How Democrats Beat Arizona's Extremist Republicans
Had the likes of Kari Lake taken office, it would have presented one of the greatest challenges to American democracy in modern times.
Illustration by Josh Gosfield.
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The date was October 22, 2022, two and a half weeks before the pivotal midterm elections. In northeastern Arizona, a windstorm was kicking up fine particles of sand from the desert ground, filling the air with an unpleasant mustard-colored fog. Out on a few scrubby acres of land north of the remote town of Cameron, at the western edge of the Navajo Nation, a lunch held to honor local Navajo community activists and Democratic Party organizers had almost been upended by the winds. The stakes supporting the canopies that provided shade for the tables had to be held down by guests, and the paper plates and bowls meant for the soups, fry bread, and chilis that had been cooked up in large metal vats atop giant propane burners blew east across the land, bounding over the asphalt of Highway 89 toward the deep-orange rock formations that locals called simply 'the Navajo.'
The property belonged to Mae Peshlakai, an elder with a weathered face and a melodic voice in which she speaks both Navajo and English. Her eldest daughter, Jamescita, once served as a state senator for the region. Now Mae herself was a member of the state Assembly, and she was hoping to use the luncheon to gird organizers for the final stretch of an election in which, it was clear, the outcomes of many races would come down to which side could more effectively mobilize turnout. The attendees were fairly confident that US Senator Mark Kelly would win reelection; the onetime astronaut had a reputation, after all, as an independent voice on Capitol Hill, a sort of Democratic version of John McCain and Jeff Flake before him, and his Donald Trump–backed opponent, Blake Masters, had never taken off in the polls. But they were far less certain about the other big races for statewide office and for the state Legislature (where Republicans were defending two-seat majorities in both houses). Since September and the supposed end of the post-Dobbs Democratic bump, the polls hadn't been looking good for Democrats in the state.
True, in the run-up to the election, polls did show that more than 60 percent of Arizonans agreed that abortion should be kept legal, and independents favored protecting abortion rights by a three-to-one ratio. Pollsters were divided, however, on whether those numbers would translate to electoral success for Democrats in a state that by most measures still trended vaguely red—especially in midterm elections, which, historically, Democrats and young voters don't turn out for in particularly large numbers. In September, Mike Noble of OH Predictive Insights, one of the state's most respected polling organizations, surveyed likely voters and found that inflation was a more important issue than abortion for every demographic except Democrats age 55 and older. Around Phoenix, residents could be seen wearing pro-Trump T-shirts reading 'I'll take mean tweets and low gas prices any day.'
'The Dobbs decision breathed life back into the Democratic Party these midterms, followed up by student loan cancellation, DACA renewal, and a few other stuff,' said Sam Almy, a Democratic strategist and data analyst. 'That's energized the crowd here.' Over late spring and summer, Almy had charted a significant increase in the number of women registering to vote. But he wasn't convinced that would boost voter turnout enough to help the Democrats. 'Typically, in midterms, Democrats have a turnout drop-off that's even more significant than for Republicans,' Almy noted. In the 2014 midterms, turnout was an anemic 47.5 percent. In 2018, it increased to 65 percent. This time around, Almy's modeling suggested it would be 59 to 62 percent. That meant, he feared, that too many Democratic-leaning voters were planning to sit out the elections.
Paul Bentz, a longtime pollster with Highground, a company that has worked with many GOP campaigns in Arizona, agreed. His projection, based on historical trends around midterm elections, was that Republicans would turn out at an 8 percent higher rate than Democrats. Moreover, his numbers suggested a gloomy temperament among voters that, conventional wisdom held, would translate into votes against the party in control of the White House and Congress. 'Pessimism is at an all-time high. Only 25.4 percent think the state is heading in the right direction, and 51.8 percent in the wrong direction,' Bentz said. 'It's the negativity Republicans have brought, the abortion decision, the uncertainty of the economy.' But, he acknowledged, it was an unusual election cycle. On balance, he felt that there could be an abnormally high level of ticket-splitting, with Kelly running up enough votes in Maricopa and Pima counties to win reelection to the US Senate, but with the extremist Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake—and, on her coattails, many election-denying down-ballot GOP candidates—also possibly winning.
