Must-win Arizona is becoming a quagmire for Trump

Arizona Republicans put Donald Trump on notice last month that he hadn’t exactly sewn up the state in November, casting nearly 18% of their ballots for his drop-out rival Nikki Haley and leaving the presumptive GOP nominee short of 80%. Meanwhile, Trump’s general election opponent, President Joe Biden, secured just under 90% of the state’s Democratic vote.

In short, Trump, who in 2020 became the first Republican presidential candidate to lose the state since 1996, has a ways to go in terms of unifying his own party. But his prospects for doing that are dismal, particularly as his cash-strapped campaign’s most prominent Arizona surrogate—likely Republican Senate nominee Kari Lake—serves as a living, breathing reminder of the divisive election lies MAGA Republicans pushed on the state following the 2020 election.

Trump and Lake, who has dubbed herself “Trump in heels,” are substantively indistinguishable candidates who will likely triumph or fail as a unit in November. And although Lake launched a charm offensive in December, pledging to win back Republicans she shunned during her 2022 bid for governor, she has gained no ground, according to new reporting from NBC News.

Take Kathy Petsas, a former local GOP chair in Lake’s district whom Lake’s ’22 campaign targeted with a tweet, saying, “You’re exactly the type of demographic that we feel no need to appeal to.”

At a mend-the-fences meeting last winter, Petsas said Lake paid lip service to the idea unifying the party, but when Petsas listed Republicans she believed deserved an apology from Lake, the former TV anchor declined.

“She cannot say, ‘I’m sorry,’” Petsas told NBC reporters Vaughn Hillyard and Alex Tabet.

“I don’t know one person that she’s gotten on her side of the people who she offended,” Petsas said, adding, “There’s nobody from my circle.”

Accordingly, Republicans appear pessimistic about Lake’s chances of beating Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego, the front-runner for his party’s nomination. 

“What I hear is, everybody has just resigned themselves that we’re going to be stuck with a Ruben Gallego—that’s what I hear from all the major players, the big-money people,” Shiree Verdone, an Arizona GOP fundraiser and Trump voter, told NBC News. “I haven’t heard anyone say, ‘Kari Lake is going to win.’”

To date, Senate Republicans’ campaign arm, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and its primary super PAC, the Senate Leadership Fund, have declined to invest in Lake’s race. Though NRSC Chair Steve Daines, a senator from Montana, plans to campaign with Lake this week, the groups have trained their resources on potential pickups in Ohio, Montana, and West Virginia.  

But if Republicans aren’t bullish enough on a path for Lake to invest early, it’s hard to see how Trump fares considerably better—and maybe that’s the point. Senate Republicans are in wait-and-see mode on Arizona until it becomes clearer how the general election races are shaping up and what resources the Trump campaign is devoting to the state. Head-to-head polling of the presidential contest thus far suggests the state is still Trump’s to lose, with the presumptive GOP nominee winning every Arizona poll conducted in March, even as Biden’s prospects start to improve in battleground states and nationally.

At the same time, Lake and Trump both continue to double down on baseless election lies related to Trump’s loss in 2020 and Lake’s loss in 2022. Last week, Lake quote-tweeted video of Biden’s presidential motorcade passing through empty Arizona streets, quipping they were “a ghost town” compared with the crowds Trump would draw. “81 million votes, my ass,” Lake cracked, calling into question Biden’s 2020 popular-vote total.

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The main problem with their election denialism is that their lies center on Maricopa County, which is home to some 60% of the state’s voters and used to be reliably red before Trump, Lake, and state party officials accused county election officials of fraud. Trump lost Maricopa in 2020 by about 2 percentage points, which could have been a blip, but then Lake lost it again in 2022 by roughly 2.4 points, suggesting it could be a trend.

Maricopa was the site of the state Senate Republicans’ sham audit that nonetheless confirmed Joe Biden’s victory in the state. The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors still took issue with the partisan probe’s findings, refuting them point by point in a four-hour presentation in early 2022. And it’s worth noting that the board is currently run—as it was in 2020 and 2022—by Republicans. Supervisor Bill Gates, a Republican who served as chair in 2019 and 2022, announced last year he would not seek reelection in 2024 due to the threats and harassment he and his family have faced as he defended the county’s elections over the past several years.

Just last week, Lake effectively admitted to lying about her 2022 loss when she declined to defend herself in a defamation lawsuit filed by Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer, also a Republican. Instead of testifying, Lake asked the court to simply issue a judgment and determine the damages she owed.

As recently as January, Lake told former Trump adviser Steve Bannon that discovery in the lawsuit would give her the opportunity to subpoena “all kinds of records” from Richer proving the 2022 election was “rigged” against her.  

After Lake declined to defend herself, though, Richer took a victory lap on social media, tweeting, “It was a lie. It was always a lie. She did it to get your $25. Or to fire you up. But it was all a lie. There were no ‘300,000 fraudulent early ballots’ etc. She defamed me. But she also lied to you.” 

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However, as MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow recently reported, the nutjob harassment of Maricopa County supervisors continues to this day. 

In Arizona politics, if you fail to win the largely suburban Maricopa juggernaut, you don’t win. Trump’s divisive MAGA message didn’t sell well enough in the county in either 2020 or the ‘22 midterms to win the state, and Maricopa County continues to be ground zero for MAGA Republicans’ war on the many college-educated moderates who reside there and narrowly voted against that toxicity in both cycles. Trump has already said he doesn’t want those voters—effectively Haley voters—back. Maybe, just maybe, the Trump campaign could appeal to the county’s growing share of Latino voters, but that certainly didn’t pan out for Lake in the midterms.

Did we mention that Trump’s Arizona fake electors also invoked their Fifth Amendment rights last week to avoid self-incrimination during a grand jury hearing? The development came amid an inquiry by Secretary of State Kris Mayes into Trump allies’ 2020 election interference.

In January, the Trump campaign canceled on short notice a rally scheduled to take place in Phoenix, and CNN recently reported the campaign nixed scheduling another Arizona event in order to save money. Trump hasn’t visited the state since October 2022.

As Arizona Central reported recently, “Former President Donald Trump and the GOP’s campaign presence in the must-win state of Arizona is a shadow of what it was at the same time in 2020.”

Biden, however, visited a Phoenix suburb in Maricopa last week to announce an $8.5 billion microchip grant, the same visit that produced the motorcade that Lake mocked. Perhaps Biden’s visit didn’t inspire the hoopla that a visit from Trump would have. But we’ll never know—because Trump wasn’t there.


Another special election just delivered still more bad news for the GOP, but Democrat Marilyn Lands’, well, landslide should really have Republicans quaking. As we explain on this week’s episode of The Downballot, this was the first test of in vitro fertilization at the ballot box since the Alabama Supreme Court’s ruling that imperiled the procedure, and Republicans failed spectacularly—with dire implications for November.

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