Arizona Democrats hope to flip the governor's mansion, but Katie Hobbs has some worried
Still, Hobbs' team says, voters will be persuaded and "sanity will beat chaos."
Arizona Democrats headed into the 2022 midterm races with a head full of steam, hoping to cement the state's newfound battleground status after a string of recent successes.
Mark Kelly's win in a special Senate election and Joe Biden's presidential victory in the state in 2020, after Kyrsten Sinema clinched her own seat in 2018 had, together, elevated the prospect that 2022 would be the year the party flipped the governor's mansion, too.
Instead, the FiveThirtyEight polling average shows Democratic gubernatorial nominee Katie Hobbs, the secretary of state, statistically deadlocked with former broadcast journalist Kari Lake, her Republican rival.
"I think there's a legitimate concern about it. There's a lot of money being poured into this race, the dynamics between the candidates are shaky and there's some weaknesses there. But I still have hope that we can pull it off at the end," said state Sen. Martin Quezada, a Democrat who is running for state treasurer.
The Grand Canyon State was until recently a Republican redoubt, and Democratic voter registration trails that of Republicans and unaffiliated voters, making a slog out of the race to replace term-limited Republican Gov. Doug Ducey.
But Democrats had been optimistic about Hobbs' statewide experience and what they saw as vulnerabilities for Lake in the general campaign given her alliance with Donald Trump and hardline policies, including on election denialism and restricting abortions. (Lake, who also campaigns on immigration, the economy and fighting progressives, has sometimes wielded a sledgehammer at events -- claiming it's for suspect electronic voting machines.)
"We have to take the governorship. Otherwise, we will be a fascist state," argued Pima County Democratic Party Chairwoman Bonnie Heidler. "What's disconcerting is how close it is."
Fueling the race's competitiveness, strategists said, is the tight nature of Arizona politics: Democrats' recent successes shouldn't hide the purple state's historically red hue.
Beyond that, some Democrats are wringing their hands over Hobbs' candidacy and the way that they say she comes across on the stump -- worries that Hobbs and others in the party forcefully reject.
Hobbs is a scarcer presence on the campaign trail
Hobbs seized the spotlight in 2020 with her vociferous defense of Arizona's voting system against a barrage of baseless fraud accusations led by Trump and other Republicans. While that heightened profile helped her sail through the Democratic primary, some operatives question her presence on the trail compared with Lake.
Women candidates often face a harsher -- even sexist -- spotlight on so-called personality concerns during campaigns, these strategists concede, though Hobbs has had a lighter in-person schedule than both Lake and other Democrats on the ballot: She has opted to hold smaller gatherings and fewer press availabilities than Lake, who organizes large rallies and engages, albeit combatively, with the press.
"There's a lack of charisma," contended one Arizona Democratic strategist who was granted anonymity to frankly discuss the race. "And I think it's a challenge on their end because they're not confident when they go out so, their response to that is to try and do as little publicly as possible and try to sail to the finish line. And the ramifications of that are not everybody seeing you be visible."
Hobbs' refusal to debate Lake serves as a microcosm of that dynamic.
Hobbs and Lake were negotiating the terms of a possible face-off before Hobbs walked away earlier this month, warning that engaging with Lake would devolve into a spectacle.
"Missing that was an error. I think a lot of the reasoning around that was 'oh, well, she's just gonna say crazy stuff anyway, let's not give her the platform,'" the strategist said. "But what happened with that was … voters missed out on seeing them next to each other, they missed out on seeing Hobbs be the adult in the room and Kari be bombastic."
Some Republicans agree.
"If Kari Lake wants to rant and rave for an hour on stage, then voters would see that and then make their own decisions," Barrett Marson, a GOP strategist in Arizona who isn't working with Lake, told ABC News.
Democrats have also warned against underestimating Lake's ability to connect with the public given her decades as a TV anchor beaming into voters' living rooms and her ease in front of the cameras.
Contrasting with her opponent, Hobbs' platform focuses on the economy (via a child tax credit and other measures); reproductive health and abortion access; and the drought-fueled water crisis, among others.
"I'd rather be in her shoes than Kari Lake's," a second Democratic strategist, who also requested anonymity, said of Hobbs. "But there hasn't been the strength that would be really helpful."
Turmoil or 'overstated handwringing'?
Hobbs' campaign has reportedly faced staff turnover since earlier this year -- and there has been other controversy.
Accusations of racism and sexism from Talonya Adams, a former staffer in Hobbs' state Senate office, are occasionally raised on the campaign trail, according to Quezada, the state treasurer candidate. (Hobbs said last year, about Adams, who was fired from her office: "I can say with certainty on my part, my decision in the termination was not based on race or gender. There were other factors.")
"If you look at the differences, Sinema and Kelly almost made no errors," said Mike Noble, an Arizona-based nonpartisan pollster. "You're seeing multiple missteps on Hobbs's run, whether turnover of staff on the campaign, the Talonya Adams issue of not being prepped for that, which they knew about for years -- but then most recently, the debate they weren't going to do."
To be sure, Hobbs has vocal defenders, both in Arizona and Washington.
"The handwringing over Katie Hobbs is wildly overstated," said local Democratic strategist Stacy Pearson. "This is a homegrown candidate who has served her state for more than a decade since before Arizona was a swing state. So, if she's not polished enough, or hasn't had 20 years of television experience, or isn't quick enough on the draw, most Arizonans don't care."
"The DGA continues to view Arizona as one of our best pickup opportunities and is all in to make sure Katie Hobbs is elected as its next governor on November 8," added Democratic Governors Association spokesperson Christina Amestoy.
Hobbs has plenty of room to go on offense
The race experts who spoke with ABC News said that hitting Lake on her conspiracy theories about the 2020 race and her abortion stances are the lowest hanging fruit -- and Hobbs has ramped up her attacks. (Lake has tried to recast her election denials as about "honesty and faith" and said Hobbs should debate her about it.)
After a state court revived a Civil War-era ban on most abortions, Hobbs swiftly scrapped a campaign event and held a press conference outside the office of the Republican state attorney general, who has supported that law.
She's also been running ads on abortion access, including one video warning that Lake would sic law enforcement on medical professionals who aid in an abortion. The pre-statehood law, which Lake had also backed, includes prison time for abortion providers. Lake has subsequently said, "It would be really wonderful if abortion was rare and legal," a comment that was quickly walked back.
"Keeping abortion front and center is probably the most important thing [Hobbs] can do, and she's doing it," said Bill Scheel, a longtime Arizona Democratic strategist.
Hobbs' team boasted that her approach will work with voters. Campaign manager Nicole Demont said in a statement for this story that "Arizonans are rejecting Kari Lake's extreme and dangerous positions that are so far outside the mainstream" and "we're confident that sanity will beat chaos and Sec. Hobbs will be elected in November."
That confidence may be challenged in the race's final weeks, the outside operatives say, with early voting right around the corner.
"It's a toss-up, and the next couple of weeks are going to be crucial because ballots drop on Oct. 12," the first strategist said. "She has the ability to do it, the team's got the ability to do it … They've just got to make the decision to proceed and not be behind the eight ball."
ABC News' Libby Cathey contributed to this report.