In a final major test of Donald Trump’s Republican power this year, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey on Thursday endorsed a potential successor who takes on a candidate backed by the former president.
Ducey’s challenge to Trump by backing Karrin Taylor Robson over Kari Lake marks the third swing state governor’s race — after primaries in Georgia and Pennsylvania — in which Republican establishment figures have stood up to Trump and his favorite candidates.
The fight in Arizona, like the other two swing states, is as much about reviving the 2020 election, which Trump lost, as it is about wielding influence in the GOP as he weighs another White House bid.
“The Arizona governor’s primary is the purest race in the country to show MAGA against the Republican establishment,” said Steve Bannon, who was a top Trump adviser in the White House. “It’s a proxy war on, really, 2024.”
Ducey made his endorsement a week after one of the other establishment figures in the race, former Rep. Matt Salmon, dropped out of the primary and lent his support to Taylor Robson lest Lake win on Aug. 2. and proves ineligible beyond. the Republican base in November. State Senate Speaker Karen Fann and national figures like former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Georgia House Speaker Newt Gingrich are also backing Taylor Robson, a real estate developer who has caught up Lake in the polls.
Former Vice President Mike Pence could be the next to offer his support, according to an adviser who was not authorized to publicly disclose their private conversations. Pence is a friend of Ducey, and both men have come under attack from Trump and his supporters for failing to help overturn the 2020 election based on the lie of widespread and endemic fraud.
An endorsement of Taylor Robson by Pence would lay bare key presidential issues in the race for governor and highlight the personal drama between Trump and his estranged former running mate, who is considering his own White House bid. An endorsement from Pence would also come with a dose of reward: Lake slammed Pence last month on Newsmax for his visit to the U.S.-Mexico border and his refusal to help overturn the 2020 election.
“I don’t think he has a chance of winning in Phoenix,” Lake said of Pence’s potential run for president. “There is a lot of people [who] are disappointed with Mike Pence for his January 6 actions.
Pence’s adviser called Lake’s remarks “nonsense.”
For months, Lake, a former TV news anchor, seemed the frontrunner in the primary. She had Trump’s support and she took a lead in the polls while repeating the baseless claim that the 2020 election was stolen. She also called for prosecuting suspected conspirators and said lawmakers should go so far as to void the election.
But the state of the race has changed dramatically in recent weeks as Taylor Robson has spent millions on ads and started to shore up support for a GOP establishment in hopes of exerting his own influence. on the run.
The race was already one of this year’s most important primaries, with the winner likely to face Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs in a state that has played a pivotal role in deciding the election. of 2020 and where the Governor will play a role in certifying the 2024 Results.
A Taylor Robson adviser, speaking on condition of anonymity to candidly discuss the dynamics of the race, said Ducey’s endorsement would certainly boost the campaign.
“This is obviously an important signal not only to voters in the state, but also to Republican influencers nationally,” the adviser said. “And so I think you’re going to see more endorsements follow.”
Taylor Robson supporters are hoping Florida Governor Ron DeSantis – the nation’s second most popular Republican behind Trump and a potential 2024 presidential candidate – will also get involved.
“I think every campaign would love to have Governor DeSantis’ endorsement,” said Taylor Robson’s adviser. “So there is no doubt about that. We would be delighted, of course. »
But those familiar with DeSantis’ thinking say he’s unlikely to run in Arizona, particularly because he doesn’t want to stoke public speculation about his White House aspirations.
Early last year, however, DeSantis quietly got involved in the race when he guided Salmon — a friend of the governor since his days in Congress, when he helped launch the House Freedom Caucus — to meet Trump at his Mar-a-Lago club. in Florida in hopes of securing an endorsement, two sources with direct knowledge of the meeting said.
The sources said Salmon thought Trump’s endorsement would happen, but Trump’s attitude changed when Salmon declined to say the 2020 election was stolen. Lake had no such reservations, the sources said.
Salmon’s departure was a boon for Taylor Robson. Recent inquiries revealed a close race between her and Lake. An OH Predictive Insights poll conducted after Salmon dropped out found Lake ahead of Taylor Robson — 40% to 35% — but with many respondents still undecided. An investigation by the Moore Information Group commanded by Salmon just before his release found Taylor Robson statistically locked with Lake in a hypothetical one-on-one run.
