Inside Kari Lake’s unconventional campaign for Arizona governor

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Staff and volunteers work at Kari Lake’s headquarters in Scottsdale, Arizona on October 27, 2022. Samantha-Jo Roth / Washington Examiner

Inside Kari Lake’s unconventional campaign for Arizona governor

SCOTTSDALE, Arizona — Inside gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake’s campaign headquarters, you’d be hard pressed to find a staffer over the age of 30.

During a visit to her main campaign office last Wednesday in the heart of Scottsdale, Arizona, Colton Duncan, a 27-year-old operative from Texas, introduced the Washington Examiner to the team, a collection of young 20-somethings toiling away on their laptops. A poster of Lake photoshopped onto the cover of an album by the rapper Drake hangs prominently on the wall.

“I’m 23, the deputy field director, and also help Colton with communications,” said Rae Lee Klein.

Next to Klein sits another 23-year-old, Maggie Smith, an assistant political and research director for the campaign. Then, clad in a cowboy hat across the table is Tex Polesky, 25, the campaign’s chief representative in Pinal County, who has personally knocked on “well over 10,000 doors.”

“We created a complete flip of every campaign in the nation. Most campaigns are going to have 30-, 40-, 50-year-olds running the show and then 17-, 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds volunteering their time, trying to make a name for themselves, trying to get into politics. Our campaign is the exact opposite,” said Duncan, whom Lake has referred to as “the most important person on the campaign.”

“We’ve got a bunch of young kids that are super hungry for it. It’s this buzzing, fun environment in the office. Music is playing, kids are vaping,” Duncan said.

Lake, a 53-year-old former local TV news anchor and first-time candidate, is running to replace the term-limited Republican Gov. Doug Ducey. In March 2021, she released a video announcing her resignation from TV news because she claimed she grew tired of reporting from a liberal lens. She was endorsed by former President Donald Trump in July and went on to defeat her Republican establishment-backed opponent in the primary in August.

Lake had been a fixture in Arizona homes for more than a quarter of a century in her position as a Fox 10 Phoenix anchor. Since then, she’s used that prominence to make a new name for herself by falsely claiming the 2020 election was stolen from Trump and campaigning on hard-line issues concerning immigration, abortion, pandemic-era mandates, and critical race theory, topics that resonate with some far-right constituents in the state.

She’s leading Democratic gubernatorial nominee Katie Hobbs, the current secretary of state in Arizona, by 2.4 percentage points in the FiveThirtyEight average of polls. Lake has raised $7.4 million through mid-October, less than Hobbs’s $9.7 million, but spending from groups outside the state has helped make up the difference.

Lake’s campaign structure and strategy seem to reflect that of Trump’s initial presidential run in 2015. Her roster of top staff and advisers are mostly young political neophytes like 21-year-old Matthew Martinez, who is taking a year off from college to manage the get-out-the-vote effort and oversees about 4,000 registered volunteers. The campaign said he’s the youngest field director in the country.

“This was a movement that I was just so thrilled to be a part of. I grew up watching Kari on TV. My parents watched her. My grandparents watched her. I literally have a cot in this office. I sleep here sometimes because there’s a lot of work to do, but I’m thrilled to do it,” Martinez said, sitting at his desk, a poster of a mask burning up in flames and “Kari Lake for Governor” written underneath hanging above him on the wall.

“You just don’t see a 21-year-old field director running a 4,000-person operation, where the majority of these volunteers are much older than I am, probably three times my age. That’s unorthodox. I think it’s the energy. I think it’s a youthful component of our campaign that makes it so unconventional,” he added.

Lake serves as her own campaign manager. Her best friend, Lisa Dale, another former local TV host, is serving as her director of operations. Her husband, Jeff Halperin, a former videographer at NBC’s Phoenix affiliate, is constantly by her side, gathering footage for social media and campaign ads. She has been against hiring major Washington, D.C., consultants and only recently, this September, began running TV ads. Her campaign also hasn’t commissioned any private polling since she won the primary.

“During the primary, the other Republicans sort of bought up the consultant class in Arizona. It made her something that no one wanted to touch. When she won, they started approaching her, but she wasn’t interested. I would dare any consultant to tell Kari what she should and should not say based off of polling. She’s going to laugh you out the door,” Duncan explained.

Last spring, Duncan met Lake at a dinner in Washington, D.C. She made such a huge impression on him that he quit his job doing client acquisitions at a political consulting firm and moved to Arizona the following day to work for Lake.

