In Arizona’s Senate Race, Everyone Is Waiting on Kari Lake

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A few months ago, Kari Lake met with a trusted confidante. After refusing to concede her narrow loss for Arizona governor, the former news anchor’s legal effort to reverse Democrat Katie Hobbs’ victory was nearing its end, and she was thinking ahead to what would come next. She wanted to discuss her plans to run for the U.S. Senate.

“You really can’t afford one more loss,” warned the source close to Lake, who requested anonymity to speak freely, emphasizing the level of resistance she would face vying for a Senate seat in a swing state that could determine the balance of power in Washington. “The Democrats might drop $50 million on you. They don’t want a conservative firebrand, a female Ted Cruz, a female Mike Lee, who is telegenic and really well-spoken. They would probably spend a lot of money to destroy you.”

Lake threw her arms in the air and chuckled. “They’re going to come after me anyways no matter what I do,” the source recalls Lake saying. “She didn’t really give a sh-t.”

It was a sign that Lake, 53, was near certain of her next steps, even as she was waiting for her legal fight to conclude before making it official. In the intervening weeks, as primaries have started to take shape around the country, the situation in Arizona is unusual, in part because Lake is still not finished with her litigation. A Maricopa County judge rejected her case for a second time last week, but Lake has already filed an appeal. She broke that news at a Scottsdale rally she held Thursday night, with hundreds in attendance, as all eyes in Arizona and Washington are on the MAGA darling who boasts a loyal following that sees her as the torchbearer of a populist crusade.

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But a Senate announcement is not imminent, according to multiple sources familiar with the matter. While her team once floated the idea of launching her candidacy in June, Lake has pushed a possible Senate campaign start to September or October­. It would come after she goes on a nationwide book tour upon releasing her memoir on June 27.

The delay is leaving the field of other potential GOP candidates stuck in a state of limbo as they await her decision. Lake remains highly popular among a plurality of Arizona Republicans, positioning her as the immediate frontrunner for her party’s nomination. Several prospective Senate hopefuls have been holding back until they know for certain what the right-wing sensation known for her Trump-inspired theatrical fearlessness will do. It’s creating an especially difficult dilemma for those with a smaller national profile, who would need more time to get their fundraising and field operation off the ground.

“She’s going to be like the Donald Trump of the GOP primary,” Mike Noble, chief researcher at the independent Phoenix-based polling group Noble Predictive Insights, tells TIME. “It’s just really hard to get around that 40 or so percent of support. She’s still beatable, but it’s tough. It’s super tough. Hence, why a lot of the field is frozen.”

Read more: How Kari Lake Went From Local Anchor to New Face of the MAGA Right

Lake’s deliberations come ahead of one of the most highly anticipated Senate races of next year. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, who left the Democratic Party in December to become an independent, will be up for reelection. Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego is challenging her from the left. Sinema has not yet said she will run again, but she has been laying the groundwork to seek a second term, setting up a likely three-way race in a state that is 34% Republican, 34% Independent, and 30% Democratic, according to state data.

Complicating matters for Arizona Republicans has been Lake’s unwillingness to firmly commit to the race, even in private. “Kari Lake remains laser focused on her court case,” Caroline Wren, a senior adviser to Lake, tells TIME, noting her latest appeal filed on Thursday. “You will see more filings in the coming days. Kari Lake is not stopping and she will never back down.” The seeming ambivalence has led some to suggest that Lake has been dangling the possibility of a Senate candidacy to maintain relevance and media interest.

That impression has been compounded by her habit of faking out possible launches. On her social media accounts, she recently teased out a “Big Announcement,” prompting widespread speculation that she was hopping into the Senate race. Instead, it was to advertise her upcoming book, Unafraid: Just Getting Started. Last week, she held a press conference the day after the judge ruled against her election case, promising another “Big Announcement.” This was to unveil a new “ballot-chasing operation” intended to boost Republican turnout in Arizona through mail balloting. “There’s a little bit of toying with the media to be had,” Brady Smith, a staffer on Lake’s governor campaign, tells TIME.

Smith insists her flirtation with a Senate bid is not a ploy. “In all our talks, it’s looking extremely, extremely likely,” he says. “I wouldn’t say 100%. But I really do think 99% is a very fair number.”

