BETTENDORF, Iowa — For two days, Kari Lake traversed this state with a clear message. She falsely claimed the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump. She baselessly insisted that votes were rigged against her in her run for Arizona governor last year. And she warned without evidence that future races will be compromised.
“If you lose, lose with dignity. You shake the other person’s hand and walk away,” she told a crowd of approximately 200 at a reception hall on Friday, describing advice from her father on how to gracefully accept defeat. “I didn’t lose, so I’m not doing that.”
Lake, who lost in November by more than 17,000 votes to now-Gov. Katie Hobbs (D), is waging a new campaign without conceding the last one. The former television news anchor is traveling the country as one of the most vocal standard-bearers of an animated if wounded election denialism movement as she weighs a run for U.S. Senate and hears encouragement from some to set her sights on national office.
That movement has persisted in some quarters of the Republican Party despite candidates such as Lake experiencing pivotal losses in last year’s midterms after running openly on denying the results of the 2020 election. During a pair of stops Friday and Saturday in Iowa, Lake drew enthusiastic crowds here and in Ankeny. She walked onstage to Lenny Kravitz’s “American Woman.” She shook hands with supporters. She signed autographs. When an audience member here shouted, “Trump VP!,” Lake giggled at the outburst and repeated it.
“Trump VP,” Lake said, speaking of the former president, who in his third run for the White House has continued to make false claims about his 2020 election defeat. “I love President Trump. I will do everything in my power to get that man elected.”
Yet not everyone who came to see Lake was keen to hear her rehash past elections, and others in the party have been sharply critical of her rhetoric, seeing her as a part of a Trump-era scourge at the ballot box that cost the GOP winnable races last fall and could doom its chances in 2024. Her trip to this early presidential nominating state underlined tensions in the party between those who want to move away from the cause and others determined to keep it alive.
Dwain Swanson, 88, said he has watched Lake’s interviews on Fox News and Newsmax with interest, drawn by her charisma and his belief in her claim — included in a lawsuit rejected by a judge — that hundreds of thousands of mail-in ballots did not follow the chain of custody. While he felt she is too inexperienced for the White House, Swanson said he felt she deserved to be Arizona’s governor. “She wasn’t defeated,” he said.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Lake said everyone she met in Iowa agreed with her election claims. When pointed to some people who had raised doubts about election denialism, she called a reporter “brainwashed.”
“Everyone who talked with me in that line said keep fighting,” she said, referring to the hordes of people who queued for selfies with Lake, “because they are stealing elections in Arizona and other states. And because of that, what we want as Americans isn’t happening.”
When Rick and Kate Ramza lined up to enter the reception hall where Lake spoke on Friday, they were more interested in hearing what she thought about race and gender issues being taught in schools than they were about past elections. The former Trump voters now looking for a fresh face worried about crime and drugs infiltrating their quiet Iowa town.
“What happened happened,” Rick Ramza said. “Just move on.”
Polling has shown that many Republicans still express doubts about the validity of the 2020 election. Fifty-five percent of Republican-leaning voters said they felt President Biden’s win was due only to voter fraud, while 28 percent said he won fair and square, according to a Monmouth University poll released in mid-December. The same survey showed that 55 percent of Republican voters said someone who accepted Biden as legitimately elected could be considered a good Republican, while 35 percent said such a person could not. A November Marquette Law School poll found that half of Republicans said they were confident that votes were accurately cast and counted in the 2022 election.
Iowa is poised to play an influential role in 2024 as the first-in-the-nation caucus state on the Republican side. Boldfaced names are set to descend on the state in the coming weeks, including former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley, who plans to announce Wednesday that she is running for president. Other potential candidates such as Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and former vice president Mike Pence have also scheduled visits.
Jeff Kaufmann, chairman of the Republican Party of Iowa, said that “election integrity” is “not a burning issue for Iowans,” yet he heard people asking Lake about it at her stop Friday at a historic confectionery store in eastern Iowa. Kaufmann and other Iowa GOP leaders said their caucus-goers will turn out to events like Lake’s meet-and-greets because they are excited when new faces come to town.
“She’s a rabble-rouser,” said Craig Robinson, a Republican political consultant in Des Moines. “I don’t think anyone expects Kari Lake to come in and give a thoughtful speech on foreign policy. She’s going to provide a lot of red meat and get people talking.”
Lake instructed her audiences to ask major Republicans who plan to visit the state in the near future about election security. Former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele said Lake’s visit is a distraction that Haley, Scott and others will have to respond to, detracting from their discussions about policy.
“The party needs to get serious about its future,” Steele said. “If it thinks it is going to be competitive, it cannot entertain stupidity and denialism. If it doesn’t want to be competitive, wallow in the mud with Kari Lake.”
Yet Lake remains an intriguing political figure to many Republicans. Many of those who turned out to her events chanted Trump’s name and cheered when she echoed his rhetoric. As a candidate last year, Lake ran on Trump’s false claims about 2020 and won his support in the GOP primary. Some said they attended her events because they were curious to hear if she might hint at her next political steps.
Lake has affirmed that she will take a court case accusing election officials of malfeasance as far as it will go after it was rejected by an Arizona judge. Meanwhile, she has been appearing at GOP events across the country and was selected to be a featured speaker at the Conservative Political Action Conference’s Ronald Reagan Dinner next month.
Lake said she is supporting Trump for president in 2024. As for the possibility of running for the Senate next year, she has said she would consider mounting a campaign, although she remains focused for now on the court challenge she has filed to dispute her defeat in Arizona last year.
During her events in Iowa, Lake criticized the news media, which she said had not fairly covered her “perfect campaign.” And she mocked strategists who had warned her to stay away from topics such as covid-19, masking and the 2020 election.
“Whatever you do, don’t talk about stolen elections,” she echoed from her conversations with “political types.” “And I said: ‘Well, those are important issues right now. Those are things we’ve got to talk about.’ And so I just took all of those rules, and I threw them in the circular file.”
Lake nodded to her local ties during the trip. She attended high school in Eldridge — near Bettendorf — and went to the University of Iowa, where she studied journalism. At Friday’s event here, some attendees knew her father, a coach and teacher at an area high school.
Austin Bayliss drove from nearby Washington County to Friday’s event to get a live look at the candidate he had watched in YouTube videos Lake’s campaign posted of her feuding with the press.
“I like a fighter,” said Bayliss, a Trump supporter. But he said he didn’t understand Republicans’ doubts about mail-in voting. He had volunteered with Trump’s campaign in 2016 to register Republicans for mail-in ballots, and had hoped to hear Lake speak about how the party could improve absentee voting. She did not touch on that.
“We’ll need to get used to losing if that’s what we’re doing,” Bayliss said, lamenting GOP efforts to cast doubts about mailed ballots.
Bryon Schneider, a 50-year-old electrician, said he had followed Lake when she announced her run for governor and that he admired her for speaking about closing the U.S.-Mexico border, because he disliked that some undocumented immigrants get construction jobs. If her court case didn’t prevail, he hoped she might run for Senate so his party could take control of Congress.
“What she’s looking for is what we’re looking for,” he said.
Emily Guskin in Washington contributed to this report.