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How Kari Lake became a MAGA star, and possibly Arizona’s next governor

A Lake expert tells Vox everything about her rise and what to expect after Election Day.

Lake, in a gray wrap dress, her dark blonde hair cut short, smiles as she strides forward purposefully into the spotlight, a giant Arizona state flag hanging behind her.
Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake rallies supporters at one of her final campaign stops in Queen Creek, Arizona, on November 6, 2022.
Jon Cherry/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Kari Lake — a former news anchor and current GOP gubernatorial candidate in Arizona — spent the year rising in the polls and is now virtually tied with her Democratic opponent, Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs.

Lake, a political neophyte, quickly drew national attention for her combative style, anti-media rhetoric, and her devotion to former President Donald Trump’s false claim that he won the 2020 election. Those qualities have earned her numerous profiles in local and national publications, and the attention of Republican leaders.

Trump has praised and endorsed her. Current Republican Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, who campaigned against her in the primary, is now backing her. National Review editor-in-chief Rich Lowry called her “the next Republican star.”

“It’s not crazy to think she’d be on a Trump VP list,” Tim Miller, an anti-Trump GOP strategist told the Atlantic, in what’s become a common refrain.

Lake could well win her race on Tuesday. To learn more about her, Today Explained’s Noel King spoke with a Kari Lake expert: the Arizona Republic’s Stacey Barchenger, a state politics reporter who told King, “My life is covering the gubernatorial race.”

Below is an excerpt of the conversation, edited for length and clarity. There’s much more in the full podcast, so listen to Today, Explained wherever you get podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher.

Noel King

Tell me about Kari Lake.

Stacey Barchenger

Kari Lake is 53 years old. She is a mother of two, known here in Arizona for her career, for 22 years as a television news anchor here in Phoenix on Fox 10.

Then, in March 2021, she published a video saying that she didn’t believe in the journalism that she was doing anymore, that it wasn’t accurately capturing Arizonans. And she publicly resigned her position.

Three months later announces she’s running for governor of Arizona. She gets former President Donald Trump’s endorsement. It is undeniable that the two of them have a sort of special charisma. He speaks about her in very laudatory language. Along the campaign trail she has sort of had this say-anything style that I think really a lot of people identify as something that Trump sort of championed.

One of the things that makes Kari Lake so unique is she has turned on her former profession and done it frankly very well in a way that really speaks to voters. It’s just one of the things that makes her such a fascinating candidate, frankly.

Noel King

Another thing that makes her fascinating is the fact that Kari Lake was a registered Democrat once upon a time. She has said in the past she voted for Barack Obama’s presidency because of his promise to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And then something obviously changed.

Stacey Barchenger

There is a perception out there that she has become conservative just in the campaign. I actually don’t think that’s true. If you look at her final few years at Fox 10, she was making some comments that generated headlines themselves. There was a big push in Arizona for public school funding. And she made a claim that it was actually like this covert operation to legalize marijuana, which it was not.

Kari Lake is probably [now] most widely known for her stance on the 2020 election. She has said she believed that Trump won Arizona, although he didn’t.

She continues to make claims that election procedures here in Arizona were not followed, that ballots were received late or raising concerns about chain of custody problems that have all been debunked. Beyond elections, she has made some claims that have really turned some people off.

She was at an event where she sort of made light on the attack on Paul Pelosi. That was well-received by the crowd that she was in front of, but certainly has generated some controversy since then about just making light of a terrible attack.

Noel King

This is how she gets a reputation of being the candidate who will say anything. And this has really made her distinctive, even in 2022 when it seems like anyone will say anything.

Stacey Barchenger

In August, she was at a rally here with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. And both of them are certainly considered rising stars in Republican politics with potential future aspirations. But there was this moment where Kari was talking about his sort of style and she referenced this phrase, [saying, “I’ll tell you what he’s got. I don’t know if you’ve heard of this but he’s got BDE. Anybody know what that means?”]

It really is certainly not something I’ve ever heard said by a politician. And I mean, she hasn’t said it since. So how it played, I think, that’s telling.

Noel King

Where is Kari Lake on the issues that people in Arizona really care about?

