She Defended Democracy. Do Voters Care?

Secretary of State Katie Hobbs might wind up the only person standing between Arizona and the triumph of the Big Lie.

Illustration of Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs
The Atlantic

Katie Hobbs was prepared for the 2020 election to get messy. As the Arizona secretary of state, she’d planned for an onslaught of far-fetched legal challenges from Donald Trump and his allies if Joe Biden prevailed. But Hobbs did not anticipate that she would become a spokesperson for democracy itself.

In the months following the election, the 52-year-old former social worker condemned the jeering mob outside a Maricopa County elections facility on CNN; in The Washington Post, she mocked the “absurd spectacle” of election-conspiracy theories; in an interview with MSNBC’s Joy Reid, she denounced state Republicans’ sloppy attempt to overturn the results through a partisan audit. Almost overnight, Hobbs had evolved from a wallflower bureaucrat to a liberal icon. When Hobbs announced in June that she was going to run for governor, money streamed in from her progressive fans in every corner of the country.

Now, with just five months until the primary, the stakes of Arizona’s gubernatorial election are becoming alarmingly clear. The leading Republican candidate, Kari Lake, a charismatic former local-TV-news anchor, has endorsed the lie that Democrats stole the 2020 election from Trump. She’s argued for arresting poll workers and has even called for Hobbs’s imprisonment.

Hobbs’s status as an election hero has served her campaign well so far. She’s raised at least $3 million to date, and she’s leading polls of the Democratic primary by a mile. Competent election administration and levelheaded cable-news appearances might not be enough to get her across the finish line, though, especially in a year when Republicans nationwide are favored to win back seats up and down the ballot. It’s not clear whether election integrity is a priority for Arizona voters, and some Democrats in Hobbs’s state worry that she is emphasizing the issue to her detriment. “While it’s important to stand for democracy, the average Arizonan is not focused on the recount—in fact, they’ve put that behind them a long time ago,” Julie Erfle, a communications consultant who has written about the race for the Arizona Mirror, told me. The danger of an election conspiracy theorist like Kari Lake running the state in 2024 is obvious. Hobbs’s ability to beat such a candidate is not.

In mid-January, I met Hobbs at the Glendale outpost of Topgolf, a glorified driving range where players whack balls at huge targets. She showed up a few minutes late, wearing white cropped jeans and standing next to a broad-shouldered man named Jesse, who turned out to be her bodyguard. Jesse’s firm has been working with Hobbs off and on since last year, when people on social media began threatening to kill her. He watched us silently while we golfed and never once removed his sunglasses.

After more than an hour with Hobbs, I’d learned that she is kind, and pretty decent at Topgolf. She showed me how to hold a club properly, and didn’t laugh when I whiffed half a dozen times; in the end, she beat me by double digits. But when I asked Hobbs to lay out her vision for Arizona, she didn’t offer much in the way of policy specifics or fiery rhetoric. Instead she explained, in a soft voice, that she wanted to work across the aisle, and wanted the government to be a force for good. “People are supporting me because they’ve seen my leadership in the secretary of state’s office, but they’re translating in their brain what that means for leadership for the state,” she said. She cited education, economic security, and water as three major areas of concern for voters, but didn’t elaborate on any of her plans. Asked what she imagined would be her legacy as governor, Hobbs replied that she wanted people to remember her as someone who “didn’t lose sight of what mattered.”

I’ve interviewed many politicians who speak like Hobbs, preferring generalities to specifics. Plenty of talented legislators aren’t especially good at selling themselves or their ideas. Talking with Hobbs reminded me of interviewing the Iowa Democrat Fred Hubbell ahead of his challenge to Republican Governor Kim Reynolds. Hubbell is a smart guy. But he was awkward and stiff, he didn’t have a particularly bold agenda, and he ended up losing to Reynolds in a year when Iowa Democrats otherwise made big gains. The past few years have demonstrated that voters often don’t respond well to candidates who lack some combination of star power and a robust policy agenda. The more that a race is tilted against a particular candidate, the stronger that candidate has to be. Hobbs, who’s running as a Democrat in a still-pretty-red state, has a difficult mission.

So far, Hobbs has released two policy plans, one with proposals to make government less wasteful and more transparent, and another promoting economic opportunity among communities of color. She’s talked a lot about her years in the state legislature, when she pushed to expand Medicaid and clear the state’s huge backlog of rape kits. But because preserving election integrity is Hobbs’s day job, and has so far been her biggest claim to fame, she’s opted to put it at the core of her pitch to voters. Her campaign launch video highlights interviews with Savannah Guthrie and George Stephanopoulos about her steadfastness during the 2020 election.

Some people in Hobbs’s own party are worried about how she’d perform in a race against a candidate like Lake, who has significantly more media experience than Hobbs and who speaks much more forcefully about her agenda, even if it’s an agenda that repulses most liberals. (A poll released last week showed Lake beating Hobbs by one percentage point in a hypothetical head-to-head matchup.) One state Democratic adviser, who has known Hobbs for years and who works for another candidate in the race, put it this way: “I couldn’t articulate what her vision for the state is beyond her MSNBC appearances to talk about election integrity. There’s not a lot else that’s there.” (Like several Hobbs critics I talked with, this person spoke on condition of anonymity in order to be candid.)

