TEMPE, Ariz. — On a breezy, warm November night, thousands of Arizona Democrats lined the perimeter of Tempe High School, eager to enter the school auditorium for a chance to see former President Barack Obama. They weren’t optimistic – about getting in, or the team’s chances during the terms.
In a last-minute rally with gubernatorial candidate Katie Hobbs and Sen. Mark Kelly, who attended Judy Esposito muttered: “Where has Obama been the last few months?”
Hobbs, a longtime state legislator and current Arizona secretary of state, is locked in a heated race with Republican candidate Kari Lake, a low-key broadcast journalist who has received Trump’s endorsement and is rumored to be the next GOP front-runner.
As in other so-called purple states like Florida and Georgia with large liberal populations and recent Democratic wins, GOP candidates like Lake are moving further to the right and questioning the legitimacy of abortion, vaccines, the 2020 election and the coronavirus response.
“We’re not dictators, we’re liberators,” GOP Representative Abraham Hamadeh told a crowd at a country club rally in Kari Lake the next night. “The bullies are the ones who close our churches and our schools.”
What has been a toss-up race for months has picked up steam in Lake in recent weeks, according to polling data from the nonpartisan Cook Political Report and FiveThirtyEight. US Senate candidate Blake Masters has also backed off after trailing Mark Kelly in the polls all summer.
Masters was at a country club gathering, where an attendee asked how he plans to deal with NIAID Director Anthony Fauci, who is about to retire after not ending criticism of his leadership during the coronavirus response.
“I think Fauci deserves to see the inside of a jail cell,” Masters roared to the crowd. He mentioned that Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a critic of Fauci, endorsed his campaign and promised to investigate Fauci and the origins of the epidemic.
Voters say Dobbs’ decision and the ongoing investigation into the events of Jan. 6, should give the Democrats a clear opportunity with moderate and independent voters, and in Arizona, which played to some extent – Mesa County Mayor John Giles, a Republican, spoke. at a Tempe Democratic rally to support Hobbs and other state candidates. Other state organizations, such as the Arizona Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, have also rejected Republicans this cycle, citing strong anti-abortion policies.
But Lake has won the support of many state Republicans for his stance on health policy, particularly his skepticism about Covid-19 vaccines, his criticism of gender-affirming care and his promise to stop fentanyl crossing the border from Mexico.
“Fentayl is not talked about enough,” said Stephanie, a Kari Lake fan who declined to give her last name. Stephanie and her partner, Paula, are Log Cabin Republicans, a conservative LGBTQ group.
“This election is about more than one story,” said Paula, who was wearing a Kari Lake hat. “Being here in Phoenix, it’s borderline.”
Arizona is one of the high-stakes swing states, a mix of red and blue that can lead to split representation. For example, while Lake may be up for governor, the Democratic candidate for attorney general, Kris Mayes, is leading Hamadeh in the polls. If Mayes defends the position, Lake’s proposed health policies, including a ban on gender-affirming care and calls to manufacture the unapproved Covid-19 treatments ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine in-state, are sure to be challenged by his state’s top law enforcement officer.
Emily Liu, a doctor whose two young children stood in line for hours to see Obama at the Tempe rally, said she hopes that will happen. But the lifelong Democrat also acknowledged that Republican candidates have a strong point in questioning school closures.
“Should they have been closed for so long? It’s a lose-lose situation,” said Liu. “I don’t know the answer, I don’t know who knows.”
Few Democrats want to engage with those questions in the campaign, knowing full well that even their staunchest supporters are tired and critical of nearly three years of the epidemic that President Joe Biden promised to end.
Obama tried to add insult to injury during the Tempe meeting, citing the pandemic’s challenges to dividing the country on politics and trust.
“It’s fair to say that this country, and Arizona, have gone through some tough times over the last few years,” he told the crowd. “We are now coming out of a historic tragedy that caused damage to families, schools, businesses and communities. Everyone was affected, some more than others. “
He noted that the depression fueled “the erosion of morals and basic democratic principles, some of which are encouraged by politicians who are actually doing everything in their power to cause division and make us angry and afraid of each other.”
But who received that message? A day later, at a country club in the desert hills west of Phoenix, Masters painted Obama’s appearance as a desperate last-minute attempt to rally support in a divided state. Speaking to about 200 attendees, Masters said Obama couldn’t even fill a high school auditorium — and in fact, thousands of people were turned away from the Tempe event because of overcrowding.
Lake quickly followed, questioning the government’s pandemic measures like closing schools and blasting education programs that support LGBTQ rights and gender-affirming care.
“That is our understanding of the mother bear within us,” he said to the crowd. “The left has done the stupidest thing in the world: They are between a bear and its cub. That is the most dangerous place you can go in nature.”
A Republican rally attendee who declined to be named to STAT said Lake has filed a lawsuit against him, more than any other politician in recent memory.
“I saw him running for president.”
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