Arizona abortion ruling is a win Kari Lake didn’t need in key Senate race


On a recent Tuesday morning, at a retirement community on the western edge of Phoenix’s sprawling desert metropolis, Kari Lake beamed at the graying crowd and introduced her guest, the Montana senator Steve Daines, the Republican charged with winning back the party’s Senate majority in Washington.

His presence sent the message that establishment Republicans were fully behind Lake, a former TV news anchor in Phoenix whose embrace of election denialism and fealty to Donald Trump made her a darling of his Maga movement but probably cost her the 2022 race for Arizona governor, a loss she has never formally conceded.

Related: Arizona’s abortion ban is a political nightmare for Republicans in the 2024 election

Now, as the likely Republican nominee for an open Senate seat in Arizona, Lake, 54, is attempting something of a rebrand, vowing to be less “divisive” as she strains to win back the very voters she alienated with her scorched-earth campaign for governor two years ago.

“Let me be clear, we win Arizona, we win the United States Senate,” Daines told attendees, a mix of local Republican officials and sun-seeking transplants. “It’s as simple as that.”

The race, however, is not simple at all. The contest to replace Kyrsten Sinema, who left the Democratic party last year to become an independent before deciding not to seek re-election, is expected to be one of the most competitive – and expensive – of the election cycle.

Lake’s likely opponent, the Democratic congressman Ruben Gallego, is also courting voters in the political center, softening the combative approach that made him popular with the constituents of his liberal Phoenix district. With just under seven months until election day, most surveys show Gallego, 44, with a narrow lead over Lake.

The Senate race was roiled this week by the Arizona supreme court’s decision to uphold a territorial-era law that bans nearly all abortions in the state, all-but ensuring the issue will dominate the political debate in an electoral battleground with a strong libertarian bent.

A court-the-center playbook has powered sweeping statewide victories for Democrats in the years since Trump won the 2016 election. Joe Biden won Arizona’s 11 electoral votes in 2020 while the state sent two Democrats to the Senate and elected a Democratic governor, Katie Hobbs, who defeated Lake in 2022.

Even knowing the risks of running to the right in a purple state, Lake has not sought to distance herself from Trump – she has promised, as her first act in the Senate, to introduce legislation to “build the wall”. But she has attempted to move her message beyond her baseless claims of election fraud, despite ongoing litigation related to her effort to overturn her defeat in 2022. She has also sought to walk back her position on abortion, which she once called the “ultimate sin”.

Meanwhile, Gallego, speaking to a crowd of retirees in the Phoenix suburb of Goodyear last week, is hoping his efforts to work across the aisle in Congress and a yet-to-be-unveiled roster of Republican and independent endorsements will end in a decisive victory.

“We don’t have to explain to them who Kari Lake is,” Gallego said. “We have to explain to them who I am.”

***

Democrats hope to harness outrage over the decision to allow enforcement of the pre-statehood abortion ban.On Friday Gallego appeared alongside Vice-President Kamala Harris at an event in Tucson to hammer Republicans for their anti-abortion record.

The ruling was so seismic even staunchly anti-abortion Republicans like Lake raced to distance themselves. Meanwhile, fury over the 160-year-old law, which has not yet taken effect, amplified signature-gathering efforts to put abortion rights on the ballot this year, a move Democrats hope will mobilize young and otherwise disengaged liberal voters.

Gallego, meanwhile, has made abortion rights a centerpiece of his Senate campaign since its onset. At the Goodyear event, the Democrat vowed as senator to abolish the Senate filibuster to codify Roe v Wade, which the supreme court overturned in 2022, eliminating the federal right to abortion.

“If we believe it’s right, then we need to do everything we can to enshrine that right,” he said.

Strategists in the state believe Lake will probably have a harder time than Gallego appealing to Arizona’s coveted slice of independent voters and moderates.

“Congressman Gallego has to introduce himself to voters and talk about his legacy of service,” said Stacy Pearson, an Arizona-based Democratic strategist. “[Lake] has to convince voters that she was just kidding 12 months ago, and isn’t really supportive of a ban that predates light bulbs.

