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Abortion, border control, a test of Trumpism: Inside the Arizona Senate race

Arizona Republican U.S. Senate candidate and far-right election denier Kari Lake takes questions with U.S. Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) (L) at a news conference on February 29, 2024 in Phoenix, Arizona. Barrasso is one of the senators being discussed as a possible successor to Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who announced he would be stepping down in that role in January. (Photo by Rebecca Noble/Getty Images)
Arizona Republican U.S. Senate candidate and far-right election denier Kari Lake takes questions with U.S. Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) (L) at a news conference on February 29, 2024 in Phoenix, Arizona. Barrasso is one of the senators being discussed as a possible successor to Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who announced he would be stepping down in that role in January. (Photo by Rebecca Noble/Getty Images)

A lot is at stake in Arizona’s senate race between former TV anchor Republican Kari Lake and Democratic Congressman Ruben Gallego.

It could determine control of the Senate — and the outcome of the presidential election.

Today, On Point: Abortion, border control, Trumpism and an inside look at the Arizona Senate race.

Guests

Ron Hansen, national political reporter with the Arizona Republic. Co-host of the paper’s weekly politics podcast called The Gaggle.

Samara Klar, professor at the University of Arizona School of Government and Public Policy. Her research focuses on how individuals’ personal identities and social surroundings influence their political attitudes and behavior.

Enrique Davis, Arizona state director at UnidosUS Action Fund, a nonprofit advocating for Latino political power.

Transcript

Part I

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: The U. S. Senate race in Arizona is projected to be one of the most watched races in the 2024 election, and one of the most expensive. The estimated price tag by November, $300 million. That’s because control of the Senate, and possibly even the fate of the White House, could rest on the outcome of what happens in Arizona. The race became even more heated when current Senator Kyrsten Sinema announced that she would not seek re-election back in March. Sinema left the Democratic Party and is now an independent.

That leaves candidate’s Democratic Congressman Ruben Gallego, who is running unopposed for the Democratic nomination and former television news anchor and former gubernatorial candidate, Republican Kari Lake. She has a GOP challenger in Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb. The July Arizona primary will decide who goes on to run against Gallego in November. Now, even though she lost the 2022 governor’s race.

Kari Lake denied the election results. She’s currently facing a defamation lawsuit for statements she made against a Maricopa County elections official. Lake also never conceded the governor’s race and is still currently challenging the results even as she runs for Senate.

KARI LAKE: A lot of people have been saying, what’s next for you Kari?

What is next? Let me tell you, this mama bear has a whole lot of fight left in her. (AUDIDENCE CHEERS) I got a lot of fight left in me.

CHAKRABARTI: In her most recent campaign for Senate, the current campaign, she says securing the border is quote priority numero uno.

LAKE: We have to secure the border to save lives. It’s, this isn’t partisan guys. This isn’t Democrat, Republican.

This is a crisis that affects all of us. And the solution is so darn simple. Go back to President Trump’s border policy and finish the wall. (CHEERS) Finish the wall.

I will tell you I know for a fact that Joe Biden, Kyrsten Sinema, and Ruben Gallego care a whole lot more about Ukraine’s border than our border. And that’s a crime. When I am your senator, I will make securing that border priority numero uno.

CHAKRABARTI: Meanwhile, Congressman Gallego, who’s been seen as a part of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, is trying to cast himself as a more moderate candidate, while also pointing to Lake’s close relationship with both Donald Trump and Trumpism.

RUBEN GALLEGO: She’s still in litigation. She is still trying to contest the governor’s race to this day. And I say to this day. She actually just recently, actually yesterday, rejected, again, the outcome of the 2020 election and the 2022 election in the rotunda of the Senate. So this, she’s not moving, she’s not moving, she’s not changing, she’s participating in the same election denialism.

That Donald Trump engaged in 2020 and has continued to be a danger to our democracy.

CHAKRABARTI: And here’s Lake pushing that very issue on the campaign trail.

LAKE: I am never going to walk away from the fight to restore honest elections. I don’t care what the fake news says about it. I don’t care what the corrupt people say about it. Fighting for honest elections is not a Republican issue. It’s not a Democrat issue. It’s an American issue.

CHAKRABARTI: But here’s the thing, in Arizona, there’s no evidence that the elections there have been anything but completely honest.

And the issue isn’t resonating with Arizona voters. In fact, no statewide candidate has won a race in Arizona, after campaigning on Trump’s claim of widespread election fraud. And that’s being reflected in the polls, because Lake is consistently trailing Gallego. In the latest poll from the New York Times, it puts Gallego at 46% to Lake’s 43%.

