In a last major test of Donald Trump’s Republican power this year, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey on Thursday endorsed a potential successor who’s going up against a candidate backed by the former president.
Ducey’s defiance of Trump in supporting Karrin Taylor Robson over Kari Lake marks the third swing-state governor’s race — following primaries in Georgia and Pennsylvania — in which Republican establishment figures have resisted Trump and his preferred candidates.
The fight in Arizona, as in the two other swing states, is as much about relitigating the 2020 election, which Trump lost, as it is about exerting his influence in the GOP as he weighs another White House bid.
“The Arizona governor’s primary is the purest race in the country for showing MAGA versus the Republican establishment,” said Steve Bannon, who was a top Trump White House adviser. “This is a proxy war on, really, 2024.”
Ducey made his endorsement a week after one of the other establishment figures in the race, former Rep. Matt Salmon, dropped out of the primary and threw his support behind Taylor Robson out of fear that Lake would win on Aug. 2 and prove unelectable beyond the Republican base in November. State Senate President Karen Fann and national figures like former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia also support Taylor Robson, a real estate developer who has been catching up to Lake in the polls.
Former Vice President Mike Pence could be next to offer his support, according to an adviser who wasn’t authorized to publicly disclose their private conversations. Pence is a friend of Ducey’s, and both men were attacked by Trump and his supporters for failing to help overturn the 2020 election based on the falsehood of widespread, rampant fraud.
A Pence endorsement of Taylor Robson would lay bare the presidential primary stakes in the governor’s race and shine a spotlight on the personal drama between Trump and his estranged former running mate, who is considering a White House bid of his own. A Pence endorsement would also come with a dose of payback: Lake criticized Pence last month on Newsmax for his visit to the U.S.-Mexico border and his refusal to help overturn the 2020 election.
“I don’t think he’s got a snowball’s chance in Phoenix to win,” Lake said of Pence’s potential presidential bid. “There’s a lot of people [who] are disappointed at Mike Pence for his actions on Jan. 6.”
Pence’s adviser called Lake’s remarks “nonsensical.”
For months, Lake, a former TV news anchor, looked the sure favorite in the primary. She had Trump’s backing, and she built a lead in the polls while repeating the unfounded claim that the 2020 election was stolen. She also called for prosecuting perceived conspirators and said lawmakers should go so far as to decertify the election.
But the state of the race changed dramatically over the last few weeks as Taylor Robson spent millions of dollars on ads and began consolidating support from a GOP establishment hoping to exert its own influence on the race.
The race already was one of the most important primaries this year, with the winner likely to take on Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs in a state that played a pivotal role in deciding the 2020 election and where the governor will play a role in certifying the 2024 results.
A Taylor Robson adviser, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the dynamics of the race candidly, said Ducey’s endorsement is certain to boost the campaign.
“It is obviously a prominent signal not only to voters in the state, but to Republican influencers nationwide,” the adviser said. “And so I think you’re going to see more endorsements follow.”
Taylor Robson backers hope Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — the second-most-popular Republican in the nation behind Trump and a potential 2024 presidential candidate — gets involved, as well.
“I think every campaign would like to have Governor DeSantis’ endorsement,” the Taylor Robson adviser said. “So there’s no question about that. We would welcome it, obviously.”
But those familiar with DeSantis’ thinking say he is unlikely to wade into the Arizona race, especially because he doesn’t want to fuel public speculation about his White House aspirations.
Early last year, however, DeSantis became quietly involved in the race when he shepherded Salmon — a friend of the governor’s from their days in Congress, when they helped launch the House Freedom Caucus — to meet with Trump at his Mar-a-Lago club in Florida in the hope of securing an endorsement, said two sources with direct knowledge of the meeting.
The sources said Salmon felt that the Trump endorsement would happen but that Trump’s attitude changed when Salmon refused to say the 2020 election had been stolen. Lake had no such reservations, the sources said.
Salmon’s departure has been a boon for Taylor Robson. Recent surveys have found a tight race between her and Lake. An OH Predictive Insights poll conducted after Salmon dropped out found Lake leading Taylor Robson — 40 percent to 35 percent — but with many respondents still undecided. A Moore Information Group survey commissioned by Salmon just before his exit found Taylor Robson statistically locked with Lake in a hypothetical head-to-head race.
