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Trump-backed Kari Lake gets a hand from an unlikely source in Arizona: Democrats

The effort to call attention to Karrin Taylor Robson's past donations to Democrats mirrors the party's efforts to meddle in other key GOP primaries across the country.
Image: Kari Lake
Kari Lake at a rally for former President Donald Trump in Florence, Ariz., on Jan. 15.Mario Tama / Getty Images file

TUCSON, Ariz. — Kari Lake watched her lead narrow in the polls and big players in Arizona’s Republican establishment coalesce around her top rival weeks before the state’s Aug. 2 primary for governor.

So Democrats stepped in.

The state party, in an email blast this week, thanked her opponent, Karrin Taylor Robson, for past donations she made to Democratic candidates. The move was quickly interpreted as another example of Democrats’ meddling in midterm election primaries to help draw the general election opponent believed to offer the easier matchup in November — in this case Lake, an election denier endorsed by former President Donald Trump.

“As the Republican primary for governor continues to stir toxic infighting, the Arizona Democratic Party will always be grateful for Robson’s longtime support in helping elect Democrats up and down the ballot, including this November,” Josselyn Berry, a spokesperson for the state party, said in a quotation tacked on to the bottom of the email.

Garret Lewis, a conservative radio host who opened for Lake at her rally here Tuesday, made it a point to refer to the news release, provoking loud cheers from the audience of several hundred.

“Who didn’t see it? You people need to listen more. But do you want to hear it again?” he said as the audience let out another approving roar. “The Arizona Democratic Party put out a press release thanking Karrin for donating thousands and thousands of dollars to Democrat candidates so they can win their races for several years.”

It’s not clear whether Democrats will spend money to amplify the attack on TV, as they have in other races across the country. The Democratic Governors Association has yet to do so. Berry, who responded Thursday after this story published, said the state party is "not spending any resources in the primary."

"Our press release was intended to highlight the fact that both Lake and Robson are not who they say they are," Berry told NBC News in an email. "Despite Robson spinning herself as a political outsider, she has a long history of being an Arizona insider and we simply think Arizona voters deserve to know the truth about her past." 

But the missive also signals how aggressively Democrats are engaging in GOP primaries this year. In next week’s GOP primary for governor in Maryland, for example, the Democratic Governors Association has outspent term-limited Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s preferred successor with messaging that could boost another Trump-backed candidate.

“Just like Democrats are meddling in GOP primaries across the country, they’re trying desperately to boost Kari Lake in Arizona because they prefer to run against her in November,” Matthew Benson, a Taylor Robson spokesman, said in a statement. “The Democrats aren’t dumb; they’ve seen the polling and know Karrin Taylor Robson’s conservative record and broad coalition will be unbeatable in the general election.”

Arizona, which President Joe Biden won narrowly in 2020, is a top Trump target as he considers seeking the White House again. He has prioritized installing friendly governors and officeholders who would be in place to oversee the 2024 election. Lake has embraced Trump’s debunked theories about election fraud, and she even suggested at her event this week in Tucson that Taylor Robson and her allies might be plotting to steal the nomination for governor, pointing to polls showing a close race.

Asked about the Democrats’ news release after her rally Tuesday, Lake, a former TV news anchor in Phoenix, chuckled and said someone had sent it her way. She didn’t directly address why she thought Arizona Democrats were offering her a helping hand, but she turned her fire on Taylor Robson, saying she was spending millions on “dishonest ads attacking me for a small donation to a Democrat 15 years ago,” when Taylor Robson herself had made past donations to Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz.

Taylor Robson and allies have pointed to Lake’s past support for former President Barack Obama and her having briefly registered as a Democrat. Lake donated to Obama’s first presidential campaign.

Meanwhile, Gallego has for months been tweeting about Taylor Robson’s past financial backing — a fact Lake has touted.

“We call him the AOC of Arizona,” Lake said, referring to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.

So far this year, Democrats have applied similar tactics — in many cases aimed at boosting far-right candidates whose appeal might be limited in a general election — in key races from coast to coast. The results have been mixed.

The party got its preferred opponent in Pennsylvania, where Doug Mastriano emerged from a crowded Republican primary for governor after Democrat Josh Shapiro aired a TV ad reinforcing Mastriano’s pro-Trump record. Mastriano, a state senator who had advocated for seating an alternate slate of Trump-friendly electors after the 2020 election and was at the Capitol before the Jan. 6 insurrection, started pulling out to a lead before the ad aired. 

And in Illinois, Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the Democratic Governors Association spent big money to make sure Richard Irvin — seen as a tougher November opponent — didn’t win last month’s GOP primary.

But in Colorado’s GOP Senate primary, a Democratic group’s ads questioning Joe O’Dea’s conservative credentials didn’t stop O’Dea, a moderate businessman, from prevailing over Ron Hanks, one of the state’s leading election deniers.

The practice has played out in House primaries, too. Among the examples: House Majority PAC, aligned with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., sought to boost former Fresno City Council member Chris Mathys, who backed Trump’s electoral falsehoods, over Rep. David Valadao, R-Calif., who voted to impeach him, in California’s 22nd Congressional District. Valadao won the primary.

“Democrat donors should be furious Nancy Pelosi’s super PAC wasted hundreds of thousands of their dollars trying to elect candidates they claim are a threat to democracy,” a national Republican strategist told NBC News.

Maryland’s primary Tuesday will offer the next test. There, the Democratic Governors Association has spent more money on TV than either of the leading GOP candidates, according to the ad-tracking firm AdImpact. The group's ads could boost Rep. Dan Cox, another election denier endorsed by Trump. While the ads on their face appear to criticize Cox for being too conservative, the timing of the big spending — as in other states — suggests an effort to reach hard-edged primary voters. Cox faces the more moderate Kelly Schulz, who has been endorsed by Hogan, the popular outgoing governor.

Doug Mayer, a senior adviser to Schulz, said her campaign has had to push back forcefully against the Democratic meddling. Polls have shown a close race between Cox and Schulz.

“They have reinvented the term ‘hypocrisy,’” Mayer said. “There’s a certain level of strategy and tactics that are acceptable. But what you don’t get to do is live on Twitter and on MSNBC as the defenders of democracy and then actively promote someone that you believe in your heart of hearts is a threat to this nation.”

Sam Newton, a spokesperson for the Democratic Governors Association, defended the strategy as an opportunity to educate voters about “extremism and cowardice” of Republicans who echo Trump’s lies and conspiracy theories about the 2020 election. 

“It’s time for the GOP to look in the mirror and have a reckoning with itself, instead of trying to find someone else to blame,” Newton said.

But not all Democrats are aligned on the strategy, and some acknowledge Mayer’s concern as valid — that elevating fringe candidates could undercut their argument about the mortal threat such Republicans pose to democracy.

Michigan state Sen. Mallory McMorrow, a Democrat who went viral on social media and gained a national following after she framed Republican colleagues as hateful and extreme on cultural issues such as LGBTQ rights, said she didn’t think her party should seek to elevate Republicans they see as less electable in the fall.

"I think the stronger argument that we as Democrats have to make is no matter which candidate it is, it’s all nonsense," McMorrow said, adding that any candidate who emerges from a primary will seek to elevate Trump's election falsehoods or "the fake culture wars."

"It’s just trying to get people so angry and divided, and that’s not who we are," she added. "So I think that’s the better case we have to make versus trying to figure out who’s the worst candidate to put up."

Allan Smith reported from Tucson. Henry J. Gomez reported from Cleveland.