However, in the presidential race, Donald Trump is currently polling ahead of President Joe Biden. So what do those seeming contradictions say about what Arizona voters really want? Is it a test of Trumpism in 2024? And what else do we need to understand about what’s happening in Arizona politics? And can it help give us a new window on what may unfold both there and nationally in November?

So let’s start in Phoenix with Ron Hansen. He’s a national political reporter with the Arizona Republic, also co-host of the paper’s weekly politics podcast called The Gaggle. Ron, welcome back to On Point.

RON HANSEN: Hi, Meghna. Thanks for having me.

CHAKRABARTI: Are Arizona politics always this interesting?

HANSEN: (LAUGHS) They are these days. It wasn’t always thus, but we will take what we have now, if drama is what you’re looking for.

CHAKRABARTI: (LAUGHS) Usually I’m not looking for drama, right? Usually, I’m just looking for competence in a functional government. But like what would you say are the sources of, or the most important source of the drama? Is it Kari Lake and her kind of multiple lawsuits that she’s both facing and still trying in the courts?

What is giving the Senate race its particular flavor at the moment?

HANSEN: I think that there are a lot of Arizonans who remember when this state was not politically competitive, when people like John McCain or John Kyl, were elected, reelected. It’s only been since 2018 that Democrats won a Senate race.

And at that time, it was the first time in 30 years. Because of the death of John McCain and just some other things, we have had now several cycles in a row where we have had a U.S. Senate race, and in each occasion, we’ve had a Democrat win. That’s new and different, and there are a lot of Republicans who are frustrated by this.

And there’s a lot of frustration and angst on the right again. Kari Lake seems unbeatable in a Republican primary, but they’re concerned that she will lose in November, and that will add to that string of losses.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So in a few minutes, I want to talk with you a lot more about Congressman Gallego and what the Democratic Party looks like in Arizona.

But obviously, let’s take some time to learn more about Kari Lake here. So first of all, at 30,000-foot level, Ron, how much does the current Arizona GOP, state level party match the Arizona GOP as we knew it in the era of the maverick of John McCain?

HANSEN: Night and day difference is how it strikes me.

The party and —

CHAKRABARTI: Ron, you still there?

HANSEN: To the Trump wing of the Republican party. And this is something that has been a source of concern, again, to those older Republicans. They are troubled by what they see. And in some cases, those voters have actually crossed the line and voted for Democrats. And that helps explain a lot of the Democratic success of late. For a lot of the Republicans, they are troubled by things like the way that the COVID pandemic was handled, and they look at the conditions along the border, for example, as well as inflation these days. And they see a lot of reason for leaning in on the Trump presidency. Once again.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. We know we lost you there for a couple of seconds. So I just want to be sure that I understood clearly what you were saying in that momentary drop, that it’s night and day, the GOP now in Arizona versus what it was under John McCain.

And were you saying that it was a more centrist Traditional GOP in the McCain era. And now it’s much more aligned with Donald Trump?

HANSEN: Yeah. Yeah, I would say so. And I would say that there are a couple of issues that help contribute to that. You have things like the border conditions, you have the COVID pandemic and inflation.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So that’s the party though. And you were also saying that some more traditional Arizona Republicans, in terms of voters, were rather concerned by this Trumpian shift in the state party, and have even crossed over to vote Democratic. So how much would you say that the areas of focus of the Arizona state GOP as a party really matches what voters want.

Is there a disconnect there or not?

HANSEN: It depends on what voters you’re talking about. Republicans in Arizona are still happy, I think, on the whole with the Trump agenda that the state party and its leading nominees continue to talk about. The problem is that they are seeing defections of a sliver of Republican voters.

In many cases, these are traditional Republicans, have been voting Republican for decades. They are not enamored with this kind of agenda and the election denialism and just the more over the top behavior is something that they see is unseemly and they’ve crossed the line.

CHAKRABARTI: I see. So the concern is that in Arizona today, that Trumpian take on politics may not be successful in winning a Senate election.

Okay. So about Kari Lake in particular, she’s had quite an interesting career, television anchor, gubernatorial candidate. Can you tell me why she and the folks around her say that they’re still contesting that gubernatorial result from 2022?

HANSEN: Yeah, boy, it was a close election and remember 2022 was supposed to be a Republican wave.

There were a lot of expectations that Republicans were going to win. Very much, including Kari Lake, who became a political star in Arizona that cycle. She didn’t win. Like all the other election deniers running statewide that cycle, she lost. It was close. It was very close. But there’s no evidence that is worth talking about that she did not lose, and she has not let go of that. And we just find ourselves in this never-ending cycle of re-litigating, rehashing 2022.

