PHOENIX — In the homestretch of Arizona’s high-stakes contest for governor, Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs has refused to debate her Republican opponent, MAGA firebrand Kari Lake, while also maintaining a low-key campaign schedule and facing being outspent on the airwaves in the closing weeks of the race.
As Lake barnstorms the state, some supporters, including Democrats and anti-Lake Republicans — a key constituency Hobbs needs to win over in a state where voter registrations are essentially split into thirds among Democrats, Republicans and independents — have expressed concern.
In interviews, they point to Hobbs’ refusal to debate Lake as an unforced error, a move that has provided Lake, a leading election denier, with ammunition to repeatedly attack Hobbs as too “weak” to serve as governor, and they’re expressing a desire for her to be more of a robust presence on the campaign trail.
“You wonder as a candidate if you’re doing everything you should be doing,” said Sandra Kennedy, an elected member of the state Corporation Commission who chaired President Joe Biden’s winning 2020 campaign in Arizona. “You don’t want to wait till the day after the election and think, ‘Would I have done it another way?’”
“I can’t say to you that she should have done or shouldn’t have done certain things,” Kennedy added. “She’s the candidate. But if I were the candidate for governor, I would debate, and I would want the people of Arizona to know what my platform is. And I would lay it out — lay it out in a way so they will know the difference between me and Kari Lake.”
The stakes of the race are huge. Arizona presents perhaps the greatest chance for an election-denying candidate tied closely to Trump to win a swing-state governor’s race this fall, with the winner having a direct role in the state’s certification of the 2024 presidential vote.
In recent weeks, surveys from CBS News, CNN and Fox News suggest that Hobbs and Lake are in a toss-up race, with each result falling within the margin of error. Those same surveys suggest Sen. Mark Kelly, a Democrat, holds slightly larger leads over Republican nominee Blake Masters in the state’s critical Senate race.
National and state Democrats working on the race said any concern over Hobbs’ campaign was “overblown.” These Democrats, who requested anonymity to speak candidly on the race, said any disparity between Hobbs and Kelly in polling can be attributed to his significantly larger war chest, higher name ID with voters and Lake benefitting from her decades as a TV news anchor in Phoenix.
They remain confident that Hobbs, boosted by recent court rulings on statewide abortion policy, as well as Lake’s refusal to moderate her stances on abortion and other issues, will be able to win. Hobbs has increasingly centered her pitch on abortion rights after a state court allowed for the enforcement of a near total ban that originated in the 19th century — and was later put on hold by an appeals court — and the enactment of a 15-week ban following the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade.
Asked about the concerns, Hobbs said in an interview that she was confident in her campaign.
“I am out here,” she said. “I’m fighting.”
Speaking with NBC News after addressing the Arizona Women’s March on Saturday, she said she is working to build statewide coalitions ahead of the vote.
“We are going to win,” she added. “And I will accept the result if I don’t.”
Hobbs, as secretary of state, gained national attention for defending Arizona’s election in the wake of former President Donald Trump’s narrow loss and subsequent campaign to overturn the results. But she has studiously avoided her opponent on the trail. While Lake’s campaign schedule has been tightly packed with events, Hobbs has maintained a more modest presence.
Of the pro-Trump election deniers running for key positions across the country, Lake is widely seen as having the best shot at winning a swing-state governor’s seat and has been described as the “Leading Lady“ of Trumpism.
Donna Durand, who chairs a Democratic Party organization west of Phoenix, said she is “anxious” over Hobbs’ decision not to debate Lake, adding the campaign has been difficult to coordinate with in terms of setting up events.
“I feel the frustrations,” she said, adding, “I’ve been contacting Hobbs’ team since June. And my clubs out here have been contacting the Hobbs team since January. And we just get the same answer — either crickets or, ‘Sorry, we can’t do this right now.’”
She stressed that she still supported the Democratic candidate. “I don’t take anything for granted,” Durand said, “and neither should Katie Hobbs.”
Asked about her schedule, the Hobbs’ campaign pointed to two campaign tours the candidate embarked on in August and September, as well as a trio of public events she participated in last week. They also pointed to recent media appearances and her record fundraising total for an Arizona Democrat, and said Hobbs has made a number of phone banking and canvassing stops.
Lake’s campaign told NBC News that she held 10 public events last week, with a spokesperson saying her schedule is “packed to the gills.” The Hobbs campaign insisted that while Lake may be more visible, her events are geared to the existing right-wing base, and not turning out critical swing voters.
“I’ve said this to the Hobbs people: ‘Throw a punch, and I’m there. Fight, fight, and I’m there. Lead,’” Wes Gullett, a former senior adviser to the late Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and an anti-Lake Republican who supports Hobbs, said. “But she doesn’t.”
When it comes to her refusal to debate Lake, Hobbs said that doing so would only give a platform to conspiracy theories that would not be beneficial to voters, citing Lake’s performance in the GOP primary debate in which she asked participants to raise their hands if they thought Arizona “had a corrupt, stolen election.”
But Hobbs also passed on participating in a debate during the Democratic primary.