In the end, of course, that didn't happen. Had Lake and her fellow extremists won, the result would have presented one of the greatest challenges to American democracy in modern times, with the political apparatus of a major swing state now dedicated to perpetuating Trump's Big Lie and the corrosive, authoritarian politics that follows in its wake. Fortunately, enough independent voters shunned the GOP to head the extremists off at the pass.
In the impoverished and medically underserved multiracial neighborhood of Christown, sandwiched between Central Avenue and the I-17 freeway in Phoenix, Dr. Deshawn Taylor, an ob-gyn with training in complex family planning, runs the Desert Star Family Planning center. For 21 years, she has provided her patients with birth control, evaluation of gynecological issues, gender-affirming hormone therapy, miscarriage management, and abortions. Now, with abortions on hold in the state as the courts wrestle with the constitutionality of an abortion ban that dates back to the mid-19th century, the clinic's revenue streams are drying up, and Taylor has had to limit the number of days each week that its doors are open. Given the scarcity of medical facilities in the neighborhood and the fact that Desert Star is the only clinic near public transportation in that part of Phoenix offering ob-gyn services, Taylor worries about what will happen to her mainly low-income patients if she can't afford to keep her offices open.
In the year leading up to Dobbs, 13,000 abortions had been performed in Arizona. But in the wake of the Supreme Court decision, the state attorney general secured a ruling from the Pima County Superior Court allowing him to enforce a territorial-era law from 1864 that banned abortion entirely. With the courts allowing those restrictions to be activated, patients have had to cross state lines to California, Nevada, and New Mexico to get reproductive health care.
'My clinic is really embedded in the community,' Taylor said. 'My goal is to keep the clinic open.' It isn't going to be easy. Locals have resorted to throwing fundraising parties for Desert Star, and some nearby businesses were donating a day's proceeds to the clinic. The Keep Our Clinics fund, which is managed by the Abortion Care Network, stepped in with grants that covered salaries for the clinic's staff through much of the summer. By the end of October, though, Taylor was worried that her practice would once again be running low on cash. Still, she was buoyed by a sense that her neighbors were horrified by the changes being foisted on the state—despite the poll numbers coming out in the weeks leading up to the election.
'I hope the outrage at least turns into people voting,' Taylor said. 'We have to change who runs the state so we can legislate the services. People in Arizona were comfortable allowing the people who run the state to chip away at the right to abortion, and now they've taken it away.'
For organizers like 32-year-old Alexis Charley, who is raising eight children, that was what the election was all about. 'We should be able to decide on our body,' she said. 'We shouldn't be punished for it. To tell ladies, ‘You're going to jail for abortion or miscarriage'—why do that?' Charley had driven across the Navajo Nation from her home near the Utah border to attend the event at Peshlakai's home. She was more than familiar with all the arguments Republicans were making—and many of her neighbors were discussing—about inflation and gas prices (she had to drive 45 miles, along rutted, potholed roads, just to get to a gas station), but at the end of the day, high prices didn't beat out abortion as her No. 1 issue. 'Why elect someone who will put women in jail, put people in jail, for no reason?' she asked.