Ducey endorsed Taylor Robson after he grew increasingly annoyed at what he perceived as disingenuous political cheap shots from Lake, who was a registered Democrat during the Obama era. He began planning to endorse Taylor Robson after Salmon left the race — and only if she showed momentum, according to those who had discussed the plans with the governor.
Ducey timed the endorsement to coincide with the kickoff of early voting, when the most reliable voters are known to cast their ballots by mail.
Ross Trumble, a Lake campaign spokesman, said Ducey’s endorsement “is proof that Karrin Taylor’s claims to be a conservative outsider are a lie.”
“Taylor Robson represents a continuation of the policies that have enriched insiders at the expense of everyday Arizonans for decades,” Trumble said. “Kari Lake is the true outsider in this race who will be a visionary leader for Arizona.”
Ducey is the head of the Republican Governors Association and someone who has clashed with Trump, and his involvement in the race led to immediate speculation that the organization he heads might spend millions in the final month of the primary to boost Taylor Robson, but a spokesperson for the association issued a flat denial. Two of the sources familiar with Ducey’s thinking said he might ask governors association donors to help fund a separate political committee on Taylor Robson’s behalf, but they said no decision has been made.
Trump’s political operation, however, has heard the speculation and might chip in money to help boost Lake in return, said an adviser who wasn’t authorized to discuss strategy publicly.
Trump “is watching Arizona closely, and he’s committed to ensuring his endorsed candidate wins,” the adviser said. Trump called on Arizonans on Wednesday to cast early ballots for Lake, writing, “The people of Arizona have a chance to get a truly great Governor, unlike the one you have right now.”
Taylor Robson, however, has been a major Trump backer. Her campaign has noted that she raised more than $1 million for Trump’s campaigns, while her husband was a six-figure donor.
Lake is seeking to put the 2020 election center stage in differentiating herself from Taylor Robson, who has said that President Joe Biden’s victory was unfair but hasn’t gone so far as to say the election was stolen.
At a debate last week, Lake called on the three other candidates onstage to raise their hands if they thought that the election was corrupt and that it had stolen. Only Taylor Robson kept her hand down.
Lake — who has backing from MAGA and far-right influencers like MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, former Trump administration officials Peter Navarro and Michael Flynn, Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona and Arizona state Sen. Wendy Rogers — has also focused on the influx of undocumented immigrants crossing the southern border, saying she would declare an invasion on her first day in office and militarize the border.
Taylor Robson, who, like Lake, has focused on the border and said she will “finish the wall,” promotes herself as a candidate who is “more than talk” and has sought to paint Lake as a phony who is saying whatever it takes to get elected, calling her “Fake Lake.”
“Arizona voters are waking up to the fact that I’m the conservative with a track record of results, and Kari Lake is an actress playing a part,” she said in a statement to NBC News after Ducey’s endorsement. “Voters won’t be fooled.”
The establishment’s coalescing around Taylor Robson contrasts with another hotly contested governor’s contest. In Pennsylvania, Republicans waited too long to back an alternative to Doug Mastriano, a far-right state senator who was outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and cruised to a primary victory in May over a splintered field.
Mastriano, however, now faces a revolt from some establishment Republicans. In Georgia, another swing state that Biden won in 2020, Trump fared worse in the 2022 primary when his top picks to unseat the Republican governor, attorney general and secretary of state were all defeated.
“Of course there are echoes with Pennsylvania: Lake and Mastriano are cut from the same fabric,” said Chris Baker, who ran a political committee boosting Salmon before he dropped out of the race.
Like Mastriano, Lake has a dedicated hard-core following. Her opponents’ negative paid media campaigns, while relatively meager, have yet to dent her standing as the front-runner.
“If anything, Lake is a more skilled version of a Trump candidate than Mastriano,” Baker said. “She’s good on TV. She’s very articulate. She can deliver a message. She is effectively Mastriano with great communications skills.”
Bannon, meanwhile, suggested that if Lake wins the primary and defeats Hobbs in the fall, she will “definitely get a hard look in 2024” to be Trump’s running mate should he run.
But that’s still a ways away. Of the battle shaping up between Lake and Taylor Robson, Bannon said: “It’s going to be a fight all the way till the end.”