SCOTTSDALE, Ariz.—Call it a tale of two campaign strategies. In the final days and weeks of Arizona’s midterm elections, the major Republican and Democratic hopefuls have embarked on strikingly different approaches. Whereas Republicans are running as a unified slate, branding themselves as a single ticket, Democrats are running more of an every-candidate-for-themselves playbook.
The notably divergent game plans were on full display this weekend. In Scottsdale, north of Phoenix, all of the GOP candidates for statewide office—Kari Lake for governor, Blake Masters for Senate, Abe Hamadeh for attorney general, and Mark Finchem for secretary of state—held a campaign rally together on Saturday, with a massive charter bus that has their faces plastered on its side outside the venue.
A day later, more than 100 miles southeast, both Katie Hobbs, Arizona’s secretary of state and Democratic nominee for governor, and Sen. Mark Kelly, who’s running for reelection, held events at the same time in the same city, but in different locations. Kelly rallied students at the University of Arizona in Tucson, while Hobbs worked to mobilize voters at a nearby senior center, where she warned the audience that her bid against Lake was “perhaps the most important election for governor in Arizona’s history.”
The Republican’s united front began to coalesce over the summer, after a spate of candidates endorsed by former President Donald Trump won their primaries, but really picked up steam in the fall. The four statewide candidates have rallied together virtually every day over the last month. At each stop, their backers write encouraging messages in Sharpie on their “Arizona First” get-out-the-vote bus.
According to multiple Arizona Republican sources, the candidates are hoping to capitalize on the intense enthusiasm for Lake, the former television journalist who entered politics last year and who has taken Arizona by storm.
Lake, who insists that Joe Biden didn’t win the 2020 election and has been coy about whether she would accept Tuesday’s election results if she loses, has become a MAGA sensation who regularly attracts huge crowds and has cultivated a fervent emotional connection with the state’s GOP base, drawing on her longtime presence in their lives as one of the top news anchors in Arizona’s largest market.
“I told Finchem, I told Blake: Just show up with Kari,” Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist and a conservative firebrand, tells TIME. “That’s all you need to do. She’s getting all the media. She’s getting crowds. It would be foolish to do anything else.”
They’ve taken his advice. In Scottsdale, before a packed crowd, they each took the stage one after the other. Signs on the wall read, “Vote for Lake, Blake, Mark & Abe.” As is usual for the headliner, Lake came on last and emphasized the importance of electing the other Republicans on the ticket to help enact her agenda.
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She said she needed Masters in the Senate to “push back against the overreach of the federal government.” She cast Hamadeh as a core partner who could help her secure the border and combat violent crime. “I’ve got to have an attorney general fighting along with me.” And she extolled Finchem, who rose to prominence as an outspoken voice denying Biden’s victory: “I need that cowboy.”
Republicans are betting that the strategy will pay off. While Lake remains in a tight race—she is polling 2.5 percentage points ahead of Hobbs in FiveThirtyEight’s polling average—she appears to be a galvanizing force. “She’s got coattails,” Bannon adds.
It’s not just Lake’s fan base that recognizes the trendline. “When you look at the numbers, especially when we polled the top four races, Kari Lake is unequivocally the anchor,” Mike Noble, chief researcher at the independent Arizona-based polling group OH Predictive Insights, tells TIME. “She is Arizona’s Donald Trump reincarnate. One hundred percent. She’s got that star power.”
Lake’s campaign says she is sharing the stage—and thus her avid followers—with the other Republicans to help elevate like-minded insurgent candidates who share her political goals.
“She does it because electing outsiders up and down the ballot who will relentlessly fight to put Arizona First is the most important thing we can do to save our state,” a campaign spokesperson tells TIME. “Career politicians Mark Kelly or Katie Hobbs don’t campaign together because they care more about their careers than the future of Arizona. The polls tell them the only thing more toxic than one leftist Democrat is two.”
Bannon pointed to a recent immigration roundtable event that Lake orchestrated in the border town of Sierra Vista with the rest of the Republican slate. “She was reaching out and bringing them into it, not trying to hog the spotlight like most others would,” he says. “She was doing the exact opposite.”