Stepping up to bat: Kari Lake embraces Donald Trump during a campaign rally at the Legacy Sports arena in Mesa, Ariz. (Mario Tama / Getty Images) Despite the signs around the country that rage was bubbling up over abortion restrictions and the increasingly violent, overtly antidemocratic rhetoric coming from the MAGA camp, Arizona remained on a political knife-edge; even seasoned local political observers struggled, in the final weeks of the campaign season, to interpret the data they were receiving. 'To tell you the truth, I'm completely perplexed, nervous about it,' said Brendan Walsh, the executive director of the Phoenix-based organization Worker Power, in late October. An outgrowth of Unite Here Local 11, the union that had played such a key role in flipping Arizona for Joe Biden and capturing two US Senate seats for Democrats in 2020, Worker Power had been on the ground canvassing and talking with working-class voters for months. 'I feel good about Mark Kelly winning,' Walsh said, but then sounded a note of caution: 'There's no reason to think it will all go one way. It can be all over the place. The polling is very close in all of them.' In 2020, Arizona went for Biden by a 10,000-vote margin. The result sent Trump and his acolytes into paroxysms of rage and ultimately led to the much-derided Maricopa County 'audit.' Two years later, with the state's GOP primary voters having plunged the party into the realm of QAnon madness, none of the wounds of 2020 have fully scabbed over. The trio of candidates for top statewide offices—Lake, the charismatic onetime Fox News anchor, for governor; Abe Hamadeh for attorney general; and Mark Finchem for secretary of state—were all election deniers who'd pledged to use the power of their office to ensure Republican victories in closely contested races. 'The GOP governor's candidate is talking about nothing but the supposedly stolen election and culture war issues,' said Tom Prezelski, who served as a Democratic state House member from 2003 to ‘09 and is now an author and political analyst. 'The Democratic candidate is talking about water issues and people's actual problems and governing, whereas Kari Lake is mostly about grievances.' Meanwhile, Hamadeh has presided over campaign rallies at which his supporters chant 'Lock them up!' in reference to Maricopa County election officials.
Many moderate Republicans, including John Giles, the mayor of Mesa—who boasts that it's one of the most populous cities in the United States with a Republican mayor—joined liberals in seeing the Lake-Hamadeh-Finchem combo as an unprecedented threat to the functioning of American democracy. Giles had very publicly endorsed Katie Hobbs, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, as well as Mark Kelly. He worried that if Lake were elected, there would be no brakes on an increasingly extreme GOP caucus in the state Legislature, and he feared what her election would mean for the future of fair political competition in his state. 'Silence is not an option in this election,' he said. 'Silence is acquiescence.' In the final weeks of the campaign, outgoing Wyoming Representative Liz Cheney came to Arizona to stump for Democrats and against the election-denying troika of GOP hopefuls.
'American democracy runs through the state of Arizona in ‘22. You can't put it any other way,' said Kris Mayes, a onetime Republican who quit the party in disgust during Trump's presidency and was now running for attorney general as a Democrat. On the wall in her dining room was a black-and-white photograph from the early '80s showing her and her brother as young children sitting on a cliff atop Mount Whitney. She was, she said proudly, the youngest person in 50 years to reach its summit. Now Mayes wanted her 9-year-old daughter to know one day that her mother had the strength and moral fortitude to leave a GOP that, she believed, had committed itself to a 'hellish road' under the amoral leadership of Donald Trump.
Summiting a mountain is an eerily apt metaphor for the political challenge she and her fellow Democrats faced as they attempted to defy midterm patterns and wrestle a traditionally conservative state away from their Republican opponents. Hamadeh, Mayes said with contempt, would 'impose an 1864 abortion ban and would probably engage in a coup against our government if given the opportunity.' By her reckoning, the results would come down to which way a relatively small number of independent voters broke in the final weeks of the race. 'The independents of Arizona are going to determine the future of the country,' she said. 'It's an all-out battle for their votes. It's a do-or-die moment.'
The opposition: Katie Hobbs, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, at a campaign event in Tucson. (Jon Cherry / Bloomberg via Getty Images) Although Arizona has historically been a Republican state, in recent election cycles it has gone from red to purple to, at least in federal elections, a light shade of blue. Many moderate GOP voters, said a regional Republican consultant who asked to remain anonymous, 'woke up and said, ‘I can't take four more years of this shit.' Donald Trump's persona—people just said, ‘Enough is enough.'' The