“It’s hard for a candidate to shake off the stench of death after a statewide loss,” she added, “much less when that candidate was supporting the very abortion ban that has women’s hair on fire in Phoenix today.”

Lake, like Trump, has spent the days since the decision trying to find safe political ground on the abortion issue. She quickly denounced the 1864 law as “out of line” with the people of Arizona and called on the legislature to “come up” with a solution.

But Democrats are unwilling to let voters forget Lake’s words from 2022, when she told a conservative podcast host: “I’m incredibly thrilled that we are going to have a great law that’s already on the books” and referred to the civil war-era ban by its number in Arizona state code.

With a spotlight on her retreat, Lake on Thursday released a five-and-a-half-minute video. “The issue is less about banning abortion and more about saving babies,” she said, as she emphasized her support for policies that would support mothers and reduce taxes on families.

On her website, Lake says she opposes a federal abortion ban.

***

Lake’s spectacular jump from the anchor desk into the heart of Trumpworld politics shocked many viewers – and voters. And it is part of her pitch. In Sun City West, the ex-journalist told attendees they were being “lied to” by an “unAmerican” press corps. Instead, she asked them to trust her. After years of reporting across Arizona, Lake said she was uniquely qualified to represent the state.

“I understand the people of Arizona probably better than anybody in politics right now in this state because I’ve had the opportunity to be invited into your homes to cover the big issues,” she said.

Attendee Donna Burrell, 70, of Sun City Grand, said she was torn over who to support in the state’s Republican primary in July. Burrell had been leaning toward Lake’s main primary opponent, a conservative county sheriff, Mark Lamb, but Lake impressed her.

“She didn’t seem so angry and in-your-face,” Burrell said. “When I came here today, I really liked her.”

The Republican base is firmly behind Lake, who leads Lamb by a wide margin. But Mike Noble, a Phoenix-based pollster who is tracking public opinion on the race, predicted Lake would struggle to broaden her appeal, especially with independent voters, a significant share of whom, he said, place stolen election claims in the same category as the “earth is flat” conspiracy.

You’re not a leader, if you’re exploiting people’s fear. That’s what she’s doing right now

Ruben Gallego

Earlier this month, Lake chose not to defend her claims of a stolen election, asking an Arizona court to move directly to the damages phase of a defamation lawsuit. The case was brought by Maricopa county’s top election official, Stephen Richer, a Republican whom Lake accused of allowing fraud to taint the results of the 2022 gubernatorial election she lost, claims he said unleashed a barrage of threats against him and his family.

Richer said Lake’s decision amounted to an admission that her “lies were just that: lies”. Lake said she conceded nothing and compared herself to Trump, casting them as twin victims of a legal system that will “ stop at nothing to destroy us”.

Related: ‘I need you back’: Biden visits western states in effort to firm up Latino vote

On the campaign trail, Gallego presents himself to voters as a results-driven veteran committed to the defense of America’s democratic institutions.

In Goodyear, he recalled being on the House floor when a mob of Trump supporters breached the US Capitol. He said his combat instincts kicked in and he began instructing lawmakers how to put gas masks on and prepare to fight if it came to that. Lake, he warned, was only fueling those forces.

“You’re not a leader, if you’re exploiting people’s fear,” Gallego said. “That’s what she’s doing right now.”

Meanwhile, Lake’s attempts to reconcile with Republicans she attacked during her 2022 race have been mixed. Outreach to Meghan McCain, the daughter of Senator John McCain, the popular Arizona Republican senator who died in 2018, was met with the response “no peace bitch”. At a campaign rally during her run for governor, she told the late senator’s supporters to “get the hell out”, a comment Lake later said was made “in jest”.

And at the end of the event in Sun City West, a woman waved a piece of paper which she claimed provided evidence of ballot-rigging in the 2020 election. “I need your help,” she shouted as Lake and Daines quickly left the stage.

***

At Gallego’s town hall, held earlier this month in a traditionally Republican part of Phoenix’s West Valley that has experienced soaring growth in the past decade, Democrats scrounged for extra seating to accommodate the crowd.

