Arizona’s four Republican candidates for governor met onstage Wednesday in the only televised debate of the primary election, what amounted to an hourlong throw down between the contenders.
The back-and-forth, near-constant interruptions and din of candidates speaking over one another prompted one — Kari Lake — to quip at one point: “I feel like I'm on an 'SNL' skit here.”
Candidates Karrin Taylor Robson, Scott Neely, Paola Tulliani Zen and Lake gathered to make their pitch to voters, who in the Aug. 2 primary will choose their nominee to replace Republican Gov. Doug Ducey, who is term-limited and cannot run again.
Ted Simons, debate moderator and host of "Arizona Horizon" on Arizona PBS, briefly mentioned a last-minute change that left him as the only moderator before diving into the hourlong question-and-answer session that covered the border, water, education and abortion issues.
And while the candidates did address some of voters' top concerns, they seemed to take it more as a rare opportunity to attack one another in front of a television audience.
Where do they stand? These candidates for governor could decide the future of Arizona abortion law
The tone of the debate was made clear in the first minutes, when Taylor Robson, the final candidate to deliver an opening statement, attacked Lake, who anchored the nightly news on Fox 10 for two decades.
"We need a conservative fighter," said Taylor Robson, a former developer and former member of the Arizona Board of Regents. "We need a leader with a record of accomplishment, not a career talker with a teleprompter. ... I supported pro-life causes. I fought cancel culture. And I will defend the Second Amendment. These are serious times, we need a serious candidate with a record of accomplishment."
The GOP candidates on education
On education issues, Lake, whose father was a public school teacher, said she would shift salary funds from administrators to teachers.
"If you look at our teachers, and you look at their salary, since 1970, adjusted for inflation — before Joe Biden's hyperinflation — it's flat," Lake said. "They keep using these teachers as political pawns and they never give them the money they deserve."
Taylor Robson said if she is elected, she will ensure "the money follows the kid into the classroom," a reference to her plan supporting universal vouchers for students. Lake, Neely and Tulliani Zen also supported vouchers.
Arizona's next governor is likely to inherit a universal voucher program, as Ducey is expected to soon sign a bill creating the most expansive voucher program in the nation.
Tulliani Zen, a businesswoman known for her La Dolce Vita brand biscotti, said public schools should not be abandoned and said she wanted to do an audit of education spending. Neely, who owns a concrete supply business in Mesa, supported firing administrators in favor of putting more money toward teachers and Lake said teachers should make more than school administrators.
Lake appeared to head for culture war issues in the discussion of education, saying teachers would stay if they were "not teaching nonsense," though it wasn't clear what she was referring to. Her education policy proposal calls for banning so-called critical race theory.
She also accused Taylor Robson of supporting critical race theory while Taylor Robson was on the Board of Regents.
“That is, oh my God, are you kidding?" Taylor Robson replied. "Fake. Lake.”
“We have it on our website," Lake responded, "the same time that you refused to vote our kids out of masks."
“Fake Lake," Taylor Robson shot back again. "I had a two-year battle with the leftists in our universities to get American history and American government required as general education in order to graduate.”
Lake said that under Taylor Robson’s tutelage, Arizona State University — one of three universities under the oversight of the Board of Regents — became “woke.”
But Lake, Taylor Robson said, spent "27 years in the liberal media (where) she learned to twist the truth.”
“I’ve been an honest journalist my whole life," Lake countered.
Arizona is expanding private school: Here’s what we know so far
What candidates would do on water
Simons asked the candidates to address their plans on water, a top issue for Arizona voters, noting that the state Legislature just allocated $1 billion for water issues.
Tulliani Zen said she didn't know enough about a key component of the $1 billion plan, desalination, and said development was going unchecked without considering the state's water supply.
Tulianni Zen said bringing water in from the Mississippi River basin was a "garbage" idea — a nod to a unique piece of Lake's water plan. Lake said she wants to explore desalination of brackish underground water and pipe water in from basins in the Midwest.
"We cannot regulate ourselves out of a drought and we cannot give the ag community the short end of the stick," Lake said. "Whenever things get tough, and we end up taking from them. We’re going to end up with a food crisis.”
