Democrats Need to Know What Time It Is
The stakes in Arizona’s governor race could not be higher.
The Republican nominee, Kari Lake, is the most zealous election denier this side of the South Florida Sigmaringen. She has indicated she would do everything in her power to tip the scales for Donald Trump in this swing state in 2024. She is a talented political performer, perhaps the most talented in the entire party. Her rise has been foreseeable for at least a year.
So you would expect that the Democrats would have had a plan for that. That they would be deploying their best and brightest to figure out how to deal with this clear and present danger.
If so, you would be sorely mistaken.
The Democratic nominee for governor in Arizona, Katie Hobbs, has been a dog’s breakfast served inside a dumpster fire. She’s turning over staff after getting sued by a past employee for discrimination. She is ducking debates and hiding from the press. She’s proven incapable of rhetorically taking the fight to her opponent, despite the extensive hit list to choose from. The liberal columnist for the local paper and co-chair of Biden’s campaign in Arizona have ripped her campaign. And the more prominent, popular Democrats who might aid her effort are M.I.A.
Not. Great. Bob.
Now, I want to be clear, this article is not a pre-mortem for Hobbs, who could still win. When I called her team to talk through this story, they pushed back aggressively, stating that Hobbs is “leading in fundraising, ads on the air, and in the polls”—pointing to private data showing their candidate in the lead. (As it stands, the 538 polling average has Lake ahead by 1 point.) A strategist for a Democratic Super PAC in the state went further, arguing that Lake’s refusal to say she will accept the election results might do her in.
I want to believe that a candidate’s refusal to say she will accept election results would be disqualifying for voters, but I’m not sure the evidence is there to support that belief. Here’s hoping that it is so, and that Hobbs will eke it out in blueing Arizona in spite of her campaign.
But here’s the deal: Bad candidates win and good candidates lose all the time.
Campaigns aren’t a contest like chess or tennis where the more talented competitor almost always wins, as long as their opponent isn’t using an illegal anal vibrator. In politics there are tons of externalities, demographic factors, and global trends that are out of the hands of the campaigns themselves. All the candidates and their campaigns can do is maximize their position within a chaotic and unpredictable environment. This race is no different.
So rather that write an obit or a #takedown, I want to use the Arizona governor’s race as a lesson, a beseechment, and a warning to national Democrats bearing the next two weeks of this campaign—and the coming presidential election cycle—in mind.
Hobbs’s potential vulnerabilities against Kari Lake weren’t a big secret. As secretary of state, Hobbs proved to be an able manager amid the insane Chinese-bamboo-ballot-cyber-ninja-pillow-methhead crisis of 2020. This role earned her some national buzz and notoriety from frequent hits on cable news discussing the madness (including one across from a handsome, if greasy-haired, Bulwark writer).
But despite her growing profile, Hobbs never wowed with her performance as a politician. She got waylaid by scandal in the secretary of state’s office. Early on in the primary, multiple friends in Arizona politics started whispering to me that Hobbs wasn’t up for the intense challenge that a Lake campaign would pose.
But because of the Democrats’ weak bench and a general hesitancy to challenge a #resistance darling, Hobbs waltzed to the nomination. The result has been the type of uneven campaign that everyone paying attention expected.
One Arizona ally of Hobbs described her campaign as “insipid,” and said that having to perform in front of the bright lights like this is “uncomfortable” for her and “not in her wheelhouse.” Others offered similar sentiments.
Nobody that I spoke with seemed to offer these critiques from a place of malice. Hobbs, a former social worker, has not engendered personal ill-will. All these folks who were down on her campaign want her to succeed and are horrified by what will happen if she loses. But they recognize that campaigning against a gifted opponent like Lake has laid bare Hobbs’s particular weaknesses.
There’s a temptation to dismiss these observations as navel gazing from a political class that treats politics like a figure skating competition rather than a serious contest about who will best serve a state’s constituents. And I am sympathetic to that critique. Deftness in television interviews should not be the most important matter in determining who governs a state!
But given the stakes, it’s important to assess campaigns as they exist, rather than as we wish they might exist. And it’s hard to avoid the reality that Hobbs’s weakness as a candidate is having a tangible impact on the campaign.
The local media environment has been brutal around Hobbs’s refusal to debate. You can’t tell me that letting local anchors rant about the “never ending saga” of one candidate ducking debates is a net plus.
There’s some evidence for this in this week’s episode of The Focus Group (for Bulwark+ members only, and worth every penny). We talked to Arizona voters who had supported Trump in 2016 and another candidate in 2020.
The reviews of Hobbs were atrocious: “I don’t think she will be the strongest governor,” said one voter. Multiple voters criticized her for not being willing to debate Lake. And while most of these swing voters were still leaning towards Hobbs, two had swung back to the Republican side to support Lake. One of them specifically cited the debates.
Here’s what he said:
The main reason is, some of you guys have some good justification of picking Hobbs—but I keep on going back to Hobbs not debating Kari Lake. I think that’s the big part of politics and if she is a seasoned or professional politician, she should know that, that debating is the issue. But I think the reason she wasn’t doing it is because she’s being on the safe side.
Here’s the thing.
If the fate of democracy rested on an arm wrestling competition and the semi-fascists were putting up The Rock, I wouldn’t suggest that Democrats run an incredibly gifted speaker who knows a lot about public policy. I’d tell them to get Brock Lesnar. You campaign on the terms the voters set.
Maximizing the chance of victory requires being clear eyed about both the threat environment and the strengths (and weaknesses) of your own side. And while Hobbs might still win, her lack of candidate skills have clearly made this race harder than it needed to be.
But we are where we are.