Over the last few months, Lake has been meeting with donors and gauging interest. She’s met twice with the National Republican Senate Committee. Sources say the GOP’s Senate campaign arm has plainly recognized she would be difficult to beat in a nominating contest. Therefore, it is working to avoid, as best as it can, a repeat of last year’s bitter and bloody GOP primary for Arizona governor. Some conservatives suspect the $20 million in attack ads that wealthy businesswoman Karrin Taylor Robson launched against Lake in the final weeks of the campaign hurt Lake’s standing with moderate Republicans in the general election. Because Arizona’s primary comes so late in the cycle—in August—candidates don’t have as much wiggle room to recover from internecine infighting as they do in other states. “Not a lot of time for those wounds from the primary to heal,” Smith says.

As of now, there is only one Republican in the race: Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb, who is well-liked in conservative circles but not considered a formidable challenger to Lake. Robson, who lost to Lake by five points in the 2022 gubernatorial primary, said last week she wouldn’t run. (Sources close to her say she’s holding off to try again for governor in 2026.) Former Gov. Doug Ducey has shown no interest in a Senate run. Former solar executive Jim Lamon, who ran for Senate last year but lost in the GOP primary, has told associates he would run if no real challenger to Lake emerges. He has the means to self-fund his bid, but it’s unclear how much he would be willing to spend on what may well be a futile endeavor.

The other wildcard is Blake Masters, the young venture capitalist who lost to Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly last year. Arizona Republicans have been impressed with Masters’ introspection since falling to Kelly by more than 100,000 votes in November. He’s made clear to party insiders his desire to seek public office again and has recognized a need to soften his image. Sources familiar with his thinking say he would prefer not to go up against Lake, but he won’t wait on her to make his own decision.

An April poll of registered Republican and undeclared voters conducted by J.L. Partners found Lake leading all potential rivals by double digits. The survey showed Lake with 38% support, compared to 10% for Robson, 8% for Lamb, and 7% for Masters.

With the clock ticking, some Arizona political veterans are bracing for the possibility that Lake could run without a serious challenger. “That’s a depressing likelihood,” Steve May, a former member of the Arizona House who has a declared antipathy to Trump-affiliated pols, tells TIME. “I don’t know what polling Lamon and others are seeing. But I don’t know what the path is for someone to beat her.”

If Lake does face a strong adversary, they are likely to argue that she’s not electable in a conservative state that has spurned MAGA candidates in the last three election cycles, says Chuck Coughlin, CEO and founder of the Arizona consultancy HighGround. Her slim loss of 17,000 votes against Hobbs, who was widely viewed as having run a lackluster campaign, is evidence, he argues, that most of the state’s voters don’t want election-denying America First adherents in office.

“She could have won if she bought a f-cking ticket to Hawaii and left,” Coughlin tells TIME. “Honest to God, if she just shut up, she would have won. There’s no doubt in my mind about that. She was consistently hurting herself, as she’s consistently continued to do, by limiting her ability to appeal to a broader section of voters.”

For her part, Lake has been sending a message that there are some ways she would run her campaign differently. Most notably, she’s set up a new ground operation to encourage Republicans to vote by mail, even as she still excoriates the voting method. “We’ve gotta stop the machines,” she told a right-wing media personality Wednesday night. “We have to stop the mail-in ballots.”

Since former President Donald Trump castigated mail ballots as rife with fraud, GOP voters have mostly flocked to in-person Election Day voting, a move that influential conservatives have increasingly come to recognize as a strategic blunder, especially after the party’s poor national showing in the midterms.

In Arizona, hundreds of thousands of Arizona Republicans who were sent mail-in ballots never returned them. That wasn’t necessarily surprising; the party apparatus was far more invested in mobilizing Election Day turnout. But it marked a stark contrast to Democratic campaigns and activist groups that had operations in place to surgically target their own voters who were automatically sent mail ballots, thereby giving them a competitive advantage in a state where more than 80% of voters cast early ballots. “I think Republicans now in Arizona have decided if you cannot beat them, you must join them,” a source close to Lake says. By launching a ballot-chasing operation, Lake can not only raise funds for her nonprofit group and the initiative, her aides say, but convey to fellow Republicans that she’s learned some of the lessons of the last election.

“This hopefully sends a signal to insiders and national committees that we’re not going to be bastardizing mail-in ballots. In fact, we’re going to be embracing them,” Smith says. “This is not a re-litigation of 2022. We’re willing to make necessary changes to be victorious.”

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