She has not dropped that rhetoric and it continues to trail her to this day.

CHAKRABARTI: And then there’s also that defamation case that she’s facing, the Maricopa County Recorder, I believe, suing her for defamation based on election denial comments that she made, and Kari Lake has decided to not even defend herself in that case?

What does that even mean?

HANSEN: I think what it means is that she did not want to participate in the discovery phase of that lawsuit, that the evidence that might be gleaned from that portion could be very damaging. And it’s not just financially damaging in that case, but it could also be politically damaging, as well.

The concern by folks who are watching this from afar is that there would be evidence that Kari Lake knew that the claims she was making against the Maricopa County recorder were false, that she had no basis to actually be contesting the election, and certainly not use the over-the-top rhetoric that she used so many times.

CHAKRABARTI: She was hoping the case would go away and it’s not. It’s still proceeding, as far as I understand, in court in Arizona.

Part II

CHAKRABARTI: Today, we’re taking a close look at the state of Arizona and particularly the U.S. Senate race there. It’s important for many reasons. It could decide the fate of the balance of the Senate, could have a major impact on the presidential election. So we’re trying to get a read as to what Arizona voters really want.

And especially since the state is such a dynamic place, in terms of measuring how the Republican Party has changed, how the Democratic Party has changed. I’m joined today by Ron Hansen. He’s a national political reporter with the Arizona Republic and co-host of the paper’s weekly politics podcast called The Gaggle. And let’s hear from the leading candidates themselves right now. First of all, as many of you may know it wasn’t that long ago that the Arizona Supreme Court ruled, in fact, it was just last month, to restore the state’s 1864 law on abortion, which was essentially a near total ban on abortion that leaves no exceptions for rape or incest.

The only exception being if the mother’s life is at risk. Now, back in 2022, when Republican Kari Lake was running for governor, she actually showed her support, talked about her support for that 160-year-old law. And here’s what she said.

LAKE: Obviously, I think Roe v. Wade should be overturned, and I think the Supreme Court, I have a good feeling that they’re going to do the right thing this time.

We have a great law on the books right now. If that happens, we will be a state where we will not be taking the lives of our unborn anymore.

CHAKRABARTI: So that great law on the books she was referring to was that 1864 law, but then after the state Supreme Court reinstated that, Lake has since called for the repeal of that law. Now here’s what Congressman Ruben Gallego said in Tucson at a rally after that April court ruling.

GALLEGO: Women are scared and they have every right to be. I have a nine-month-old daughter, Isla Gallego. She is everything to me and it is horrifying that she now has less rights than her grandmother in this country.

But for Isla, for my wife, for our daughters, our sisters, every woman in our life who has a fundamental right to control their body, we need to fight. (CHEERS) We need to turn that pain, that heartbreak, that anger, and that shock into action.

CHAKRABARTI: Democratic Arizona Congressman Ruben Gallego, also a candidate for U.S. Senate. So Ron, let’s talk about Gallego for a few minutes here, because he’s quite an interesting person, as well. An Iraq military veteran, served in the infantry in the Iraq war. How did he make his turn and become a congressman for Arizona?

HANSEN: I think it’s worth noting that he also went to Harvard before he went to Iraq.

Reuben had an interesting background. Growing up in Chicago, he went to Harvard, he went to Iraq, he came to Arizona after all that, while he will say he was still struggling with the effects of war, and just fell into politics. It’s something that he was interested in, the policy arena, and got involved in a marriage equality ballot measure in Arizona in 2006 and found himself in the legislature a few years and has not left.

He was elected to Congress in 2014 and has been there since and really has emerged as one of the leading voices on the left, certainly here in Arizona and on national issues, as well.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so that’s interesting. Have there been other voices considered as left as Gallego, whether in the congressional delegation from Arizona or even in the state legislature?

Ron, are you with us?

HANSEN: Yeah, I can hear you. Sorry, it blinked out there for a moment. I think I caught the question.

CHAKRABARTI: I’ll just repeat it. No, I was just wondering if there have been other people along with Gallego, considered as left as he is, either in the congressional delegation for Arizona or even in the state legislature?

HANSEN: Yeah, we certainly have those kinds of left leaning voices in the legislature, though they’re again, never near the majority in Arizona politics. The Republicans have had control of the legislature for decades, and that could change this year. But that element of the Democratic Party has always been marginalized.

In our congressional delegation, we have representative Raúl Manuel Grijalva, who has been among the more prominent voices on the left, in the Democratic Party for some time now. He’s been in Congress since the 2002 elections, and has really been a pretty reliable left leaning voice in that time.

