Trumpism Has Found Its Leading Lady

The Republican candidate for Arizona governor not only won Trump’s endorsement but has emerged as his most talented emulator. Is Kari Lake the new face of the MAGA movement?

A photo of Kari Lake, Republican candidate for governor of Arizona, smiling and pointing into the distance
Rebecca Noble / Getty

As election returns rolled in on the evening of November 3, 2020, a local news host in Phoenix was starring in an intensely awkward broadcast. The Fox 10 anchor Kari Lake was refusing to call Arizona for Joe Biden—even though her network had already done so. “If [voters] wake up tomorrow or two days later and it flips,” she insisted, her pendant earrings swinging, “there’s distrust in the system.” Lake’s co-anchor, John Hook, lost patience. “Well, we’re taking our cues from Fox, the mothership,” he interrupted. “That’s kind of what we do.”

A few weeks after the election, Lake went on leave. In March 2021, the 51-year-old announced that she was quitting TV altogether. What happened next was a political rise that not even Lake herself could have anticipated.

That June, she declared a bid for governor of Arizona. Unlike other Republicans, Lake said, she would kowtow to nobody and nothing—not the would-be election fraudsters of the Democratic Party, not the federal government’s mandates, and certainly not the radical left. She quickly earned Donald Trump’s endorsement, began paying visits to Mar-a-Lago, and started speaking alongside the former president at rallies—he’s joining her on the stump in Mesa today. By August of this year, Lake had defeated all of her GOP primary opponents. Now Lake is one election away from the governor’s office.

I’ve been following Lake’s campaign since January, when I went to cover a Trump rally in Florence, about an hour’s drive southeast of Phoenix. Because I was there for his 2024 “soft launch,” as I called it then, I hadn’t paid much attention when Lake walked up to the podium, wrapped in a gray poncho. The crowd started screaming for her, chanting her name. Lake vowed to lock up “that liar” Anthony Fauci, as well as anyone involved with the “corrupt, shady, shoddy election of 2020.” The applause was deafening.

The way Lake has imitated Trump’s rhetoric is obvious, but as I’ve followed her in the months since, something else has become clear: She is much better at this than Trump’s other emulators. That makes sense, given her first career in front of the camera, cultivating trust among thousands of Maricopa County viewers. But this is more than imitation: Lake has made MAGA her own. She’s agile as a politician in a way that other high-profile Trump-endorsed candidates, like scandal-plagued Herschel Walker and crudités-eating Mehmet Oz, are not. Lake is more likable than Senate hopefuls like Blake Masters or J. D. Vance. And she bats at the press with a vivacity unmatched by anyone but the big man himself.

Lake is in a neck-and-neck race in Arizona, but she arguably has a better chance than any other famous Trump endorsee this cycle. Her Democratic opponent, the current Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, is a remarkably dull candidate who has refused to debate Lake, calling her a “conspiracy theorist.” That refusal might be a gift: This week, Lake will get a 30-minute solo interview on the local PBS affiliate.

If Lake wins in November, the stakes are clear: Her administration will oversee elections in a swing state that will help decide the next president of the United States. All “Stop the Steal” candidates pose a threat to American democracy, but Lake’s race “is a category on its own,” Tim Miller, a Republican strategist and Trump critic, told me. “On a scale of one to 10, this is a 13-level threat.”

Win or lose, Lake’s political trajectory seems set to stretch well beyond the November election. Her success so far has unlocked glittering possibilities, including book deals and prime-time pro-Trump TV slots. She may even be rewarded with a spot alongside Trump on the 2024 presidential ticket. Whatever happens, Kari Lake is here to stay.

“I would really love to talk to you,” I told Lake. By this point, on a stiflingly hot September evening in Tempe, I’d been asking Lake’s campaign team for an interview with her for weeks. I’d sent repeated emails, lobbied, and cajoled, but to no effect other than an appointment that fell through. When that didn’t pan out, I introduced myself to Lake amid a small crowd outside the Sun Devil Stadium ahead of an Arizona State football game. Members of her team formed a tight circle around us, and her husband, Jeff Halperin, filmed the interaction. (He gathers footage for campaign ads and social-media mockery purposes.)

Lake stood so close that I could see the different shades of brown in her irises. Sweat dripped down my back. “I’ve read your work,” she said. There’s a seductive power to Lake’s voice: deep but still feminine; firm, even severe, but smooth. Like black tea with a little honey. This is what I was thinking as she noted that I had used phrases like election denier and conspiracy theorist to describe her in past articles. “That,” she told me, not breaking eye contact, “is judgment, not journalism.”