“I called my boss after that dinner,” Duncan recounted. “I told him, ‘I’ve got good news and I’ve got bad news. The good news is I just found us the greatest candidate since Ronald Reagan, and the bad news is you’re going to need to find a new client acquisitions guy. I’m moving to Arizona.’”

Similar to Trump’s 2015 campaign, Lake holds a “gaggle” after every campaign event, taking questions from reporters, and her responses often dominate the news cycle. A group of supporters holding signs line up behind her and often create the ideal backdrop for Lake to pick public fights with the press, allowing each outlet one question and ensuring every reporter says the outlet they work for before they begin. Lake has taken Trump’s anti-media rhetoric a step further, using her TV news credentials to critique coverage of her campaign. Lake’s husband, Halperin, stands on the edge of each news conference, filming the reporters asking questions, often blending in with the other news crews. The footage is then released via social media, a tactic that generates viral moments and free media coverage for herself. Lake frequently begins her rallies by asking attendees to say hello to the “fake news,” often to the delight of her followers.

“There’s this fun love-hate with the media. She goes at the media because she has an authority to speak about this because she worked in the media for three decades,” Duncan said.

KARI LAKE ATTACKS MEDIA FOR COVERAGE OF BREAK-IN AT HOBBS CAMPAIGN HEADQUARTERS

Lake’s broad appeal has surprised both Democrats and centrist Republicans. Former President Barack Obama, at a rally in Phoenix on Wednesday, urged Arizona voters to look past her “snappy lines” and “good anchor voice.”

“If we hadn’t just elected someone whose main qualification was being on TV, you could see maybe giving it a shot,” Obama said of Lake, making a clear reference to Trump, an ex-reality television personality.

“What’s the worst that could happen?” Obama rhetorically asked the crowd. “Well, now we know. It doesn’t just work out just because somebody’s been on TV.”

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But Lake’s background is a selling point for some voters, like Deanna Cole, a registered independent from Scottsdale.

“Kari Lake quit her job because she didn’t like what they were doing, and now, she’s running for governor, and I’m all for that,” Cole said, taking a break from a hike in Pinnacle Peak Park last Friday. “She’s willing to quit her job she was making good money at because she was unhappy with the way they were trying to tell her what to tell the people, and she didn’t believe it was right. That’s the kind of thing I’m looking for.”

The Lake campaign has become a movement in the state with an almost cultlike following. Lake’s schedule often includes up to six events a day, and according to Duncan, it’s a trend she’s continued for the last 500 days. Her website has a tab for events and her “Ask Me Anything Tour” across the state, scheduled out weeks in advance. The events are unique and have different themes in line with the demographics the campaign is targeting — from an event honoring first responders to a country concert and rodeo to a family-friendly Halloween costume party complete with several bouncy houses.

“The campaign has a degree of sophistication that I’ve never seen in a gubernatorial race. It is organized better than some presidential races I’ve worked on,” said an Arizona GOP operative speaking on the condition of anonymity to reflect candidly on the campaign.

Brady Smith, 25, serves as the political director for the Lake campaign. His previous experience as a data director for the Republican National Committee in Illinois in 2020 helps inform the campaign’s political decision-making.

“We take a look at the data and use it to decide where to target for events and how we’re driving people to events and engaging and following up with them after the events,” Smith said. “Here in Arizona, it’s no secret that independents are the key in these statewide races. We’re certainly focused on making sure the independents hear loud and clear where Kari stands.”

Independents and unaffiliated voters have tripled in number over the past three decades to 1.4 million and make up about a third of the voting population. Whether Lake is able to win over these voters is still an open question. This week, she called for repealing the Affordable Care Act at a campaign event in Scottsdale, according to MSNBC, slamming the late Republican Sen. John McCain, who voted “no” on his party’s effort to repeal it in 2017. During her bid, Lake has repeatedly attacked the legacy of the senator, who is still well respected in the state with moderates.

“I left the Republican Party over that issue, when Trump was bagging on him all the time. I was like, ‘I’m done. I’m not doing this,’” said Chuck Coughlin, an Arizona Republican pollster who used to work for McCain. “I don’t think it’s a wise general election strategy. You’re potentially attacking your own voter.”

Lake’s campaign maintains Arizona’s Republican Party has moved on from McCain and that his maverick brand is now in retreat. Ironically, Duncan recently learned the sports bar he and other staff often frequent in Central Phoenix after long days on the campaign trail is the same one McCain’s staff used to gather at long ago.

“It’s kind of a beautiful thing. We’re ushering in a new era of the Republican Party here,” Duncan said.

© 2022 Washington Examiner

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