The Democrats, on the other hand, are mainly doing their own thing. They have campaigned together on a few occasions, such as when former President Barack Obama came to Arizona last week to energize the party’s base. Otherwise, Kelly, Hobbs, secretary of state candidate Adrian Fontes, and attorney general candidate Kris Mayes have largely run separate races.
“We have been campaigning all over the state, meeting voters directly in their communities and talking about my plans to take Arizona forward,” Hobbs tells TIME.
Sarah Guggenheimer, a spokeswoman for Kelly, frames the Senator’s approach to campaigning as a sign of his approach to governing. “Following in the footsteps of his predecessor Senator John McCain, Senator Kelly has been the independent senator that Arizona deserves, putting the needs of the state ahead of partisan politics,” she says.
Yet some Arizona Democrats have acknowledged that the problem may lie in the party’s lack of cohesion. “There’s something to be said for message coordination and message discipline,” Ron Ober, a veteran Phoenix-based Democratic strategist, tells TIME. The Democrats, he goes on, haven’t been “as coordinated and as crisp as the Republicans have been by running as a team.”
Right-wing activists have also noted the discrepancy between the two parties, and see it as an advantage with trying to win over the state’s independent voters. “We’re able to work together because everyone’s getting along,” Tyler Bower, the chief operating officer of the conservative group Turning Point Action, tells TIME. “We’re able to go out and evangelize to the independent space on a unified message.”
Along with the Democrats’ go-it-alone approach, the absence from the trail of an Arizona Democrat not even on the ballot this year hasn’t gone unnoticed. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema has rarely been seen stumping with Kelly or Hobbs. She was conspicuously missing last week when Obama came to rally for them at a high school gymnasium in Laveen Village.
Sinema, who joined the Senate in 2019, has been a thorn in the side of her fellow Democrats in the evenly split chamber, where she and Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia have repeatedly stymied Biden’s agenda on taxes, changing the filibuster, and other issues. While Sinema is now loathed by many liberals, she polls well with the up-for-grabs voters Hobbs needs, as 34% of the state’s electorate is independent.
Sinema has publicly spoken of her support for Kelly and has donated $10,000 to his campaign through her leadership PAC. She also recently said that she voted for Hobbs, but has stopped short of lending her credibility with Arizona’s independent voters to Hobbs by campaigning with her. Hobbs’ campaign confirmed that Sinema has not donated to her campaign.
Sinema’s absenteeism this cycle has been notable to Arizona political analysts, given that she and Hobbs have a history. Sinema helped to recruit Hobbs in 2010 to replace her seat in the Arizona House when Sinema ran for the state Senate.
“You’d think that Kysten Sinema would come to campaign for Katie,” Dave Wells, an Arizona State University politics professor, tells TIME. “She’s up for reelection in 2024. And it would help her with the Democratic base to see her campaigning for Democrats cause she never seems to do that here.”
In response to a question from TIME about why Sinema hasn’t been on the trail with Kelly or Hobbs, Hannah Hurley, a spokeswoman for Sinema, responded: “Kyrsten is working closely with Senator Kelly and is supporting him however he needs and however his campaign thinks is most helpful.” She did not mention Hobbs.
Some local insiders suspect that Democrats are distancing themselves from Hobbs, who has been seen as running a weaker campaign than Lake. Along with refusing to debate Lake, Hobbs has struggled to explain away a former employee’s lawsuit over racial and sexual discrimination, or a recent registration error in the secretary of state’s office that could affect up to 6,000 voters.
“I think that the way it played out certainly is that Hobbs has been a drag on everybody,” a veteran Arizona Democratic consultant, who spoke on condition of anonymity to speak more freely, tells TIME.
But the lack of coordination is not just from Sinema. Neither Hobbs nor Kelly speak about each others’ campaigns much on the stump, or that of Fontes and Mayes.
Lake, in contrast, seems to relish the opportunity to boost her fellow Republicans.
All of them, like her, have Trump’s stamp of approval and share many of the same core policy positions, including support for remaking Arizona election laws, enacting more stringent border policies, and castigating the way gender and racial issues are taught in public schools.
“We’ve got a great ticket,” Lake told her supporters on Saturday evening. “The media has been attacking us. I’ll tell you, vote for whoever the media has been attacking.”
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