Arizona readies for Kari Lake and a contentious Senate race

Kari Lake’s announcement that she’ll decide by the end of the year whether she’s running for Senate in Arizona adds to growing signals that the Grand Canyon State is headed toward a contentious, high-stakes race for Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s (I) seat.

Sinema’s seat is a top 2024 target for Republicans looking to seize control of the upper chamber, where Democrats hold a tenuous 51-49 lead that includes Sinema — who dropped her affiliation as a Democrat after last year’s midterm elections.

Liberals want to knock Sinema out and Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego (D) has already launched a bid to for the Senate seat.

The Trump-aligned Lake lost her gubernatorial bid last year and some Republicans think she could doom the party to defeat if she wins the GOP’s Senate nomination.

But if it is a three-way race with Gallego, Sinema and Lake, few are entirely sure how it would turn out.

“Arizona is going to be the focal point again,” said one GOP consultant, noting how close the battleground state came during the 2020 presidential race. “I know that everybody talks about Ohio, West Virginia and Montana as the keys for Republicans to take back the Senate. But Arizona is very deep in that mix.”

Democrats will be defending seats next year in Ohio, Montana and West Virginia, all states won handily by former President Trump in the 2020 presidential election. The battlegrounds highlight the difficulties the party faces in retaining its majority in 2024.

“Quite frankly, anything can happen in the three-way race,” said Barrett Marson, an Arizona-based GOP strategist.

In an interview on NewsNation’s “The Hill,” Lake said she’s “seriously considering” a bid for the Senate seat and shared she plans to “make that decision by the end of the year.” NewsNation is owned by Nexstar, which also owns The Hill.

Colton Duncan, a senior adviser to Lake, said in a statement that a decision either way could come “in roughly a month or so.”  Lake will have competition on the GOP side.

Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb is running, and others could crowd into the primary. But strategists get the sense that if Lake runs, the GOP nomination is hers.

“We’re seeing with Donald Trump that, even though he’s a very divisive candidate with independents, he’s loved by Republicans. Same with Kari Lake. I don’t think there’s any chance she loses the nomination if she runs,” said Brian Darling, a Republican strategist and former Senate aide who thinks it’s highly likely Lake does jump in the race.

Lake said last month she thinks she’s “the only one” who could win the upper chamber seat. An April poll showed her leading a hypothetical GOP primary for Senate in the state, with Lamb in third behind her.

The former candidate for governor refused to concede after she lost her bid during the midterms to Democrat Gov. Katie Hobbs by less than 1 point and lobbed legal challenges to dispute the results.

Lake has long defended former President Trump’s false claims of election fraud during his 2020 race, and argued earlier this year that it would be a “big red flag” if any 2024 GOP presidential candidate didn’t “absolutely” agree that her Arizona gubernatorial election was stolen.

“Kari Lake clearly is a candidate who’s got elbows out and some rough edges, and she will campaign much like Donald Trump. She will not hold back and will run a very, very aggressive campaign,” Darling said.

Lake’s unflagging support for Trump along the campaign trail and after has led to some think she may be vying to become a vice presidential pick if the Republican presidential frontrunner secures his party’s nomination.

Sporting a pin with the slogan “Trump was right” during her NewsNation interview last week, Lake sidestepped questions about whether she has ambitions to become Trump’s running mate.

“You know what I’m wishing for? I’m really wishing to get our country back. I’m wishing that people wake up and realize that we’re in a really perilous position right now with our country, and we have the opportunity to elect the greatest president in American history, President Donald J. Trump,” Lake said.

Pressed again about whether she’s interested in joining Trump on a hypothetical ticket, Lake said, “I’m all about the here and now.” She added that she’ll “do anything I can” to help the former president.

Marson contended that drawing out her decision timeline until the end of this year and teasing a potential race shows an effort by Lake to draw media attention and raise her national profile.

Darling said he thinks Lake has “got a much better shot” at becoming a senator than becoming vice president.

But despite confidence that Lake could win the GOP nomination in Arizona, some Republicans are concerned about how Lake would fare in the critical general election, given her loss in the midterms.

Her alignment with Trump is also seen as a factor that could complicate things for establishment Republicans gunning for the key Senate seat — particularly as the party looks to avoid candidate quality issues that plagued the party’s midterm results.

“Kari Lake turns this Senate seat from a winnable Republican seat to a lost cause. And money, good money, smart money does not flow to lost causes,” said Marson.

Sinema, without an official bid, reported raising $1.6 million in the second quarter of fundraising this year. Lamb reported roughly $607,000 — while Gallego raised $3.1 million.

A Noble Predictive Insights poll from earlier this month found Gallego leading Sinema and Lake in a hypothetical three-way contest. Without Sinema in the race, Gallego’s lead grew.

NPI founder and chief of research Mike Noble said in the poll report that Gallego is “a formidable candidate,” but noted that Sinema’s entry “could create a more complex electoral landscape, given her ability to draw support from Independents.”

And independents are a crucial part of Arizona’s unique electoral landscape. Though Arizona voters have elected Democrats to statewide offices in recent races, like Hobbs’ victory over Lake last year, Republicans make up the largest party-affiliated bloc in the Grand Canyon State.

But the largest group of voters in the state are unaffiliated with either major party, according to voter registration statistics from July.

Stacy Pearson, an Arizona-based Democratic strategist, said this trend indicates that more and more Arizonans are moderate, tending away from extremist candidates. It also means that a potential Democrat candidate will need to pull support from other parties in order to clinch the win.

“The only way for a statewide candidate to win in Arizona is to appeal to a portion of the Republican base and a large portion of the independent base. And it’s just math. Democrats are the smallest bloc of voters,” Pearson said.

The nonpartisan election handicapper Cook Political Report rates Sinema’s seat as one of just three “toss up” states not leaning to either side, along with Ohio and West Virginia.

“Folks in DC can try to ignore Arizona all they want,” said the GOP consultant, “but it is part of the calculus for taking back the Senate from a Republican perspective and holding the Senate from a Democrat perspective.”

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