Ducey endorsed Taylor Robson after he grew increasingly annoyed with what he perceived as cheap political moves by Lake, who was a registered Democrat during the Obama era. He began planning to endorse Taylor Robson after Salmon left the race — and only if she showed momentum, according to those who had discussed the plans with the governor.
Ducey timed the approval to coincide with the start of early voting, when the most trusted voters are known to vote by mail.
Ross Trumble, a spokesman for Lake’s campaign, said Ducey’s endorsement “is proof that Karrin Taylor’s claims of being a conservative outsider are a lie.”
“Taylor Robson represents a continuation of policies that have enriched insiders at the expense of ordinary Arizonans for decades,” Trumble said. “Kari Lake is the true underdog in this race who will be a visionary leader for Arizona.”
Ducey is the head of the Republican Governors Association and someone who has clashed with Trump, and his involvement in the race led to immediate speculation that the organization he leads could spend millions over the past months of the primary to boost Taylor Robson, but a spokesperson for the association issued a categorical denial. Two of the sources familiar with Ducey’s thinking said he could ask governors’ association donors to help fund a separate policy committee on behalf of Taylor Robson, but they said no decision had been made. was taken.
Trump’s political operation, however, has heard speculation and could bring in cash to help boost Lake in return, said an adviser who was not authorized to publicly discuss the strategy.
Trump is “watching Arizona closely and he’s committed to making sure his endorsed nominee wins,” the adviser said. Trump on Wednesday called on Arizonans to vote early for Lake, writing, “Arizonans have a chance to have a really good governor, unlike the one you have right now.”
Taylor Robson, however, has been a major Trump supporter. Her campaign noted that she had raised more than $1 million for Trump campaigns, while her husband was a six-figure donor.
Lake seeks to put the center of the 2020 election on stage by differentiating himself from Taylor Robson, who said President Joe Biden’s victory was unfair but stopped short of saying the election was stolen.
During a debate last week, Lake called on the other three candidates on stage to raise their hands if they thought the election was corrupt and stolen. Only Taylor Robson kept her hand down.
Lake – who has the backing of MAGA and far-right influencers like MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, former Trump administration officials Peter Navarro and Michael Flynn, Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona and the Senator from Arizona State Wendy Rogers – also focused on the influx of undocumented immigrants crossing the southern border, saying she would declare an invasion from his first day in power and militarize the border.
Taylor Robson, who like Lake has focused on the frontier and said she’ll ‘finish the wall’, is running as a ‘more than talkative’ candidate and has sought to portray Lake as an all-talking impostor. that you have to get elected, calling it “false lake.”
“Arizona voters realize that I am the conservative with a track record, and Kari Lake is an actress with a role,” she said in a statement to NBC News after the endorsement of Ducey. “Voters will not be fooled.
The establishment meltdown around Taylor Robson contrasts with another hotly contested gubernatorial contest. In Pennsylvania, Republicans have waited too long to support an alternative to Doug Mastriano, a far-right state senator who was outside the US Capitol on January 6, 2021 and won a primary victory in May over a exploded field.
Mastriano, however, now faces a revolt from some establishment Republicans. In Georgia, another swing state Biden won in 2020, Trump fared worse in the 2022 primary when his top picks to unseat the Republican governor, attorney general and secretary of state were all defeated.
“Of course, there are echoes with Pennsylvania: Lake and Mastriano are cut from the same cloth,” said Chris Baker, who led a political committee encouraging Salmon before retiring from the race.
Like Mastriano, Lake has a dedicated hard core. The negative paid media campaigns of his opponents, while relatively meager, have yet to shake his leadership position.
“If anything, Lake is a more skilled version of a Trump candidate than Mastriano,” Baker said. “She’s good on TV. She is very articulate. She can deliver a message. She is indeed Mastriano with great communication skills.
Bannon, meanwhile, suggested that if Lake wins the primary and defeats Hobbs in the fall, she “will definitely have a hard look in 2024” to be Trump’s running mate if he runs.
But it’s still a long way off. Of the looming battle between Lake and Taylor Robson, Bannon said, “It’s going to be a fight until the end.”