PHOENIX — The needling from Republicans began after Katie Hobbs, Arizona’s Democratic candidate for governor, refused to take part in the election-year ritual of a televised debate, saying that she did not want to give a platform to Kari Lake, her election-denying Republican rival.
Then came an uncomfortable encounter earlier this month, when Hobbs, Arizona’s secretary of state, was approached by a member of the conservative group Project Veritas as she ate alone at a fast-food restaurant. In her haste to get away, she spilled her drink and darted into a bathroom.
And this week, Arizona journalists covering a major interview that Hobbs did with a Phoenix public-television station tweeted that Hobbs had slipped out of the building afterward without facing their questions.
Sign up for The Morning newsletter from the New York Times
Now, in the final weeks of a race that recent polls suggest is virtually tied, a taunt from Republicans follows Hobbs and worries her supporters: “Where’s Katie?”
Republicans are painting Hobbs as a candidate in absentia, and not tough or transparent enough to be governor. Her rival, Lake, a heat-seeking missile for the spotlight, has pulled a series of increasingly Barnumesque stunts to drive home the point.
She has appeared with an empty chair onstage to represent Hobbs. Her campaign has brought a man in a yellow chicken suit onstage to dance around. Two of her supporters showed up at a Republican rally in “Where’s Waldo?” red striped shirts.
Hobbs and her campaign reject the criticism. They point out that Hobbs has done at least 23 interviews over the past month with mainstream journalists, left-leaning outlets and even one appearance with a conservative Arizona radio host. She has appeared at a pride parade, a women’s march and phone-banking events, and is spending the weekend campaigning with Latino leaders around the Phoenix area.
“I’m fighting every single day to win this race,” Hobbs said Thursday as she took questions after chatting with supermarket workers at a union hall in downtown Phoenix. Her campaign had advertised the event to the news media, but only two local news outlets sent reporters to cover it.
As for ducking out after her appearance on Arizona public television, Hobbs said she had not known that reporters were present, and her campaign said she had to get to a packed day of campaigning and official work as secretary of state.
This week, that work included dealing with a voter-registration database error that affected as many as 6,000 voters, and with pushing back against a rural Arizona county’s plans to hand-count all their ballots.
Even her supporters are concerned that Hobbs, an understated elected official who runs an office responsible for administering elections and overseeing state archives, may be ill-suited to a contest against a Trump protégé such as Lake who relishes political combat.
Their divergent styles have turned the campaign for the state’s highest office into more of a clash of personalities than a battle of ideas — a dynamic that Hobbs acknowledged after her campaign event Thursday.
“Kari Lake, as dangerous as she is to our democracy and the future of our state, is a good candidate,” Hobbs said.
In an email, Ross Trumble, a Lake campaign spokesperson, responded that Hobbs was “single-handedly destroying 20 years of debate tradition in Arizona while hiding from reporters in freight elevators.”
Hobbs, a social worker who worked for a domestic-violence shelter, won her 2018 race for secretary of state by less than 1 percentage point against a political newcomer; she was the first Democrat to win the office since 1995. The secretary of state position is especially important in Arizona because the secretary of state is next in the line of succession to the governor; the state has no lieutenant governor.
The 2018 election illustrates Hobbs’ narrow path to victory in a ticket-splitting swing state that has backed Democrats in recent national races but one that returns Republicans to power in the state Capitol year after year.
Hobbs, who describes the race as “sanity versus chaos,” has been the target of death threats since she defended Arizona’s election system against false charges of fraud in the 2020 presidential race. Hobbs said Lake has called for her to be arrested, a call that Hobbs has suggested could lead to vigilantism. Her campaign, concerned about her safety, coordinates her moves with police and security guards.
The race appears to reflect a broader midterm trend that has seen politicians cut back on debates and carefully curate their public appearances to avoid the possibility of hostile questions or encounters with opponents. But in the bare-knuckle brawl for control of Arizona, a state that could be pivotal in the 2024 presidential election, even Hobbs’ supporters say they want to see her show more fight.
With early voting already underway in the state, some of Hobbs’ supporters are worried that the attacks on her visibility are resonating. In interviews, they said they thought Hobbs might be being drowned out by an opponent who supports an outright abortion ban and has vowed to militarize the Southern border.
“I really like what she stands for, and many qualities she has and what she’s done already, but I’m concerned,” Gloria Solorio, a City Council member in the Phoenix suburb of Avondale who supports Hobbs. “We’re not seeing a debate. We’re not seeing that side of the story. We’re seeing the other candidate place herself in the spotlight.”
Solorio said she was worried that some of her co-workers at the hotel where she oversees housekeeping were drifting toward Lake. “Kari’s really hungry for it,” she said. “You can tell.”
Brent Kleinman, who teaches business classes at Glendale Community College and supports Hobbs, said he thought she might be playing it too safe by appearing with abortion rights supporters or union members instead of seeking out audiences of Republicans and independent voters.
“You’ve got to get out in front of those people, and tell them why it’s OK to vote for a Democrat,” said Kleinman. He said he hoped Hobbs could be a check on a Republican-run legislature that expanded school vouchers and ran a partisan audit of the 2020 election results, but “she’s not selling that message.”
Lake, a former news anchor for a local Fox station, has tried to turn the news media into a campaign whipping boy. Like former President Donald Trump, she calls the press “the enemy of the people”; she adds her own theological embellishment, saying the news media are also “the right hand of the devil.”
At news conferences, Lake fields friendly questions from a variety of conservative outlets but has made a point of refusing to answer questions from The Arizona Republic, the state’s leading newspaper. During the Republican primaries, her campaign objected to having an Arizona Republic reporter act as a moderator in the sole primary debate.
Lake has also granted interviews to a variety of other news outlets, including CNN, local television stations and The New York Times.
Some Democrats have grown frustrated with what they describe as a misleading focus on candidate personalities that saps attention from real problems such as Arizona’s soaring housing costs, water shortages, deadly summer heat waves and wildfires, and underfunded school systems.
“Kari’s approach to the press is to gaslight, accuse and insult, all while hoping Arizonans don’t catch on that she doesn’t have a single plan to improve their lives,” said Christina Amestoy, a spokesperson for the Democratic Governors Association, which has spent $8 million to support Hobbs.
On Thursday morning, the questions that a group of grocery-store workers had for Hobbs barely mentioned the debate issue or the Republican barbs. Instead, people asked about paid leave, being poor in old age and how a warming climate made it dangerous to round up loose grocery carts in the 120-degree heat of an asphalt parking lot.
Estevan Rodriguez, 70, who works at a Fry’s supermarket in Tucson, said he was a solid supporter of Hobbs’, and was worried that some co-workers and acquaintances were tuning out and not planning to vote.
“She’s doing a lot, but it’s hard to battle through all the lies,” Rodriguez said. “The choice couldn’t be clearer. I don’t know why it’s not clearer to more people.”
© 2022 The New York Times Company