“I’d love nothing more [than] to have a substantive conversation about the issues, how we differ and how we would govern,” Hobbs said. “That cannot happen on a stage with Kari Lake, who has shown she’s more interested in making a spectacle than anything else.”
Lake has seized on Hobbs’ refusal to debate and centered it during recent campaign appearances. She even disrupted the start of a forum where both were supposed to appear separately last week, asking that Hobbs come out and debate her, before agreeing to leave the audience until it was her turn to speak.
Speaking to reporters after an event with South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, a Republican, in Scottsdale last week, Lake again sharply criticized Hobbs for eschewing a statewide debate.
“[S]he’s trying to say it’s because I’m a conspiracy theorist,” Lake told reporters. “Then show up on the debate stage and call me out for goodness sakes.”
“We need a strong governor, not somebody who’s afraid to debate, not someone who’s afraid to even look at me,” she said.
In an interview, the Democratic secretary of state nominee, Adrian Fontes, said he was confident in how Hobbs was navigating the race. Fontes did participate in a debate televised statewide with his GOP opponent, Mark Finchem, another vocal election denier.
“The volatility of her opponent is really breathtaking,” Fontes said of Hobbs, adding, “I trust her judgment on this one.”
Speaking with NBC News after addressing a “get out to vote” event at Arizona State University, Democratic National Committee Chairman Jaime Harrison said he “couldn’t ask for any better” candidates than Hobbs and Kelly.
“Part of what Mark has over Katie is that he had a 2020 race that was one of the hottest races in the country, where tens of millions of dollars was poured in,” Harrison said in an interview Wednesday. “So name ID is there. Katie’s running against Kari, who’s been on everybody’s television for a long time.”
Harrison said he believes both Democratic candidates will win because Arizonans are “not looking for the next Trumpian-type fools.”
Hobbs has yet to appear on the campaign trail with Kelly or Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, who has kept her distance from state Democrats. The Kelly campaign told NBC News the senator does not have any imminent plans to campaign with Hobbs.
Resources could be a concern in the homestretch. Since the primary, Hobbs-aligned forces have outspent Lake and her allies by about $2 million, and the Democratic Governors Association has so far transferred at least $4.75 million to the Arizona Democratic Party to boost Hobbs. But, as of Tuesday, Lake and her allies have booked more than $6 million in advertising through Election Day, while Hobbs’ bookings are at least $4.9 million, according to AdImpact tracking.
While Hobbs has outraised Lake overall, her haul pales in comparison to the fundraising totals from fellow swing-state Democratic candidates for governor like state Attorney General Josh Shapiro in Pennsylvania and Govs. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan and Tony Evers of Wisconsin.
Fontes said Arizona Democrats are often disregarded when compared to Democrats in other swing states because of Republicans’ lengthy history of winning in the state. With early voting set to begin Wednesday, he added time is of the essence for supporters to get off the sidelines.
“So if folks are going to pay attention to Arizona,” he said, “they need to start doing it now.”
Democrats told NBC News they are not — and have not been — discounting Lake’s candidacy, with one national Democrat working on the race describing her as “so polished and smooth and it takes you a second to suddenly realize what sort of unhinged things she’s saying.”
For all of Lake’s skill on the trail, Democrats are hopeful that her refusal to moderate her views will boost Hobbs in the purple-trending state that delivered Biden a narrow victory in 2020. Lake, who has falsely claimed Biden is an “illegitimate” president and has called abortion “murder,” has framed her campaign pitch more around crime, education, immigration and the economy in recent weeks.
At Trump’s rally in the state Sunday, she made clear she was still fully aligned with him: “I have some of these know-nothing consultants who say, ‘You know, you really need to back away from President Trump right now.’ And I say to them, ‘Put down Hunter’s [Biden] crack pipe right now.’”
Days earlier, Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., urged Arizonans during a forum at Arizona State not to vote for Lake or Mark Finchem, the GOP candidate for secretary of state, because of their refusal to accept election results, saying if she lived in Arizona, she would back Hobbs and Fontes.
Chuck Coughlin, an Arizona Republican pollster, said there are some “traditional Republican voters that are going, ‘No f—ing way, I’m not going there. I’m not voting for Lake. I’m not voting for Finchem. I’m not voting for Masters.’”
Those voters could help Hobbs get over the hump. But Coughlin says her campaign “has yet to find its footing as to how to portray who she is.”
Rusty Bowers, the Republican speaker of the Arizona House who lost a state Senate primary after testifying before the House Committee probing the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol and defied Trump’s wishes to overturn the election, said he won’t vote for Lake, or Finchem, because of their “juvenile” rejection of the 2020 election.
But while he is voting for Fontes, Bowers said he won’t vote for Hobbs because she was one of the more liberal members of the state Senate and will instead write-in a gubernatorial pick.
“That she would not debate her is puzzling to me,” he said of Hobbs’ decision to avoid sharing a stage with Lake rather than use the platform to highlight her falsehoods about the previous presidential election. “Just pound, pound, pound on 2020.”