Republican Kari Lake uses false claims about 2020 as basis for Arizona Governor's Office bid

Kari Lake answers questions after a debate with Republican candidates ahead of the Aug. 2 primary election for the Arizona governor's office on Wednesday, June 29, 2022, in Phoenix.
Kari Lake answers questions after a debate with Republican candidates ahead of the Aug. 2 primary election for the Arizona governor's office on Wednesday, June 29, 2022, in Phoenix.

Inside the cavernous sanctuary of a West Valley megachurch, one year to the day after the November 2020 election, Kari Lake preached to her congregation.

The gospel was election reform — and a false claim that Donald Trump defeated Joe Biden in the presidential contest two years ago. It was followed by a recorded message from Trump himself, endorsing Lake in her bid to become Arizona's next Republican governor.

In just about 18 months, Lake has gone from fixture inside many Phoenicians' homes as an anchor on Fox 10 to a leading figure in Trump's Make America Great Again faction of the Republican Party.

She's running an outsider's bid for the state's top office, asking voters to choose her over Democratic rival Katie Hobbs, Arizona's secretary of state, to replace Republican Gov. Doug Ducey, who has hit a term limit and cannot run again. Early voting begins Oct. 12, with the election set for Nov. 8.

Lake, 53, has pledged to clean voter registration rolls, stop ballot harvesting and has gone to court to end the use of electronic voting machines and limit voting to in-person on Election Day, instead of using mail-in ballots. She wants to flood the southern border with law enforcement to keep an "invasion" of migrants at bay and pledges to work to combat homelessness, offering a plan that provides more resources but also threatens criminal penalties.

Since clinching the Republican nomination in August, Lake's campaign has shifted to focus less on election falsehoods that can turn off crucial swing voters. She now casts her repeated claims that 2020 was stolen from Trump as merely questioning the election process.

She's spent more time on policy and softening her own image, adding personal details to an unconventional campaign that previously thrived on attacking the media and praising the former president.

A charismatic candidate who is seemingly always camera ready, Lake often takes on the mainstream media from which she earned a paycheck. Her campaign said she was too busy to do an interview for this profile, and she has refused to do interviews on policy, but she responded to questions via email.

"Arizona is in desperate need of visionary leadership to address the serious problems facing us, including water, education, elections security, crime, inflation and more," Lake wrote to explain why she is running. "The status quo isn’t working. I’m focused on delivering the transformative leadership we need to tackle those challenges head on."

Gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake listens as Tyler Bowyer, chief operating officer of Turning Point Action, introduces her at South Mountain Pavilion at Tumbleweed Park in Chandler on Aug. 27, 2022.
Gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake listens as Tyler Bowyer, chief operating officer of Turning Point Action, introduces her at South Mountain Pavilion at Tumbleweed Park in Chandler on Aug. 27, 2022.

Lake's media career ends roughly

Lake is a native of Iowa, youngest of nine siblings. She came to Arizona after college, first working at 12 News as a weekend anchor in her late 20s, where she met her husband who is now her campaign videographer, Jeff Halperin. They have two children.

In the late '90s, she left Phoenix for a stint working in upstate New York before returning for a job at Fox 10, where she stayed for more than two decades.

Lake became a beloved fixture on the nightly newscast alongside John Hook. She interviewed presidents Barack Obama and Trump twice, pinnacle interviews for any journalist. But there were other stories Lake preferred.

"But the best part of that job was the stories of everyday Arizonans who did amazing things, and being able to be a part of that and connect other people with what they were doing," she wrote to The Arizona Republic.

Her family lives in the Biltmore neighborhood, and one day several years ago Lake called the city to report a water leak and sinkhole, which is how she first talked to Sam Stone, according to Stone's recollection. Now her policy director, Stone was chief of staff to Phoenix City Councilmember Sal DiCiccio at the time and he took Lake's calls. Lake passion for improving the neighborhood around her is what Stone admires in Lake's campaign.

"She's the type of person who when she sees a problem, she doesn't want to let it fester, she wants to go right after it," Stone said. Lake's problem-solving spirit and "go for it" attitude, over an incremental approach, convinced him to help her campaign, even as he's running his own for the Phoenix City Council, Stone said.

Lake has no prior elected experience and has not held a management position in her career in television. She said leadership is really about "having the courage and fortitude to do the right things even when they’re not easy."

Toward the close of her TV career, controversy began brewing. Lake was off the air for about a week after using an expletive while broadcasting and in 2018 falsely alleged that the “Red for Ed” movement advocating for better education funding was actually a push to legalize marijuana.

After taking leave in early 2021, Lake's next on-camera appearance was resigning her job, saying she didn't believe what she was reading on the teleprompter was the truth or told the full story.

Lake said the network restricted her from telling the public about COVID-19 treatments, but her campaign did not respond to follow-up questions about which treatments or name individuals at Fox who Lake said wouldn't let her change the news scripts. "It went beyond spin, it became about pushing an agenda, and I refused to be part of that," she wrote. She said people died as a result of the false narrative and "suffered through unmitigated fear, and didn’t need to."

One person who worked with Lake, however, rejected those claims, noting it was Lake and other anchors' jobs to ensure fairness and accuracy in their broadcasts.

Diana Pike, the human resources director at Fox 10 for 20 years before she retired in 2019, said she never heard a single complaint, from Lake nor anyone else, that they were made to say things that weren't true. Pike said she believed Lake couldn't take criticism and never accepted responsibility for her gaffes, after which she would disappear from work for days or weeks and force others to fill in for her.