CHAKRABARTI: We talked about though, how Gallego, now that he’s running for statewide office with the Senate race, seems to be trying to tack a little bit more towards the center.

First of all, would you agree with that assessment? And second of all, what does it tell you, if that is the case, that Gallego feels he needs to get more centrist, but Kari Lake seems to not have that feeling at all?

HANSEN: I don’t know that I completely agree with it. I think he certainly has measured his remarks on issues relating to the border.

He has, I think, moved to a point on the issue that sounds a lot more like Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly have for years on this issue. It’s considered relatively mainstream to acknowledge that there is a problem at the border these days, and it’s not all that controversial in democratic circles to talk about wanting to ensure that there’s some sort of control over who’s coming and going on the border.

So on that issue, I think that he has moved more to a centrist middle position. If you talk to him about things like abortion rights and just some of the economic issues that have been bread and butter issues for Democrats for some time, it still sounds like Ruben via circa 2018, 2020 he talks about things like living wages and abortion rights.

He wants to go back to a Roe v. Wade type scheme for America. So he has, I think, drawn in his rhetoric on border related matters and in other respects still sounds like a pretty mainstream Democrat by Arizona standards. Okay, and then the second half of my question there, if Gallego is feeling the need to moderate, at least on the border, but it doesn’t seem like Kari Lake is feeling the urge to moderate on any of her stances at all.

Is that just unique to Kari Lake and her close alignment with Donald Trump, or does it say something else to you that helps us understand the way politics is playing out in Arizona right now?

HANSEN: I think this goes to the heart of why Republicans have lost in recent cycles, is there’s a sense that the party and their nominees have just been a little too far to the right of the electorate that is reachable. And when you look at this, Ruben has I think moved to the middle on an important issue that a lot of people will care about come November, on border related matters, for example. Kari Lake on another issue that is problematic for her side on abortion rights, she’s trotted out a few different lines on this, but I don’t think that at the end of the day, there’s a sense that she has really moved on this issue that is clearly not in line with what public opinion is showing. And it’s characteristic of what happened in 2022 with Blake Masters or 2020 with Martha McSally and McSally again in 2018.

CHAKRABARTI: Interesting. Okay. So you mentioned Gallego and his views on the border. This is from an interview in March that he gave to MSNBC. And he was asked about if he would support a Republican backed piece of border legislation that was negotiated by Senator Kyrsten Sinema. Now that piece of border legislation, never actually really saw the light of day. So here’s Congressman Gallego’s response.

GALLEGO: Yes I would support it. We have to recognize that we are in divided government. We’re not going to get everything that we want. There were some good elements to that bill. For example, the Afghan Resettlement Act was extremely important.

There was elements to bring in more workers through a visa program. It also was really, truly dealing with the issue at the border. When it comes to our border communities, that are very affected by our breakdown in immigration that’s been happening for not just any administration, but all administrations.

And so there are border communities that are hurting, just trying to keep up with the broken immigration system. And so this is a very good response. It wasn’t perfect and I think we have to accept that.

CHAKRABARTI: Ruben Gallego, the congressman in March. And just to note, that border bill was, yes, negotiated in part by a Democrat, now independent Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, but also by Republican Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma.

And I didn’t want to leave the issue of the border without noting that some of the most vociferous objection to this bipartisan deal came from Republicans and that’s what eventually killed it. And I don’t think I’ve ever heard Kari Lake expressing a word of support for that border security package.

We’ll come back to that in a second, but Ron, hang on for a moment because I now want to introduce Samara Klar into the conversation. She’s a professor at the University of Arizona School of Government and Public Policy. Her research focuses on individual personal identities and social surroundings and how that influences political attitudes and behavior.

Professor Klar, welcome to On Point.

SAMARA KLAR: Thank you for having me.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, Ron has done a great job in walking us through the individuals who are at the center of the Senate race. Now, right now, I just want to re-emphasize, Kari Lake is facing a primary challenger and that will be decided this summer if she goes through to the general election.

So that hasn’t been nailed down yet. But how would you describe the Arizona electorate right now Samara? Is it 50/50 Republican, Democrat? What do we say when we’re talking about Arizona voters?

KLAR: It’s even a little more complicated than that. If you look at the registration numbers, and I check in every so often to see where we’re at, it’s generally pretty stable in that we have about 35-ish% of Arizonans register as Republican, about 29% right now are registered as Democrats, and then we have about 33% registered as Independents.

So between Republicans and Democrats, it’s fairly evenly split, where Republicans typically have a pretty substantial advantage. They have a five or six percentage point advantage over Democrats, but then we have this third of our registered voters who don’t register with the party at all, who identify as independent, which I think captures the zeitgeist of Arizona generally.