All the same, Lake told me that she’d think about an interview. Two days later, at an “Ask Me Anything” public event, her campaign skirted my requests. An aide suggested that we make it a Zoom interview, but this never happened. Lake and I never met again.

This was too bad, because Lake is adept at telling her story. She grew up in rural Iowa, near the Quad Cities, as the youngest of nine children—eight girls and one boy. “My family was very poor,” she says in a campaign ad. “I lived off of a gravel road. We didn’t even have a house number!” (Route numbers were standard at the time, regardless of income; I know this because I too grew up in rural Iowa.) Lake studied journalism at the University of Iowa and worked at news stations in Iowa and New York State before moving to Arizona. She was an anchor at Fox 10 for 22 years, mostly covering the evening news.

I talked with half a dozen of Lake’s former Fox 10 co-workers for this story, and all but one requested anonymity—partly because current employees are not authorized to talk to reporters about Lake, and partly because they fear retaliation from the candidate and her supporters. She was demanding, they told me, and always wanted her lighting just so. She would sometimes belittle the production staff. But she was good at her job, fluent and warm on camera. Viewers liked her.

Back then, most of her friends at work assumed that she was politically liberal. She was a casual Buddhist, they said, and she’d donated to John Kerry and Barack Obama. She’d once called for amnesty for the roughly 11 million immigrants living in America illegally. (Lake was reportedly a Republican before she registered as an independent in 2006, and as a Democrat in 2008. She reregistered as a Republican in 2012.) Plus, Lake was fun. She liked to host dinner parties, and entertained guests with her bawdy sense of humor. She was good friends with some of the gay men in the newsroom—she’d vacationed with a few on occasion. And she sometimes attended drag shows at a local bar with other newsroom staff, former colleagues and friends told me. She even became friends with the well-known Phoenix drag queen, Barbra Seville. Lake “was the queen of the gays!” a former colleague told me.

Nowadays, Lake wears a small gold cross on a chain around her neck. She prays before rallies and has warned of the dangers of “drag-queen story hour.” “They kicked God out of schools and welcomed the Drag Queens,” she tweeted in June. “They took down our Flag and replaced it with a rainbow.” This is puzzling and hurtful to Lake’s former friends. Lake was not always the “anti-choice, anti-science, election-denying caricature that she’s become,” Richard Stevens, who performs as Seville, told me. A former colleague sighed when I asked him about Lake’s evolution, “It’s like the death of a friend.” (Lake’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment for this story. Previously, her campaign has acknowledged that Stevens was “once a friend” and that she attended an event with a “Marilyn Monroe impersonator,” but has accused Stevens of spreading “defamatory lies.”)

Before her campaign, Lake had praise for the late Senator John McCain, and she was friends with his son Jimmy for years. But during her bid, Lake has repeatedly attacked the late Arizona politician. “It’s extremely upsetting on a personal level,” Meghan McCain, the senator’s daughter, told me. “I don’t know if it’s authentic,” she added, referring to Lake’s campaign persona, but “she is a savant at imitating Trump.”

Two of Lake’s former co-workers pointed to Trump’s political rise as the start of her evolution. She liked that he was an outsider, not a politician, they said. She would even score an interview with him, a major get for a local news anchor.

Lake was a skilled—and frequent—poster on social media. Starting in 2018, a wide-screen monitor sat above the assignment desk at the Fox 10 newsroom, showing which of the on-air talent had the most retweets, likes, and replies—and who was trailing. “We called it the Hunger Games,” another former colleague told me. Lake’s name nearly always appeared at the top of the rankings.

Soon, her posts took on a right-wing tinge. On Facebook, she’d sometimes share a defense of Trump with a just-asking-questions line at the end: “The cry-baby establishment Republicans are now saying they ‘can’t support’ Donald Trump,” she wrote in 2016. “Your thoughts??” In 2018, she said on Twitter that the “Red for Ed” movement in Arizona was secretly an effort to legalize marijuana. (She later apologized.) She retweeted an unverified claim of election fraud. Then the pandemic hit. Lake shared misinformation about the virus, including a debunked video that YouTube had previously removed. (She went on to host anti-mask rallies and question the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines.)

