There are election deniers, and then there’s Kari Lake. While 201 Republican nominees have fully denied the legitimacy of the 2020 election, few have made claims of fraud as central to their campaign as Lake, the Republican nominee for Arizona governor. A darling among former President Donald Trump’s endorsees, Lake has repeated his unfounded claims that the 2020 election was “stolen” and spread baseless conspiracy theories about election fraud. And she looks well-positioned to take on her Democratic opponent, Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, as it’s currently a toss-up with Hobbs at a 52-in-100 chance to Lake’s 48-in-100, according to our midterm forecast.
So why then, in another statewide race in this purple state, is a fellow Trump-endorsed election denier facing tougher odds? Blake Masters, the Republican nominee for Senate, has just a 17-in-100 chance of winning against incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly, according to FiveThirtyEight’s Senate forecast. Like Lake, Masters has claimed Trump “won in 2020,” and said he wouldn’t have accepted the results if he were in office at the time.
Of course, these races are about more than election denialism. While 2020 has cast a long shadow over many campaigns, most voters in the state are more concerned with issues like inflation and abortion than election fraud. And even when it comes to election denial, there is some daylight between Lake and Masters’s positions. Still, these candidates have a lot of similarities, at least on paper, so why is one in a toss-up and the other struggling to keep up?
Let’s stress test a few theories of where these two candidates are similar — and where they differ — to see if we can unravel the mystery of Blake and Lake.
Different races, different opponents
One possible explanation is simply that Lake and Masters are squaring off against different opponents. Kelly has a couple of advantages that Hobbs doesn’t. For one, Kelly is an incumbent, and a popular one — in a September survey of likely Arizona voters by AARP/Fabrizio Ward and Impact Research, the senator had a 50 percent approval rating, including a 14 percent approval rating among Republicans (as far as cross-party approval goes, that’s pretty good). As a former astronaut and the husband of former Rep. Gabby Giffords, he has a lot of name recognition and a healthy amount of public goodwill.
Meanwhile, Hobbs has been unavoidably at the center of the election denial issue. As secretary of state, Hobbs was responsible for administering the 2020 election and certifying the results, making her persona non grata for voters who baselessly believe that the election was fraudulent. Hobbs was also embroiled in an actual scandal last year over the prior firing of a staffer while she was in the state Senate. And Hobbs has refused to debate Lake, a move that has given her opponent plenty of fuel for attacks while preventing voters from seeing the two candidates square off head-to-head (though they will both be participating in a town hall forum next week). Combined, these factors show Hobbs as a weaker opponent than Kelly.
But FiveThirtyEight’s polling averages suggest that’s not the sole explanation for the differences in these two races. The polls show Masters struggling to keep up with Kelly, while Lake is giving Hobbs a run for her money. But if you look at total vote shares, it’s clear that the biggest difference is not between Kelly and Hobbs — it’s between Lake and Masters. Kelly, Hobbs and Lake are all within spitting distance of each other: Kelly has 49 percent support, Hobbs 47 percent, and Lake is right on Hobbs’s tail with 46 percent. But Masters is the odd one out with only 42 percent support, showing that in these races, the biggest gulf is between the GOP candidates, not their opponents.
Mo’ money, no problems?
If their respective opponents aren’t to blame for the discrepancy between Lake and Masters, maybe their bank accounts are. While never a guarantee of a win, a well-funded campaign can sometimes explain the difference in a close race. In the governor’s race, the most recent state election filings show Lake has brought in $3.8 million and spent $3.6 million, while Hobbs has outraised her only marginally, bringing in $4.4 million and spending $3.9 million. In the Senate race, Masters has raised just over $5 million. But Kelly. Oh, Kelly. He has one of the highest-funded election campaigns in the country, having raised over $54 million as of July, spending over $30 million, so it’s almost certainly even higher as we head into the midterms.
So it certainly seems like we found our outlier, but as I mentioned above, the starkest differences in the polls are between support for the GOP nominees, not the Democrats. Kelly’s flush coffers have likely helped him tamp down his opponent more effectively than Hobbs, but it also doesn’t explain the whole story.
Let’s return to the assumptions at the top that Lake and Masters are, at least on paper, very similar candidates. While it’s true that they both have repeated lies about the 2020 election and have been endorsed by Trump, they differ in a couple of crucial ways.
First is that Masters has backtracked from the 2020 election issue, scrubbing language from his website claiming that Trump would have won “if we had had a free and fair election.” At first glance, this dovier posture would seem to play to Masters’s benefit. After all, Biden did win Arizona in 2020 — albeit by less than 1 percentage point — and moderate candidates tend to perform better than more extreme ones. While we don’t know that Masters has suffered uniquely by taking this stance, we do know that GOP voters in Arizona aren’t exactly disqualifying candidates who take an extreme stance. For example, in the race for Arizona’s secretary of state, Republican candidate Mark Finchem has remained an extreme election denier (including spending most of a recent debate regurgitating baseless conspiracy theories) and yet led in a recent poll (though, notably, a full quarter of voters in that poll were undecided).
And Lake has actually been the less extreme candidate between the two when it comes to an issue more important to voters: abortion. Masters spent the primary advocating for a national “personhood law,” which typically means a full ban on abortions nationwide, and has supported a federal 15-week abortion ban bill introduced by Sen. Lindsey Graham. Since winning the primary, Masters has removed the “personhood” language from his website and said he supports a federal ban on third trimester abortions. Lake says she is pro-life, but her abortion platform focuses on support for people who are pregnant and access to birth control, not addressing abortion bans. When asked directly about bans, Lake has dodged the question. Toss in the fact that, after two decades on local TV as a newscaster, Lake enjoys a generous dollop of name recognition, and the puzzle pieces start to come together.
We can also see something like this reflected in that AARP poll: Among Republicans, Lake is extremely popular, attracting 88 percent of likely GOP voters (Hobbs similarly has 94 percent support from Democrats), but Masters lags behind, drawing just 80 percent of likely Republican voters. Republican likely voters view Lake more favorably, too, at 80 percent favorability compared to Masters’s 71 percent.
Whichever way you slice it, Masters is coming up short where Lake is prevailing, and it’s clear her more extreme election stances haven’t stopped her from strongly contending against her Democratic opponent. While candidates like Masters are easing away from the Trumpiest rhetoric after securing their nomination, Lake may yet prove that you can still win while embracing an extreme position.
CLARIFICATION (Sept. 30, 2022, 2:36 p.m.): This story has been updated to clarify that Katie Hobbs has a 52-in-100 chance of winning the Arizona governor’s race and Kari Lake has a 48-in-100 chance, not that they are projected to win 52 percent and 48 percent of the vote, respectively.