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Kari Lake struggles to court moderates, imperiling GOP Senate pickup

PHOENIX — When she ran for governor of Arizona last year, Kari Lake unapologetically pilloried her Republican opponents with attacks that targeted not just their conservative credentials, but their personal morals and even their families.

But now on a mission to flip a Senate seat from Arizona back to red after three cycles of GOP losses, Lake is courting some of those very same Republicans she recently denounced as “RINOs,” or Republicans in name only, hoping they will set aside hurt feelings and deep-seated resentments from her last scorched-earth campaign and unite around her candidacy.

The outreach, made over the course of several weeks through in-person meetings and phone calls, is a welcome sign to Washington Republicans, who would like to see Lake broaden her MAGA base in the once reliably red state and help them retake the U.S. Senate in 2024. But Lake’s effort to reassure political rivals and onetime supporters in this desert state has been met with skepticism, according to interviews with half a dozen Republicans familiar with her conversations who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to detail the private talks.

Most cite her refusal to acknowledge her electoral loss — even up to today — as well as the relentless demonization of members of her own party, including former Arizona governor Doug Ducey and the late U.S. senator John McCain (R-Ariz.).

Lake has contacted her former primary rival, top GOP donors and past supporters, party officials and activists, and even a former senator as she tries to persuade them to coalesce around her. But Lake’s appeals for support have so far contained no actual apologies — and some Republicans say they are not likely to forgive her any time soon, complicating her path to victory in a state home to many moderate Republicans and independents whose support is key to winning. And as she continues to pursue a so-far unsuccessful legal battle to overturn her 2022 loss to Gov. Katie Hobbs (D), national Republicans fear she may continue pursing the same type of conspiracies and election denialism that harmed her previous campaign. They have urged her to stay focused on local issues like border security and inflation.

In a brief interview with The Washington Post, Lake dismissed her outreach as routine and said she often meets with Republicans.

“This is nothing new for me,” she said. “I have been in my last campaign reaching out to all kinds of Republicans — even the ones who didn’t vote for me.”

But Republicans say the former TV news anchor realizes she has an electoral problem in Arizona and must make inroads with more moderate voters who were turned off by her false claims that former president Donald Trump won the 2020 election and by her hostile approach to Arizona rivals in 2022.

“She’s going to be the nominee unless an asteroid hits Arizona, and she’s going to need to consolidate Republicans in order to win,” Daniel Scarpinato, an Arizona Republican strategist, said. “If we’re going to talk about party unity, it’s a two-way street. At some point, people need to move on.”

“It’s going to take time for some of those wounds to heal. My advice would be keep doing it. It’s got to be something that’s consistent and not one and done.”

In addition to attacks on McCain, Lake invoked the marriage of a key primary rival, saying on social media that she had married “a Billionaire twice” her age, and that she was given a “blank check” by her husband to run for office. Her attacks on the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, which runs Phoenix-area elections, contributed to right-wing outrage around the past two elections that led to death threats against some board members.

Lake, who’s been endorsed by Trump, is telling Republicans privately that her rejection of “McCain Republicans” — when she called McCain a loser and told his fans to “get the hell out” of an event on the campaign trail — took place in the context of a bruising primary campaign and was not serious.

“It was not said a week before the election, it was said a full year ahead of the election while I was taking what was the equivalent of a nuclear financial bomb of attack ads and I was an ‘America First’ Republican running against a ‘McCain Republican,’” Lake told The Post. “And it was said in jest.”

But even after that comment, she continued her attacks, telling a conservative crowd days after winning the Aug. 2, 2022, primary election that she “drove a stake through the heart of the McCain machine.”

“If people are not jumping on the Lake train, it’s because they’re still reeling over what just happened,” with her gubernatorial loss in 2022, a donor who was recently contacted by the campaign said.

Lake has made an effort to convince Washington Republicans that she can carry the state this time around, meeting during a trip to D.C. in October with several Republican senators and top Mitch McConnell political allies Josh Holmes and Steven Law, who runs the powerful Senate Leadership Fund PAC.

Lake showed a clear understanding that she needed to broaden her base during the meeting with Law and Holmes, according to one person familiar with the gathering, and said she wanted to reach the state’s crucial middle-of-the-road voters. She was told not to dwell on the past — an oblique reference to her ongoing legal battle to try to overturn her election loss.

Lake also was receptive to suggestions by national Republicans to focus more on Arizona issues like the border, instead of national topics that make her look like she is “auditioning to be Donald Trump’s running mate,” the person said.

Lake’s campaign argued in a recent memo that Arizona is Republicans’ top pickup opportunity in 2024 outside of West Virginia, where Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III’s retirement has all but guaranteed them a flip. National Republicans do not see it that way, however. Republicans hold 49 seats in the Senate, and are directing much of their 2024 focus on Montana and Ohio — states that Trump won in 2020 where Democratic senators face reelection. Pennsylvania, where Republicans have nabbed one of their top recruits, is another priority.