But the part of Lake’s TV career that got Arizonans’ attention was the part when she left. “She had the guts, the courage, to quit being an anchor,” a supporter named Sandra Walker told me at a Latinos for Lake event in Mesa in late September. “That says a lot about her character.” A man named Dennis told me excitedly that he watched Lake “quit her job live on air!” She didn’t. What she did do was post a two-and-a-half-minute video on the site Rumble in March 2021 to announce her resignation from Fox 10. “Journalism has changed a lot since I first stepped into a newsroom, and I’ll be honest, I don’t like the direction it’s going,” Lake says to the camera. The video looks filmed in soft focus: Lake’s skin is impossibly smooth, and the background is blurry, giving the recording an ethereal quality that continues to characterize her campaign videos, as though she is speaking to voters through some sort of religious vision. In the past few years, she goes on, “I found myself reading news copy that I didn’t believe was fully truthful, or only told part of the story ... I’ve decided the time is right to do something else.”

Many of Lake’s former newsroom colleagues felt blindsided by that video. “For her to say what she did and what we’re doing now is fake news and that we’re some sort of media monster is baffling,” one of them told me. (I sought comment from Fox 10 on this but did not receive a response.) “She had a very good life making very good money paid for by Fox, you know? Now we’re the enemy of the people?”

People change. But some people who knew Lake view her evolution—and her unflinching support for Trump—as mostly an act. Lake has always been good at image management, Diana Pike, the former HR director at Fox 10, told me. “She’s a performer.” Lake “read the room, took the temperature, and realized there’s an anti-media sentiment for a lot of people,” Stevens said. “Rather than using her platform to fix it, she chose to throw fuel on that fire.”

When Lake made her resignation announcement, she implied that her departure was a way to stick it to the network as a whistleblower. But according to Pike, who left Fox 10 in 2019 but is familiar with the matter through her existing contacts with the network and her understanding of its operation, Lake and Fox reached a settlement agreement. “She wanted to go, and we wanted her to go,” Pike said. “She walked away with a pot of gold.”

All political campaigns are a performance. Regardless of whether such a seasoned journalist as Lake actually believes, in the absence of any evidence, that the 2020 presidential election was rigged for Biden, her persistent middle finger to the political establishment carries a conviction that appeals to people. “Kari Lake is like my comments section turned into a person,” Kyle Conklin, a supporter from Show Low, told me at the Ask Me Anything event. “I’m unapologetic about what I feel—and she seems to be on the same page.”

“We know that if we have another election that is stolen from us, we’re going to lose this country forever,” Lake told the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando last February. She’d been campaigning for about eight months, and she had her talking points down: She’d called the reporters in the back “propaganda” for not talking about the benefits of hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin in warding off COVID-19. She’d suggested that all of America’s political “tyrants”—those bossy public-health officials and the coastal elites—could “shove it.” Stolen elections have consequences, she said, listing them off: sky-high inflation; open borders; schools masking children; vaccine mandates. “None of this would be happening if the man who truly won the election was sitting in the Oval Office,” Lake told the cheering crowd.

During her campaign, Lake has promised that, as governor, she’d issue a “declaration of invasion” at the southern border, and she’s pledged to end the “woke” curriculum taught in Arizona’s public schools. But the message that set her apart from other Republicans in the primary was her commitment to the claim that the 2020 election was stolen. She helped lead the charge to audit the results of the election in 2021, and despite that review’s confirmation of Biden’s victory, Lake continued to bang the election-integrity drum. She told reporters that if she’d been governor instead of Doug Ducey, she would not have certified Arizona’s election results. “Deep down, I think we all know this illegitimate fool in the White House—I feel sorry for him—didn’t win,” she told The New York Times in August. Before her own primary election, Lake warned that she was already detecting signs of fraud (for which she declined to offer proof).

The former president appears delighted by Lake’s commitment to the 2020-election bit. “It doesn’t matter what you ask Kari Lake about—‘How’s your family?’ And she’s like, ‘The family’s fine but they’re never going to be great until we have free and fair elections,’” Trump reportedly told donors. Lake is a lot like Trump, whose wild assertions carry the implication that he should be taken seriously, but not literally. But she’s different from him in several ways—ways that might ultimately make her a better standard-bearer for the MAGA movement.

Lake is an elegant, polished speaker. Unlike Trump, she doesn’t ruminate on flushing toilets or offer random asides about stabbings and rapes. She presents a calm self-assurance that can make even the wackiest conspiracy theories seem plausible. “She could talk about lizard people and you’d be like, ‘What is up with those lizard people? That is a great point!’” an Arizona Republican operative told me. What other MAGA Republicans possess this kind of magnetism? Although Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is regarded as the most likely contender to inherit the mantle of Trumpism, onstage he is a charmless, wax-statue version of Trump. No, there’s something about Lake that makes people—viewers, voters—want to buy what she’s selling.

