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Opinion Republicans have a big Kari Lake problem

Kari Lake, former Republican nominee for governor of Arizona, speaks during a rally in Scottsdale, Ariz., on Jan. 29. (David Blakeman for The Washington Post)
5 min

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Attend a Kari Lake rally, as I did Sunday night, and you will see why so many conservatives will follow her to the ends of the Earth.

Lake has star power. She lights up a stage and can talk coherently for nearly an hour. She flatters her audiences and knows which buttons to push to rile them up and garner sympathy.

This gift poses massive problems for the Arizona Republican Party.

Lake is not rallying her forces to oppose Gov. Katie Hobbs’s outrageously liberal budget or to win school board elections. Instead, Lake is fixated on her narrow defeat last fall. Like former president Donald Trump, who called into her rally to pledge support, she says she was robbed.

Lake told the crowd she has “mountains of evidence.” She claims that “300,000 ballots lacked chain of custody” in Maricopa County, home to Phoenix, where she alleges the fraud took place. “A minimum of 140,000 fraudulent mail-in ballots,” which leaned Democratic, were counted despite “bad signatures,” she said. Meanwhile, 250,000 Election Day votes, which leaned heavily Republican, were “spit out and rejected” by faulty tabulating machines. The result: Democratic votes were overcounted; legitimate GOP votes were rejected.

But none of this is true. Fraud, although hard to prove, is easy to detect. If someone were stuffing ballot boxes, the results would be way out of whack compared to those in prior elections. Most places have pretty predictable turnout and voting patterns. If an area suddenly turns from red to blue or has a huge, unexplained turnout spike, something fishy might have happened.

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But there’s nothing unusual about Maricopa County’s 2022 election results. The county’s vote share has always been slightly lower than its share of the state’s population, as was the case in 2022. And it has a lot of highly educated Whites, the constituency that has turned against MAGA Republicans since 2016. The results in Lake’s race show the same patterns that were seen throughout the Trump era.

A deep dive by three Arizona analysts shows this conclusively. They examined every ballot counted in Maricopa County in 2022 and found that Lake (and other ultra-MAGA nominees) lost many more votes among people who otherwise voted Republican than Hobbs and other Democrats lost from habitual Democrats. That is why Lake and the fraud squad lost.

Lake told her adoring fans that “data doesn’t lie.” She’s right, but the data clearly shows that her claims aren’t worth a plug nickel.

That Lake continues to spout lies to her adoring fans creates huge problems for the state party. Its leaders know why they lost most statewide races and nearly lost control of the legislature. They know they need to win back the votes of some educated Whites while holding on to the people who backed Trump and Lake. Do that, and Arizona goes from the ultimate purple state to one that clearly leans Republican.

But how do they do that when so many of their voters believe in the voter-fraud myth? The base demands obeisance to faith that the election was stolen, and any statewide candidate will be tempted to pander to those views. But doing so would alienate the swing voters they need to win. Three straight election cycles in which Republicans lost narrowly to Democrats in their Senate and gubernatorial races prove that the hardcore base is not enough to win.

A recent poll for Kyrsten Sinema’s Senate seat shows the GOP’s problem clearly. Rep. Ruben Gallego, the Democrats’ leading candidate in the race, would beat Lake 50-45 in a two-way race. Republicans would have a better chance of winning if Sinema, who left the Democratic Party to become an independent, decided to run for reelection, thereby making it a three-way race among her, Gallego and Lake. In that scenario, Gallego and Lake would essentially be tied, and Sinema would take 24 percent.

Interestingly, Republicans’ chances would not improve in a three-way race if they chose a more sensible candidate than Lake, such as former governor Doug Ducey. In a Gallego-Ducey-Sinema scenario, Gallego would lead Ducey by 6 points. Clearly, Lake supporters are leery of backing someone they view as a “RINO,” Republican in name only.

Balancing both the MAGA base and swing voters will take extraordinary political skill. Jeff DeWit, the newly elected GOP state chair, has so far pulled it off, winning support from Lake and her team without openly endorsing her outlandish claims. I watched him speak both at Lake’s rally and a state organizing meeting on Saturday. He was greeted enthusiastically both times, though he never specifically endorsed the election-fraud myth or said that Lake was the legitimately elected governor. His Trumpy past — he led Trump’s Arizona campaign in 2016 and was its chief operating officer in 2020 — probably gives him credibility and much needed flexibility.

But that’s not something many potential Senate candidates possess. Many leading Arizona Republicans were not on the Trump train in 2016. And Trump’s biggest backers in the state, such as Rep. Andy Biggs, are too conservative or outspoken on the fraud question to be plausible statewide candidates.

Perhaps there’s someone other than DeWit who can do the trick. But finding that needle in a haystack will tax anyone’s ingenuity. Without a miracle, expect Republicans to once again throw away a winnable Senate seat.