Hobbs might not be the best candidate. But she is also not a deranged sociopath who pals around with domestic terrorists and wants to make Donald Trump an unelected autocrat. From where I sit, on balance, she would probably be fine, even if I disagree with her on the matter of school choice. (Brief aside: What’s the school choice program like in Hungary, anyway? Asking for a friend.)
So it was incumbent on Democrats outside her campaign to help build her up.
On that score it’s another zero.
Hobbs has the benefit of running in a state with two senators who have reputations independent from the generic Democratic brand: Mark Kelly, with his astronaut special sauce, and Kyrsten Sinema, who might not be the belle of the ball on MSNBC, but polls show has decent favorables among independents and Republicans in Arizona.
For their own reasons, both Kelly and Sinema have left Hobbs dancing on her own.
Last week Vaughn Hillyard asked Kelly why he wasn’t campaigning with Hobbs.
Kelly replied “We each make our own decisions about how to run our campaign, I have a campaign that’s built to win, Katie Hobbs is . . . much superior choice to be our next governor.”
Okay . . .
At least Kelly has the excuse of having his own campaign to run. Sinema’s reasoning is even more opaque.
I called a couple people in Sinema’s orbit (and others in Democratic politics) in the state. All repeated a line about how there’s a model for success for Arizona Democrats that centers the individual candidate over the broader party. Here is John LaBombard, a former Sinema staffer, making that case to the Arizona Republic:
“It doesn’t surprise me that we don’t see the same sort of cavalry rushing in as the Republicans have,” he said, “because I just think it’s a slightly different recipe for success when you’re talking about competitive battleground states, where Democrats have to attract some number of independents and Republican voters to be successful.”
Now, maybe there’s something to that, for the right type of candidate or campaign.
But are we sure Hobbs has her own distinct appeal to those independents and Republicans, as Sinema and Kelly did? Because I don’t really see that.
Plus, is there anyone in all of Democratic politics better suited to talking to those independent and Republican voters than Sinema?
She’s so detached from the party’s brand that these days she seems more comfortable at the McConnell Center than she would sharing some ice cream with Nancy Pelosi!
Still, Sinema has yet to hold a single event or cut one ad for Katie Hobbs.
Sources in the state indicated that Hobbs doesn’t want Sinema’s help, something I find perplexing. And when I inquired with the campaign about whether they wanted Sinema’s help, they declined to speak about the matter on the record.
The indifferent feeling seems to be mutual. When I asked Sinema’s office whether I could be certain that the candidate was even voting for Hobbs, they left the impression that she was . . . but would not confirm on the record.
WTF is happening?!?
Republicans have shown no such reluctance to unite behind their batshit nominee. Most recently Glenn Youngkin lent his cozy brand of fleece vest conservatism to Lake’s wild-eyed campaign. The story is similar on the airwaves. Despite the fact that Hobbs’s campaign has raised more money than Lake’s, they are still getting beat in the home stretch thanks to help from outside groups. After carrying a big advantage over the summer thanks, in part, to Lake’s stated skepticism of advertising, the cavalry came for the Republican in a big way.
Lake currently has more points in the Phoenix, Yuma, and Tucson DMAs, per an ad buying source. The biggest spender on her behalf has been the Republican Governors’ Association, led by the group’s chairman, “Team Normal” stalwart Doug Ducey.
“I’ve been Kari’s largest supporter and will continue to be her largest supporter,” Ducey said in an interview with the Arizona Republic, referencing the more than $11 million the Republican Governors’ Association has committed to get Lake elected.
Lake has also been boosted with ads from the National Rifle Association and Put Arizona First PAC, a group that appears to have been funded by a single rich guy in California.
Meanwhile Hobbs has gotten support on the outside by groups like Future Forward PAC and the Republican Accountability Project, but in numbers that are swamped by Ducey and the RGA.
The imbalance is striking.
Republicans purportedly were divided in the primary between the “sane” wing and the MAGA populists. After Lake dispatched her Mike Pence-backed opponent, she bragged that she had put a stake through the heart of the “McCain machine.”
Yet the Republican establishment circled the wagons around their new lunatic boss . . . again.
It’s the Democrats who are letting their totally normal candidate die on the vine, and it’s not even clear why.
On the fascist right, a new phrase has been popularized about “knowing what time it is.” This phrase is the keyboard Hitlerjugend’s way of saying that it’s time to use extralegal means to take on liberal democracy because the threat from the “woke left” is so grave.
This is, of course, dangerous nonsense.
But those of us in the pro-democracy movement could take a lesson from their commitment. We need to recognize that this is not the time for pussyfooting around or leaning back and hoping for the best.
For instance: circling the wagons around flawed candidates because it’s their turn. Or because they check the right identity boxes or they have flashed on cable news.
In a different era, it was okay for a party to throw away four years in a random state governor’s mansion for the sake of intraparty comity and giving the next person in line a fair shot. It’s not as if the fate of democracy rested on the race between Jane Hull and Paul Johnson. But when one of the people on the ballot is the semi-fascist favorite of Steve Bannon, then it sure as shit isn’t the time to let a flawed candidate sleepwalk into to an honorable defeat.
Democrats should have learned this lesson in 2016, when there was a feeling that national Democrats were supposed to step aside for a flawed presidential nominee because of her pedigree and the opportunity to make a historic first. Nothing wrong with that notion in theory. But in practice, it was one of the contributing factors that led us to the current danger.
As the pro-democracy coalition looks ahead to 2024, they should keep this lesson top of mind.
Candidates do matter.
The stakes are great.
This is not the time for putting the nation’s future in the hands of those who are not up for the fight.