“She’s using 25 years of high-level journalism to present an idea,” another former Fox 10 colleague told me. “And she’s smart! She’s not dumb. Which makes her frickin’ dangerous, if you ask me.”

Like Trump, Lake is fluent in media, and she knows how to deliver a zinger that will quickly go viral. “I’ll do an interview as long as it airs on CNN+. Does that still exist?” she asked a CNN reporter in June. Later that month, during a circus of a primary debate, Lake looked around, watching her three Republican opponents argue over one another about election integrity. “I feel like I’m in an SNL skit here,” she said, smiling and gesturing to her opponents. She turned to the moderator. “Are you going to be able to take control of the debate or do you want me to do it?” Lake is good at spotting her opponents’ vulnerabilities, “and the quickness to use them in her responses is absolutely devastating,” Nicole Hemmer, a historian at Columbia University who studies the conservative movement, told me. “It’s sticking it to the libs in such a clever, twist-of-the-knife way.”

Sticking it to the libs, though, isn’t a recipe for general-election success in Arizona. Although history suggests that Republicans should sweep the midterms, the state is sending mixed signals this year. A newly relevant 1864 law banning abortion could help drive Democratic turnout in the state. And though still a pale red, Arizona is purpling: Biden won the state in 2020, despite what Trump and Lake allege. Yet Lake is better positioned in her race than other prominent would-be GOP governors: In Pennsylvania and Michigan respectively, Republicans Doug Mastriano and Tudor Dixon are trailing their Democratic opponents by double digits.

Last week, Lake made one of her first significant mistakes when she seemed to contradict her own campaign’s anti-abortion position—a confusion that may reflect an awareness that she still needs to attract independents and moderates for any hope of a November victory. At the Ask Me Anything event I attended last month in downtown Phoenix, Lake came onstage after the crowd had stood for both the Pledge of Allegiance and the national anthem, as if we were at a basketball game. She was late because she’d been in a huddle with her team. “I always like to start with a little prayer,” she explained to the audience with a smile.

For an hour, Lake answered questions from a moderator about rising homelessness in Phoenix (“We will provide help … But we will be banning urban camping in Arizona!”), and about how “Mama bears” feel about “critical race theory” in schools (“I don’t like this woke stuff, I really don’t. Am I alone in that?”). She spent a while talking about a few of her more interesting policy ideas, including an education plan that would give high-school kids the option to study a trade in school. Lake alluded to 2020 only briefly: “We can’t keep having every election where half of the electorate or more feels that the election—or knows the election—was not fair.”

All along, Lake’s campaign has seemed like an audition—not just before the people of Arizona but before all of MAGA world. If she wins on November 8, she will have proved that her smooth, put-together version of Trumpism works. The former president already loves her, talks about her, rallies with her—and, just maybe, might decide that she’d make the perfect running mate. “It’s not crazy to think she’d be on a Trump VP list,” Miller, the Trump-critical Republican strategist, told me. Over and over, Arizona strategists suggested the same thing. They could see Lake as “Trump’s Sarah Palin,” they told me—only Lake could be much more effective. (A spokesperson for Trump did not respond to requests for comment on this.)

Lake has grown accustomed to the heat of the national spotlight, and even if next month doesn’t go her way, she won’t be retreating to her Phoenix home. With her TV experience, she could join a pro-Trump network. Another Arizona Senate seat will be open in two years, and she’d have a good shot at it. The MAGA movement will carry on, regardless of the midterms outcome—and Lake will be at the forefront of it. Or, as Meghan McCain put it to me, “Even if she loses, she’s won.”

Late on August 2, several hours after polls had closed, Lake’s campaign learned that she’d taken the lead in the primary. There were still many votes to count, and most news organizations hadn’t yet called the race, including Fox. But Lake walked onstage in a satiny blue shirt. “We are going to win this,” she told the crowd of lingering supporters, while a ceiling-high projection of the Arizona state flag rippled behind her. She promised to continue her crusade to root out corruption in Arizona’s elections, and she addressed Republican state legislature candidates in the back of the room. “The first week, we’ve got to have legislation to turn these elections around,” she instructed them. “No more corrupt elections, no more BS. We will not take it!”

A few moments later, Lake spoke to the rest of the audience, her voice low but forceful. “God placed us here for a reason,” she said. “The very same God who parted the Red Sea, the very same God who moved mountains, is with us right now as we take back our country and save this republic.”