QUEEN CREEK, Ariz. — The closing days of Arizona’s close, contentious GOP primary for governor have turned into an all-out slugfest over which candidate is the most authentically Republican.
Kari Lake, a former newscaster backed by former President Donald Trump, says opponent Karrin Taylor Robson’s unwillingness to fully embrace Trump’s stolen election lie makes her the RINO, or “Republican in name only.” Taylor Robson, a real estate developer who worked in former President Ronald Reagan’s White House, says it’s Lake who’s the fake, given her more recent turn to hard-line Trumpism.
While it’s hardly new for a GOP primary to feature allegations of being a “RINO,” or for candidates to litigate issues of political authenticity, the contest provides one of the purest tests yet of how highly Republican voters prize fealty to Trump and allegiance to his claims of a stolen election. More broadly, the contest will reveal who can credibly lay claim to the mantle of “Republican” in a party where Trump is still the most dominant and influential figure.
It’s a debate playing out not just in Arizona, but nationwide and tested in primaries spanning from state Senate contests to congressional races. Here in the Grand Canyon State, one that has reliably elected Republicans to statewide office for decades but in which Democrats have recently turned their fortunes around, how the conservative mantle is defined could go a long way in determining which party controls the governor’s mansion in what is now a critical presidential swing state.
Former Rep. Matt Salmon, an Arizona Republican who ran for governor but dropped out and endorsed Taylor Robson last month, said after a recent Taylor Robson campaign event here that Lake and Taylor Robson are both talking about similar issues like undocumented immigration, inflation and supporting law enforcement on the stump, but Lake is building her case for being a true Republican solely off of her stance on 2020, hoping voters ignore other contradictions from her past.
“But what people are looking for is, ‘OK, who’s the real deal?’” Salmon, a co-founder of the House Freedom Caucus, said. “And you got one candidate that says that they had a born-again experience, a come-to-Jesus moment, and now is the most conservative thing since sliced bread. The problem is, you can’t find one conservative thing that candidate ever did before she announced her governorship.”
Whether Lake or Taylor Robson is successful in convincing more voters that they are the true Republican will have major implications for both Trump’s standing in the party and his continued efforts to overhaul how elections are conducted in one of the most pivotal presidential swing states. The Arizona primary is the latest in a series of high-stakes gubernatorial contests taking place in states he needs to win in 2024 and where he has sought to make 2020 the defining issue of the campaign. So far he’s had mixed results.
But none of his endorsed candidates have campaigned quite like Lake, who has threatened to arrest election officials, trashed leading state Republicans and suggested her race might be rigged before votes are even counted. She appears to have built up a dedicated base of support among Trump’s most faithful, which has carried her out to an edge in the polls. Her supporters rave about how closely she emulates the former president, they appreciate the extremity of her rhetoric and love how someone they remember watching for years on the local news is now bashing the press daily.
“I think Kari is a fabulous candidate,” Steve Bannon, the former Trump White House adviser found guilty Friday on two counts of contempt of Congress after refusing to provide information to the House Jan. 6 committee, told NBC News before his conviction. “She’s got a national following now. The reason is, given her years of television, she can articulate the principles of MAGA as well as anybody.”
But her standing as a conservative has been increasingly called into question as years-old social media clips and photos that contradict positions she now takes have surfaced. Taylor Robson calls her a “fake” and an “actress.”
Taylor Robson, who polling suggests is within striking distance, is winning over more traditional Republicans in the state and has the backing of Republican Gov. Doug Ducey and former Vice President Mike Pence. (Pence and Trump are holding dueling Arizona rallies for their preferred candidates Friday.) Her path to victory is twofold: convincing enough voters who worry Lake won’t govern as she promises to come join her side while maintaining a more moderate base that is worried Lake will.
For her balancing act and slew of endorsements from prominent Republicans who broke with Trump over 2020, Lake has blasted Taylor Robson as a “RINO” and “coward.”
“That’s going to be a fundamental question,” said Sean Noble, an Arizona GOP strategist who is not working on the governor’s race, of the authenticity factor. He said Lake is benefiting in this realm from her experience on camera and lack of experience in politics.
A survey earlier this month conducted by HighGround, an Arizona consulting firm, found Lake with a 3.7-point edge over Taylor Robson, within the margin of error of 4.9 percentage points. The survey found Taylor Robson winning over independent voters roughly 2 to 1, though they make up only a small portion of the electorate. But the survey came after Taylor Robson and allies blanketed the airwaves with millions in ads hitting Lake, suggesting Taylor Robson might not have more room to grow. Arizona campaign finance records show Taylor Robson has spent more than $16.4 million on the race while Lake has spent about $3.1 million.
At her Tucson rally last week before a crowd of a few hundred who packed into a local bar, Lake talked about circumventing the federal government to deport undocumented migrants from her state, finishing Trump’s border wall and generally not cooperating with federal authorities. She also suggested Taylor Robson might be trying to “steal” the primary election because she has promoted polls showing a tight race.