Stacey Barchenger

When it comes to the economy, she has a plan to work with the legislature to prevent municipalities from charging grocery and rent taxes.

She is making border security the forefront of her campaign. Kari has said that she will secure the border. And in September, she was at an event talking about border cartels that traffic people and drugs and what she’s going to do. And just directly quoted Donald Trump’s controversial words. [“They are bringing drugs. They are bringing crime. And they are rapists. And that’s who’s coming across our border. That’s a fact.”]

[She was] really casting all migrants in this broad negative light. She wants to use an unproven and potentially problematic legal idea of declaring an invasion at the border, to use state law enforcement resources as deportation officers.

The campaign is pitching this as the big idea that she is going to do to defend the state. Even if it means a lawsuit, it will at least test what else states can do as they portray the Biden administration just failing at the border.

Noel King

What is she saying to voters about voting itself?

Stacey Barchenger

So she frequently calls Joe Biden an illegitimate president.

In terms of actual policy, she has joined a court case to end early mail-in voting here in Arizona, which is how the vast majority of people cast their ballots. She’s also filed a lawsuit to get rid of electronic vote tabulation machines, which would just slow down the process, be very challenging in terms of requiring a hand count of ballots.

She has shifted a little bit how she talks about the 2020 election. Now she really frames it as citizens just trying to ask questions about election procedures, which is just a sharp contrast to her own claims just ahead of the primary that she had detected stealing going on. She has refused to provide any evidence of that and has largely let that go in the last three or four months.

On abortion, she has supported a very restrictive law that’s on Arizona’s books that bans abortions in almost every circumstance unless a woman’s life is in jeopardy and levies prison time against any doctors that provide abortions outside of those circumstances. More recently, she’s also expressed an openness to another law that is on the books here in Arizona that bans abortions after 15 weeks.

The latest way that she’s talking about this is she will follow the law, whatever it is. And we’re waiting for courts to decide which is the prevailing law that Arizonans should follow.

Noel King

Have you interviewed Kari Lake?

Stacey Barchenger

Yes. Once.

She agreed to sit down with me once before the primary for about 20 minutes to talk about her border security plan. One of the unexpected things about interviewing Kari Lake is any time you talk to her or you interview her, you are also on camera.

Her husband is her cameraman. They have this full operation — multiple cameras, the big boom mic above your head — that’s listening to everything.

And the campaign will publish those videos.

Noel King

So you’ve gone from being a print reporter to a television reporter overnight.

Stacey Barchenger

Yeah, I really was not prepared for that. But here we are.

Noel King

In 2020, the state went very narrowly for Joe Biden. Without asking you to prognosticate too much, do the polls show this race breaking red or breaking blue?

Stacey Barchenger

It’s pretty tied. The latest poll I saw was a New York Times Siena College poll that put it exactly even. Certainly, it appears that Kari Lake has some momentum over these last couple of weeks that she is gaining ground, which I think matches what we’ve seen for the Republican momentum generally this cycle. But it’s a pretty even race.

Noel King

Will Kari Lake concede if she loses? What has she said?

Stacey Barchenger

She went on CNN a couple of weeks ago and was asked multiple times if she would concede if she loses. She refused to say that she would do so.

More recently than that, in another interview, she said she would accept the results of the election, [but] neither of [her responses were] direct confirmations that, yes, she would concede if she loses. I think if you rewind and look back to the primary, about a week before that election, it was another very, very close race. And we heard Kari Lake claim stealing was going on without evidence. She has not provided any.

Perhaps those claims from the primary are a signal of what’s to come.

Noel King

What I hear you saying is Arizona has a remarkably charismatic candidate who knows how to talk to voters, who knows how to use the press, who knows how to get the attention of Donald Trump. If she loses, it doesn’t sound like we’ve necessarily seen or heard the last of Kari Lake.

Stacey Barchenger

You’re totally right. She’s been floated as a potential vice presidential pick for Donald Trump. He was asked about this and said, let her be governor first.

I think it’s certain that Kari Lake is going to be a prominent figure, whether it’s in politics or the media going forward, even after this election here in Arizona.

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