Top Republicans and GOP campaign groups including the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) were noncommittal early on about a potential Lake candidacy. But in recent months, they have realized that she is probably the only Republican who could win a primary in Arizona — where conservative voters who show up to pick their party’s nominee have moved far to the right — and still have a shot at the general election. The NRSC’s executive director, Jason Thielman, showed up to Lake’s campaign launch in person, and its chair says the group is weighing an endorsement.

“We’re considering it,” Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), the NRSC’s chairman, said of a potential endorsement. “She is one of the most talented candidates running in 2024.”

Lake, who hired an adviser who works for Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) and has good relationships with the NRSC, has also made inroads with other Republican senators, some of whom she has kept in contact with via text.

“In just a month since her announcement, Kari has reached out across Arizona and across the political spectrum. National Republicans are taking notice,” said Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), a member of Senate GOP leadership who has endorsed her, in a statement praising her candidacy.

Even so, many national Republicans are in wait-and-see mode. They want to see whether Lake is able to appeal to voters who may see her as a partisan brawler before they invest significantly in the state, where GOP candidates have fared abysmally two cycles in a row.

“It’s fair to say she has a long way to go to prove she’s changed course or is a different candidate,” said one national GOP strategist familiar with Lake’s D.C. charm offensive. “If it’s a race that she can win, there will be support.”

Lake’s campaign has pointed to some recent polls that show her roughly tied with Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) in a three-way race with the incumbent, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) as a sign of her strength as a candidate. But Lake is more well-known in the state than Gallego — suggesting that voters who do not currently support her may have already made up their minds about her.

Lake said she is hopeful that the national money will be there for her.

“I think that they’re going to eventually, definitely … start jumping behind this because it is an important race for our country, for the survival of our country,” she said.

But that support might depend on her ability to unify the party around her.

A month ago, Lake met with Karrin Taylor Robson, the Republican she defeated in the 2022 Republican primary election, whom she’s called a “Ducey-clone RINO.” Lake had also taken aim at Taylor Robson’s husband, a developer with a vast financial and political network, writing on social media that her opponent was “trying to buy the election with her 95-yr-old husband’s millions” — a comment that Taylor Robson and her supporters viewed as deeply offensive.

Taylor Robson did not endorse Lake during the general election and the women had not spoken until late October, when Lake walked alone into Taylor Robson’s Phoenix office and asked her to support her campaign, according to people familiar with the meeting.

Lake did not apologize for her comments about Taylor Robson last year, describing them as a natural part of political campaigns, those people said.

When Lake asked Taylor Robson for her support, Taylor Robson responded by saying that she would be closely monitoring Lake’s race, but that her priority was helping Republicans maintain control of the state legislature.

Lake also contacted Kathy Petsas, a Republican volunteer and former local party official whom Lake’s campaign personally attacked last year. Petsas said she was disappointed that Lake would not apologize for attacking McCain and other Republicans responsible for elections such as the county recorder and board of supervisors.

“There isn’t this ability to understand ‘I made some really bad mistakes.’ I never heard any ownership,” Petsas said of their meeting. “What I heard is, ‘The people want me to fix this.’ I think she kind of hears, but not enough to take full responsibility for undermining confidence in our elections.”

Lake is still pursuing a lawsuit to try to overturn the 2022 election results, and would not apologize to members of the Maricopa County board of supervisors for any of her past comments that fueled baseless conspiracy theories about the integrity of the election.

“I think the people of Arizona deserve an apology for how the elections are run,” Lake said. (Last November, dozens of machines that printed ballots malfunctioned in Maricopa County, causing some lines and confusion among some voters. Those problems did not prevent voters from casting their ballots, election officials and voting experts have long said.)

In the past several weeks, Lake has also contacted former Arizona U.S. senator Jon Kyl, according to a person familiar with the outreach. The two have not met, and Kyl declined to discuss the matter.

One Republican donor who supported Lake last year and recently talked with her about her Senate campaign said, “I may have had a more bad taste in my mouth before that phone call. I feel better about it, but I don’t know to what degree I will or won’t be supportive.”

Former Republican congressman Matt Salmon, a longtime Arizona conservative who withdrew from the gubernatorial primary election last year, said he had not been contacted by Lake. But he also said that he would never support her candidacy after her disparaging treatment of her opponents, an approach that contributed to her 17,000-vote loss.

Salmon had opposed Lake’s proposal to install video cameras in classrooms as a way to identify “woke” teachers. His opposition drew criticism from Lake supporters, and a social media post that said he was “okay with special needs kids being raped” at school. Lake amplified the post and later stood by it during a radio interview.

“Short of an engraved apology, I wouldn’t consider helping her with anything,” Salmon said.

“She employs the politics of personal destruction, and she’ll say anything — the most vile things in the world — to get ahead,” Salmon said. “And I’m sorry, I just can’t forget that.”

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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