“I was pleasantly, pleasantly surprised that we could get this big of a turnout in a very red part of the county,” said Barbara Valencia, a member of the local Democratic party who has known Gallego since the early days of his political career. She was confident Arizonans would gravitate toward Gallego the more they learned about his story – a Harvard-educated combat veteran raised by a single mother from Colombia.

“He’s very grassroots, from the ground up,” she said.

Since launching his campaign more than a year ago, Gallego has made his goal to visit every corner of the state, including each of Arizona’s nearly two dozen federally recognized tribal nations, to reach voters outside of the Phoenix metropolitan area. Before the West Valley event, Gallego visited leaders of the Kaibab Paiute Indian Tribe in northern Arizona, which required flying into southern Utah and driving two hours south.

Yet despite recent Democratic successes, Gallego must also contend with stormy presidential-year politics. Biden, who will be at the top of the ballot, is unpopular in Arizona, trailing Trump in several swing state surveys. Inflation has proven an intractable problem for the president, while his handling of record migration at the US-Mexico border has drawn bipartisan criticism.

Some Democrats in the state are worried about the party’s outreach to Latino voters, a critical part of their electoral coalition that has shifted toward Trump in recent years.

“We need to mobilize the Hispanic vote,” said Judy Phillips, a Democrat who attended Gallego’s town hall in Goodyear and is Hispanic. “If they don’t hear the good things from the candidates, they’re going to get sucked in by the lies.”

She’s not running against an astronaut, Mark Kelly … She’s running against a true radical far-left activist

Steve Daines

But early indicators are on his side. A poll conducted by Noble’s firm in February, before Sinema bowed out of the race, found that Gallego led Lake by double digits with suburbanites, independents and Hispanic voters. Sinema has not made an endorsement in the Senate race.

Arizona Republicans, Noble quipped, choose to nominate unpopular candidates who cannot win general elections “not because it is easy, but because it is hard”.

***

At her event, Lake sought to scare off moderate Republicans from defecting with a warning about her opponent. Gallego, she said, was trying to “trick the people of Arizona” into believing he was a consensus-building, “middle-of-the-road” Democrat.

“It couldn’t be further from the truth,” she said, citing his past criticism of Trump’s border wall. Daines, the Montana senator, chimed: “She’s not running against an astronaut, Mark Kelly. She’s not running against Kyrsten Sinema. She’s running against a true radical far-left activist.”

Defining Gallego while also trying to change her own reputation in the state will require considerable resources, analysts say.

“Lake’s miniscule war chest isn’t enough to really let that sink into voters,” said Barrett Marson, an Arizona-based Republican consultant. “She will need the help of national groups to really paint Ruben as a liberal lion.”

Gallego’s campaign is already running biographical ads on local and cable TV, including one focused on his deployment to Iraq with a Marine Corps unit that sustained some of the highest casualties of the war. With his record, the Democrat is targeting the state’s large veteran population.

It is an open question whether her support from Republicans in Washington will translate into a significant financial investment. But her core supporters are giving. Last week, Lake’s campaign announced that she raised what it claimed was a record $1m at a fundraising event at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s Florida resort.

It is yet another sign, Marson said, that Lake and Trump “will live or die together” in Arizona this November.

Gallego, meanwhile, announced that his campaign raised $7.5m in the first three months of 2024, a notable haul that leaves him with $9.6m cash on hand. Lake has yet to announce her first-quarter fundraising numbers, but the stakes are high. She began the year with much less money than Gallego and it remains unclear what, if any, damages she will have to pay in the defamation suit.

Much can – and almost certainly will – change before election day. But as the contours of the high-profile Senate race come into focus, political observers now believe abortion will be a defining issue of the Arizona election. And here, they say, Gallego has the advantage.

“We’ve got those crossover voters that will never register as Democrats but who are also not Maga,” said Pearson, the Democratic strategist, referring to Trump’s rightwing movement. “And this is an issue that takes those voters – Arizona’s defiant, libertarian, Republican voting bloc – and pulls them right over to the Democrats.”





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