Changes ahead: Arizona commits $1B to augment, conserve water supplies
Neely wants to do desalination in Yuma instead of Mexico, as the Ducey administration has suggested it is considering.
"We can desal it in Arizona, create Arizona jobs, not Mexican jobs," Neely said.
Taylor Robson, whose job for the prominent developer DMB Associates was to secure rights to build master-planned communities, declared herself the "only candidate in the race that has nearly 30 years in natural resource management including water issues."
Taylor Robson said she would rely on technology for desalination, cloud seeding and conservation.
2020 election still an issue in 2022
Getting to one issue where the leading candidates diverge, Simons asked Lake why she calls Joe Biden an illegitimate president.
“He lost the election and he shouldn’t be in the White House,” Lake said. “We had a corrupt election. I'd actually like to ask everybody on this stage if they would agree we had a corrupt stolen election? Raise your hand.”
Neely and Tulliani Zen raised their hands, but Taylor Robson did not.
“I’m not going to play your stunt,” Taylor Robson responded.
In the field of candidates, Lake is the most outspoken in her support of Trump and she’s counting on his endorsement carrying her to victory in the primary. Lake cited the state Senate’s ballot review and the film "2000 Mules" as evidence of her belief Trump won in 2020, and claimed no courts had evaluated evidence of fraud.
But the claims made by election deniers have not stood up to any scrutiny: "2000 Mules" was widely debunked. The ballot review found “no substantial differences” between the audit count and official Maricopa County canvass, which the reviewers noted as important because it showed “no reliable evidence that the paper ballots were altered to any material degree.”
More than a dozen cases filed in Arizona after the 2020 election made it to evidentiary stages. One, in which the state Republican Party claimed there were thousands of duplicate ballots and presented a day and a half of evidence, was dismissed by the Arizona Supreme Court, which found the evidence did not “establish any degree of fraud or a sufficient error rate that would undermine the certainty of the election results.”
Taylor Robson, for her part, said the election was unfair, blaming “liberal” judges for last-minute changes to voting rules and the media for biased coverage, among other issues. Taylor Robson was the only candidate to decisively say she would accept the results of the 2022 election, though asked if she would have certified the election in 2020, she didn’t give a direct answer.
“I didn't have the evidence in front of me,” she said. “I’m a lawyer, it’s like acting on a piece of legislation that I haven’t read. I wasn’t sitting there, I wasn’t privy to the information that the governor was submitting.”
As the panel debated the election that happened nearly two years ago, Neely interrupted.
“Kari, you’re part of the election fraud going on in the Republican primary as we speak right now. You’re being propped up and supported by Kelli Ward and the AZ GOP," he said.
Neely has filed a lawsuit against the Arizona Republican Party after it excluded him — and Tulliani Zen — from a planned candidate debate in June.
A party spokeswoman said at the time the debate would be canceled, but ultimately Ward, the state party chair, gave Lake about 15 minutes alone on a stage to answer softball questions. Neely has alleged the party has effectively endorsed Lake — a break from a precedent of neutrality in primary elections that the party has held for decades.
Both Tulliani Zen and Taylor Robson agreed with him onstage.
More trading of barbs
The final question of the debate was a nod to Lake’s record. She was a registered Democrat for four years and donated to former President Barack Obama, a record she has embraced along the campaign trail as having seen the light in her return to the Republican Party.
Simons asked the candidates if changing views was such a bad thing.
“It's not a bad thing, if you're honest about it," Neely said, quickly alluding to a recent controversy involving Lake. "For example, you know, the whole drag queen debacle with her. She's not being honest about it.”
Lake has sent a cease and desist letter to a well-known local drag queen who has called Lake a hypocrite. Lake has said Richard Stevens, who performs as Barbra Seville, was lying about certain statements he made, but has not disputed she took her daughter to a party where Stevens was dressed as Marilyn Monroe.
"There’s a reason we don’t always invite Scott," Lake quipped of Neely, "because he’s polling at 0%.”
“No, it’s 1%,” Neely replied.
Support local journalism. Subscribe to azcentral.com today.
This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Arizona Republican governor candidates appear in only televised debate