by Trump’s loyalists. This is the official on the receiving end of a Republican state senate election review so bonkers that auditors investigated whether fake ballots were shipped from Southeast Asia by checking for traces of bamboo. Hobbs was the recipient of death threats and needed protection from Arizona’s state troopers. Despite that harrowing experience, she stepped back into the arena to run for governor. This is a woman of courage, not cowardness.
Hobbs’s debate decision was based on a clear-eyed assessment of her own strengths and weaknesses. A high-profile media event benefits the candidate with superior media skills.
Such a gambit would not work if the public viewed a successful debate performance as equivalent to a job interview, a necessary bar to clear. But in my exploration of the debate over debates in this space last month, I observed that modern debates are a far cry from Lincoln-Douglas. They are reality TV shows marked with soporific talking points and cheap insults. It’s not just that voters don’t care about debates. Voters have good reason not to care about debates. They are not especially useful at helping voters decide who is best suited to govern.
So instead of playing a game on her opponent’s turf, Hobbs changed the game.
The drama around the debates peaked in mid-October. By late October, the story had played out. Still, in the campaign’s final days, Hobbs didn’t do much to generate a sense of momentum. She generally eschewed big rallies (except for a visit from Barack Obama) in favor of policy roundtables and grassroots organizing events. Meanwhile, Lake was commanding the media stage and holding rallies with the U.S. Senate candidate Blake Masters and other Republican election deniers on the Arizona ballot, trying to carry the entire party on her back. Almost every poll had Lake in the lead—the final FiveThirtyEight average had her up 2.4 points, and Real Clear Politics had her up 3.5 points. As victory seemed near, Lake was the beneficiary of more and more media profiles. Perhaps my Google skills have atrophied, but I have yet to find a single Katie Hobbs profile from any outlet, local or national.
The focus on Lake suited Hobbs just fine. Ultimately, the race was not a choice between who was better on TV but, effectively, a referendum on whether Kari Lake was too crazy for the job. Despite having already consolidated conservative support, Lake made little effort to appeal to moderates, independents, and even Republicans still fond of the late Arizona Senator John McCain. At one of her final rallies, she told “McCain Republicans” to “get the hell out.” (McCain’s daughter Meghan issued a statement saying, “My father will always be an icon and the people of Arizona deserve someone better than Kari Lake.”) At the same time, Lake praised state Senator Wendy Rogers, who was censured for making threats against her own colleagues and recently spoke at a white nationalist conference.
And just because Hobbs took a low-key approach to the campaign trail doesn’t mean she was passive. In interviews, she diligently framed the race as “a choice between sanity or chaos,” adding that “election denial is the core of that chaos.” She also closed with a one-two TV ad punch. One was an ostensibly positive ad that recounts the death threats Hobbs faced after the 2020 election and proclaims that “Katie Hobbs protected our democracy” as secretary of state, with the hard-to-miss subtext of Lake’s unwavering election denialism. The second ad hit Lake from the right, charging that her fiscal plans would turbocharge inflation, worsen the state’s water crisis, and “defund police departments.”
In my prediction of a Hobbs victory on the online DMZ Show, which I cohost with Matt Lewis, I argued that in the homestretch of the midterm campaign Democrats, in Arizona and nationally, were sounding the alarm that “democracy is on the ballot,” which would help make the gubernatorial race a referendum on Lake. The Democrats’ exhortation proved powerful. Election-denying candidates for the U.S. Senate, U.S. House, and secretaries of state in competitive states were largely eviscerated. Add Kari Lake to the list, because Katie Hobbs had a plan to beat crazy and the courage to stick with it.