Kari Lake’s Arizona Senate run kickoff goes mainstream

“I don’t think you’re a threat to democracy. You are a citizen just like me,” she told the crowd. “And I know you’re struggling as well. We’re all struggling — there’s not a gas pump out there for Republicans and one for Democrats.”

But some of the old Lake was still on display, instructing the crowd to jeer at the “fake news fools” toward the back of the hangar where media outlets gathered. She embraced her well-earned reputation as a Donald Trump acolyte and the former president himself chimed in on video to offer her his endorsement. Rally attendees wearing Trump garb and holding signs depicting Lake as Rosie the Riveter mingled alongside those in blazers and formal wear.

Lake’s efforts to recast herself, much like her candidacy as a whole, presents a conundrum for Republicans. Many had hoped that she would leave the political stage after her defeat in 2022, convinced that she blew a winnable race by waging such a vicious, unapologetic campaign that dwelled on conspiracies.

But as Lake began to openly consider a Senate bid, it also became evident that the party had no mechanism or leverage for stopping her even if they wanted to. Party operatives traded around private polling that showed Lake was unbeatable in a primary and that hits against her did not put a dent in her numbers, according to a person familiar with the data.

Those who had run against her in the past said they had no appetite to challenge her again in the present.

“She’s the kind of person that doesn’t just run to win. She runs to destroy,” said former Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.), who dropped out of the 2022 governor’s race and endorsed the establishment candidate, Karrin Taylor Robson, to try to avoid opening a path to victory for Lake. Robson ended up losing in the primary.

Salmon recalled that Lake once accused him of wanting children with special needs to be sexually assaulted because he didn’t believe in putting cameras in the classroom. “To walk through the kind of sewage that you have to walk through to campaign against Kari Lake — it’s not a pleasant prospect,” he said. Running against her now, he added, would be a “suicide mission.”

But Lake hasn’t just scared off her Republican skeptics; she’s courted them too. She spent last week on Capitol Hill, meeting with senators across the ideological spectrum, including Sens. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas), two allies of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). She had a “productive” sitdown with Josh Holmes, a McConnell adviser, and Steven Law, the president of the McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund.

“She’s impressive,” Cornyn said. “I’m looking forward to seeing how the campaign goes.”

The National Republican Senatorial Committee has not ruled out endorsing Lake, according to a person familiar with its planning. Its chair, Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), met with Lake when she was in D.C. He has said he hopes she will focus on the future — and not elections of the past.

Lake’s operation this time around is more professional, too. Whereas in 2022 she was loath to hire professional consultants, leaned heavily into a young and inexperienced team and disparaged TV advertising, this time around she is preparing to bring on more seasoned operatives.

Garrett Ventry, who is advising Lake, has close ties with the NRSC’s executive director Jason Thielman. And Thielman was at the launch event on Tuesday.

Signs of that attempt at maturation were evident there. Lake discussed water issues and trade schools. She praised Ronald Reagan. Her passing reference to election fraud was couched as a non-partisan battle for “honest elections.”

“Fighting for honest elections is not a Republican issue. It’s not a Democrat issue. It’s an American issue,” she said.

But she still seemed to have the devoted enthusiasm of a GOP base. She took the stage to cheers of “Kari,” and attendees pulled out their phones to film, interrupting her speech to yell out praise. Some of the loudest crowd cheers came when she lobbed her usual attacks at the media.

Lake’s campaign said that a little over 1,000 supporters came to the event and that it was relocated from a smaller venue to accommodate the interest.

The question is whether she can really move beyond her base in a race that becomes complicated by the possibility of an unprecedented three-way race. Rep. Ruben Gallego is the likely Democratic nominee, but incumbent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, who switched to an independent, has not revealed whether or not she plans to run again and has until April to file for reelection.

Outwardly, GOP operatives in D.C. and Arizona hope Lake’s recalibration works. Privately, they are not sure. She could easily be lured into discussing a variety of issues that could turn off voters beyond her base. And Democrats plan to attack her on her past statements and current policy proposals.

“I think her ceiling’s in the mid to low 30s. I have a hard time seeing her get 38 percent of the general election in a three-way race,” said Chuck Coughlin, a longtime Arizona operative. Still she could, he said, “If she’s less contemptuous and more aspirational, which I don’t really see her being.”

Others are even less hopeful that a blend of MAGA and mainstream could work.

“I don’t think she has any prospect of actually being elected,” said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah). “The people of Arizona are smarter than that.”

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