Highlighting Trump’s election lies hasn’t worked well for other Democrats so far this cycle. In Virginia, Terry McAuliffe spent most of his 2021 campaign for governor comparing his opponent, Glenn Youngkin, to the former president and warning about Republican extremism. Youngkin, meanwhile, centered his campaign on education, and became the first Republican candidate to win statewide in more than a decade. Hobbs’ focus on election administration is a gamble: Nationally, only 1 percent of voters ranked elections as their top priority in Gallup’s most recent survey of Americans’ biggest concerns.

Hobbs’s intraparty critics wish she would be more assertive about the issues that are top of mind for Arizonans, including jobs and school funding. “Of the three Democrats running, on some of these issues, [Hobbs] is the least prepared,” said a second state Democratic strategist. Hobbs will stand strong on election integrity, Erfle, the communications consultant, told me. But that isn’t enough to excite voters. “When you’re talking about what’s going to animate the base, it’s education,” she said.

I brought up these criticisms to Hobbs’s campaign, as well as some Democrats’ fears that she won’t appear as confident or strong as Lake. “If my opponents think it’s a good strategy to downplay the importance of election integrity while telling me to smile, that’s their call,” Hobbs said in an emailed statement. Hobbs’s involvement in the 2015 firing of a Black state Senate staffer named Talonya Adams could also prove to be a vulnerability. Two different juries have found that the Senate discriminated against Adams on the basis of race and sex when it fired her. Despite not being named as a defendant in the lawsuit, Hobbs was the Senate minority leader at the time, and in a somewhat clumsy apology this winter, she acknowledged that what Adams experienced was “yet another example of the systemic inequities of racism.”

Despite the Adams affair and her critics’ doubts, though, Hobbs remains the likely Democratic nominee. Her support among Arizonans has only grown in the past few months, according to OH Predictive Insights, an Arizona-based nonpartisan polling firm. Her endorsers have stuck with her, in part, because they believe she provides the best contrast to the GOP’s election-fraud mania. Sure, Hobbs would do well to broaden her message and talk more about the threats facing Arizona’s public-school system or its water supply, Pamela Powers Hannley, a state legislator, told me. But Arizona voters are looking for steadiness and thoughtfulness. “Hobbs is not a news anchor, she’s not a PR person, but she’s a good speaker. She is reasoned in her thought,” Powers Hannley said. Hobbs will give Arizonans a stark choice on Election Day: calm, steady leadership or wild-eyed conspiracy mongering.

Wild-eyed conspiracy mongering is big in Arizona these days. Donald Trump’s rally in the desert last month featured a parade of Big Lie backers and election-decertification enthusiasts. But no one in the procession of Trump sycophants received the same warm, enthusiastic welcome as Kari Lake.

When the former anchor took the stage, the rally goers standing near me went bananas, whooping and hollering her name. Lake, wrapped in a gray poncho, held their rapt attention while firing off a list of her future priorities as governor, pausing at various points for applause: Finish the wall, crack down on illegal immigration, cancel vaccine mandates, and pass legislation to ban abortion. Liberals don’t like this list, but the Republican base loves it; Lake and other Trump-aligned politicians hammer it home every chance they get. Lake, like Trump, has a magnetism that gets people to hang on her every word. Like Trump, Lake spent years being broadcast into voters’ living rooms, and like Trump, she may face a highly qualified opponent who is much more committed than she is to the concept of democracy.

Much about the governor’s race is in flux. Lake still leads polls of the Republican primary, but Matt Salmon, a former congressman who has also endorsed the Big Lie, and Karrin Robson, an establishment favorite who warns of a border “invasion,” are close to catching up. With 40 percent of Republican voters still undecided, either contender could conceivably overtake Lake to win the GOP nomination in the August primary. Aaron Lieberman or Marco Lopez, Hobbs’s opponents in the Democratic primary, could still catch her too, although that seems less probable.

At this particular moment, the people who are most likely to become Arizona’s next governor are two 52-year-old women who have planted their flags on opposite sides of the battlefield for American democracy. If Lake or another Big Lie–endorsing candidate wins, a 2024 election-subversion scenario is not difficult to conjure: In two years, Donald Trump runs again for president. He is defeated again, and again, instead of conceding, he accuses Democrats of fraud. This time, though, the system works in his favor. Trump calls on his allies, newly installed in key election-administration positions in states and cities across the country, to contest the results. In Arizona, the new Republican secretary of state, Mark Finchem, chooses not to certify the election, and Governor Lake refuses to sign a certificate of ascertainment appointing the winning candidate’s electors. Instead, she suggests a different slate of electors who will vote for Trump, and they do, sending a certificate of that vote to Congress. In spite of a wave of legal challenges brought by Democrats, Republican political leaders in other swing states follow suit, setting off a chain of events in which Trump, despite losing, is declared the next president. Distrust in America’s institutions reaches new heights. Some question whether America remains a democracy. Others cheer.

These are the stakes of Katie Hobbs’s campaign for governor. She’d better hope that Arizona voters understand them.