And when we look at how these independents are voting, we do find that they’re very split between the Republicans and the Democrats. As you can see in our electoral outcomes, Arizona is an incredibly closely divided electorate.

CHAKRABARTI: That’s interesting, because I was just about to ask whether, how much does the independent registration actually mean?

Because a lot of people register as independents, but they vote pretty consistently for one party or another. But that 50/50 split within that one third of voters is fascinating. Has that one third independent number been pretty consistent in Arizona over time?

KLAR: Like in most parts of the country, we see a growing percentage of Americans who choose to identify as independent, and that’s true in Arizona as well.

There are times throughout the year where independents will actually surpass Republicans. They’re very close together, but I think Republicans are maybe two percentage points ahead at this point. But it has been growing like we see in most states, and in most of the country. But as you say, the vast majority of independents don’t typically party switch all that much.

They have a party they prefer. They may not want to publicly identify with that party as I’ve seen in a lot of my research on independents, but they will, they’ll basically vote for the same party every time. They may be a little less likely to vote at times. They’re certainly not going to put up a yard sign.

They’re not going to tell their friends to vote. They’re not going to do all these important things that we really need voters to be doing, especially in a close race. But they are quite evenly divided between the two major parties.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so is what we’re seeing in Arizona what we are seeing in some other closely divided states?

And that is maybe the overall breakdown of the electorate, of voters there hasn’t changed all that much in terms of the percentages that you just laid out, but because it is so closely divided, it only takes a relative handful of voters to decide major statewide races.

KLAR: Yeah, I think that’s right.

What we’ve seen in Arizona over the last few decades is really Republicans over time have been losing their advantage in Arizona. So you know, Arizona typically votes for Republican candidates in presidential races, typically votes for Republican candidates in all races, really. But over time, the margins of victory for Republicans have gotten smaller and smaller until inevitably there was a flip in 2020 when Biden took Arizona.

So what we’re seeing is fairly stable percentages, when you look at who lives in Arizona in terms of their partisanship. The difference, I think, and Ron really alluded to this as well, is the Republican candidates right now are quite different from how they used to be. It’s not necessarily that the electorate is that different.

It’s really the types of candidates that are running. And we’re in a time period right now where for whatever reason, and this is a mystery to me, as much as it is to anyone else, Republicans who are running in Arizona are not aligning themselves with the moderate voter base, as well as the Democrats are.

CHAKRABARTI: Do you see that also in the state legislature?

KLAR: Yeah, the state legislature actually shows a fairly similar pattern. The state legislature has a Republican majority, but again, just like we’re seeing with presidential outcomes, the advantage that Republicans have in the state legislature has also been shrinking very consistently over time.

And that legislature is actually quite small now. I think they just have a few seats at this point, over the Democrats. Some are speculating that the state legislature inevitably will also flip. That may happen in 2024. I don’t know it’s plausible. I wouldn’t bet on it. But it does seem as though we are approaching that inevitability.

CHAKRABARTI: That is so interesting, because that would seem to be quite a significant flip for Arizona given its history. I know you just said that you’re not sure why, but I’ve got to ask it out loud anyway. If there’s this emerging pattern now over a couple of elections, both at the state legislative level and now at the level of statewide offices, why do you think the state GOP keeps fielding candidates who are having a hard time winning?

KLAR: The Republican voter base in Arizona, and really this is true in many other parts of the country, is somewhat divided between those who do support Trump and do support sort of Trump-esque candidates, Trump endorsed candidates, and those who don’t. And I think there’s always a bit of a gamble that candidates have to take, when they’re trying to win primaries and win elections, and that’s whether they should appeal to their base. Their ideologically, more ideologically extreme base, or whether they should try to have a broader appeal.

It’s a risky move, you’ve got to choose one path or the other. Now it seems as though for Republicans in Arizona, choosing that, making the choice to be more ideologically extreme or closer to the right has not been working. And every election year, is this the last time they’re going to do this?

Maybe next time they’ll run someone more like Mark Kelly. These Democratic candidates are really coming out and putting themselves out as moderates, as centrists. If you look at somebody like Mark Kelly, who has quite a lot of support in Arizona, he doesn’t really talk about the Democrats.

He doesn’t really talk about Biden. He doesn’t put himself out there as a Democrat. He’s really trying to convey himself as, frankly, as an independent. And Republicans have historically done very well in Arizona when they do that. But for whatever reason, right now, Republican candidates like Lake or Blake Masters have made the choice, maybe it’s from their donors, who knows, but they’ve made the choice that it’s a better strategy to just appeal to the hardcore base.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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