"I think to govern, you have concern and stewardship for your constituents, for your resources," Pike said. "She doesn't have that consideration. She doesn't. She is charismatic, she's a good public speaker, but it's a façade."

In June 2021, Lake announced her run for governor. Today, Lake is a protégé of Trump and a darling of his Arizona loyalists. She is endorsed by the farthest right of the Republican Party, including state Sen. Wendy Rogers, U.S. Congressman Paul Gosar, and Rudy Giuliani, the former president’s right hand in furthering claims the 2020 election was stolen.

Questions about authenticity

Lake's primary bid, in which she ultimately defeated well-funded establishment Republican Karrin Taylor Robson and two other challengers, offered a series of seeming contradictions between Lake the candidate for governor, and Lake the broadcaster.

Lake attacked U.S. Sen. John McCain's legacy, calling the state’s longtime Republican leader a "loser" in one of her frequent attacks on Republicans In Name Only, or RINOs. One of McCain's sons, Jimmy McCain, who considered Lake a friend, said he and family members felt betrayed by Lake's flip, and more recently, Jimmy McCain has crossed party lines to support Hobbs in her campaign.

Lake veered toward gay bashing, prompting one of Phoenix's best known drag queens, Richard Stevens, who performs as Barbra Seville, to publicly accuse Lake of hypocrisy.

Before she began a legal attack on early voting and mail-in ballots — the way most Arizonans have voted for over 30 years — Lake for decades faithfully mailed in her ballot. Lake said she "wasn't previously aware of the potential for fraud." Ahead of the primary election, Lake claimed "stealing going on" in the race, a claim that she has abandoned after her win.

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She has received criticism for once saying deportation of millions of immigrants wasn't possible, but espousing a hardline policy to use state resources to deport migrants.

She claimed she was a life member of the National Rifle Association, though she refused to provide proof of her membership prior to 2021.

And in what was the biggest flip-turned-fodder for her Republican opponent in the primary, Lake previously voted as a Democrat, from 2008 to 2012, according to voter registration records.

Lake said in her written responses she voted for Obama because of his promise to end wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but she felt he lied and "deliberately tore this country apart with identity politics" in his reelection campaign. She returned to the GOP in 2012.

Lake objected to characterizing any of her changes as contradictions.

"Are they contradictions? Or is that just what you want to call them to help ensure Katie Hobbs becomes our next governor?" she wrote in July.

"I stand behind what I’ve said on this campaign 100%, and — let’s be honest — that’s what the left is truly afraid of: a conservative problem solver who isn’t afraid to stand up and fight."

Praised as an outsider by voters

But she's embraced her return to the Republican Party along the campaign trail and sought to turn it into a strength.

At a campaign event in Mesa in mid-June, when Lake asked former Democrats in the room to raise their hands, Robert Lapinski of Scottsdale lifted his. Afterward, he said he loves Lake's outsider take.

“She’s generating the enthusiasm, and I agree with what she’s saying,” he said. Lapinski met Lake once before at an event in Sun City West, where Lake directly confronted a heckler, inviting the person onstage.

When he later told friends about the heckler, Lapinski offered two scenarios of what might actually have happened. The first was that Lake's answer was delivered on the fly.

The other scenario was that the encounter was a setup.

“Or if she put the heckler up to it, so she could give a strong response, then it’s even more brilliant, because it shows political savvy, and I admire that," he said.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake speaks at Legacy Sports Park on Oct. 9, 2022, before former President Donald Trump takes the stage to support local candidates.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake speaks at Legacy Sports Park on Oct. 9, 2022, before former President Donald Trump takes the stage to support local candidates.

General election campaign yet another flip

Lake has taken on a different tone in the past two months — the run up to the general election — tiptoeing away from claims of election fraud while still balancing an affinity for Trump that guarantees her hold on the base of Republican support.

The day after the primary election, before the contest was officially called, Lake declared victory with a message of unity that welcomed in Republicans she'd ruthlessly criticized for several months, independent voters and even willing Democrats.

That appeal to unity hasn't gone smoothly, with Lake at times pivoting back to divisive language that was more typical of her primary campaign. Those moments included a speech at a conservative conference in Texas, just days after the primary, in which Lake bragged her victory showed she "drove a stake through the heart of the McCain machine.”

In September, speaking about drug trafficking cartels at a campaign event, she quoted Trump's words years ago that were seen as casting all immigrants in a bad light.

"They are bringing drugs," Lake said in September. "They are bringing crime, and they are rapists, and that's who's coming across our border. That's a fact."

At a campaign event with Trump in Mesa, just days before early voting began, Lake walked a political tightrope: She didn't mention the 2020 election a single time, an obvious appeal to swing voters. But she also declared her commitment to Trump, invoking Biden's son, Hunter Biden, a favorite foil of some conservatives.

"Now I've got to tell you, I have some of these know-nothing consultants who tell me, 'You know, you really need to back away from President Trump right now,'" Lake said to a crowd of thousands. "And I say to them, 'Put down Hunter's crack pipe, right now.'

"What would it say about my character if I stepped away from my friends? And if I step away from my friends, that means I would step away from you, and I will never step away from the people of Arizona."

Reach reporter Stacey Barchenger at stacey.barchenger@arizonarepublic.com or 480-416-5669. Follow her on Twitter @sbarchenger.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Arizona Governor's Office 2022 Republican candidate: Kari Lake