“My opponent, the RINO, is trying to tell people that she’s doing well, she’s up in the polls, which is, I guess if you’re counting people who are, you know, dead people,” Lake said. “But she’s not up at the polls. It makes me think they might be trying to set the stage for another steal.”
She went on to criticize Taylor Robson for characterizing the 2020 vote as “unfair” in a recent televised debate.
“You know, my vote was stolen. That’s a little more than unfair,” Lake told the crowd. “What’s unfair is that they’re trying to shove another RINO McCain/Ducey clone down our throats. And that’s unfair.”
There is no evidence that the 2020 vote in Arizona, or any other state, did not reflect the will of voters. In Arizona, ballot reviews, including a partisan undertaking blessed by the GOP-led state Senate, only affirmed Biden’s win. Earlier this year, Arizona’s Republican attorney general released a report finding no mass fraud in Maricopa County, where Trump and allies focused their efforts and allegations. Last week, a group of conservative attorneys, former senators and former judges issued a 72-page report categorically rebutting each fraud claim Trump made in court, including those made in Arizona.
In an interview with NBC News, Taylor Robson said Lake foreshadowing that she might not accept the results should she lose is “dangerous for Arizona; it’s dangerous for the country, because it undermines our government, our democracy.”
It’s “reprehensible, quite frankly,” Taylor Robson said, arguing that it risks causing some Republican voters to steer clear of the polls.
To her supporters, Lake’s aggressive demeanor and willingness to seemingly say anything are part of the appeal. It’s what makes her seem authentic to them.
“I just really like how she handles everybody that tries to come out with some kind of fake story about her or tries to call her out,” Carrie Jackson, a Lake supporter, told NBC News outside of her Tucson rally. “And she doesn’t even think about it. It just comes out naturally.”
Carol Van Kley, an 81-year-old Republican from Mesa, said in an interview that Lake’s experience on TV was a huge plus though she knows "a lot of people" leaning toward Taylor Robson.
“We just kind of liked her,” she said of Lake. “We used to watch her on the news all the time.”
But in recent weeks, Taylor Robson and other conservatives have highlighted a number of past positions and statements that don’t line up with how Lake is campaigning now. A donor to former President Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign, Lake, who has repeatedly cast doubt on the legitimacy of her state’s elections, expressed support for voting by cell phone in 2016.
Now attacking “the transgender movement” and “woke gender activists,” Lake previously offered sympathetic views of gender transition as a reporter, calling one story “inspiring.” And though she has blasted drag performers as dangerous for kids, a local drag queen said Lake allowed her daughter to attend a drag show. (Lake’s campaign said the drag queen was performing as an impersonator rather than in drag.)
Lake’s campaign declined to comment for this story.
Ken Dixon, a Republican-aligned independent voter in Mesa who supports Trump and doesn’t trust the 2020 results, was leaning toward voting for Lake in the Aug. 2 primary. Then he did more research, finding those contradictions.
“I know Trump has endorsed Kari Lake, but either there’s ulterior motives to that or she’s really a RINO,” Dixon said.
He’s backing Taylor Robson now.
“The only thing that [Lake] wants to talk about, the only thing she wants to talk about is what secured her the Trump endorsement — that the election was stolen and that she would de-certify,” Salmon said, adding, “what bothers me more than anything about this woman is that it’s all a snow job.”
At a Taylor Robson event last week at a farmhouse in Queen Creek, the candidate also spoke of her plans to crack down on border crossings, tighten up election administration and stop “woke curriculum.” She pledged to try to defund any city that slashed police funding or offered sanctuary to undocumented immigrants from federal authorities.
With a boost from Arizona Democrats, Lake has taken aim at Taylor Robson for her past donations to state Democrats. But much of Lake’s criticism of her rival centers on her not calling the election stolen. And at this rally, the first audience question Taylor Robson got was on how she would “ensure fair elections.”
“So the one thing I think we can all agree on is the wrong guy’s in the White House,” Taylor Robson said. She repeated an argument that has become popular with conservatives that pandemic-inspired rule changes and efforts like Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s donations to boost voter turnout tilted the field toward Democrats.
“Every single election, we have to do everything we can to make sure it’s easier to vote and harder to cheat,” Taylor Robson said.
Her supporters feel similarly as Lake’s do about what they see as the leading issues: boosting police, cracking down on border crossings and tamping down on inflation. They just think Lake’s efforts to come across as authentically Trump will make it impossible for her to win this fall.
“It seems like her whole campaign is to align herself as close to Trump as possible, and if you’re a Trump supporter, fine, but I think that’s going to kind of turn off a lot of people,” Ron Leonard, a 54-year-old Republican from Scottsdale, told NBC News.
Taylor Robson argued as much.
“What really matters is electing on Aug. 2 the Republican nominee who has the ability to win in November,” she said in an interview. “And Kari Lake has gone so extreme she has called into question her integrity, her truthfulness. I mean, as I said, she’s fake, phony, an actor. She’s a good actress. That’s not going to carry her through in November, when all eyes are going to be on this state.”