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The Empress of Trollistan: Kari Lake Is Having the Time of Her Life
The party that's having fun usually wins.
Hey fam: JVL here. Tim has taken over the Triad this morning with a report from on the ground in Arizona. Instead of guessing about what’s going to happen today, he has some lessons that Democrats should already be learning from the Hobbs and Lake campaigns.
TNB is TONIGHT. Come hang out with me, Charlie Sykes, Bill Kristol, Ted Johnson, Will Saletan, and Tim Miller (who’s going to join us from the Kari Lake election night party).
We’ll start the livestream at 9:30 pm in the East.
Now, let’s hand the show over to Tim Miller. —JVL
Arizona—It’s morning in Tucson and a wan Katie Hobbs speaks briefly to an empty parking lot, eyes darting to the ground. A few older liberal activist-types stand to her side. Scattered signage warns of the possible end to democracy and abortion rights. If it wasn’t for the campaign bus, you might have thought it was a gathering for a county council race in a remote desert hamlet. Both the candidate and I were chilly.
It’s sundown at the red barn in Queen Creek. Back stage, bro-staffers take long tugs on their vape pens, while VIPs gather excitedly. There’s Ambassador to Trollistan Ric Grenell chatting with Jack Posobiec, the MAGA star who once traveled to a DC pizza parlor to investigate a purported child sex trafficking ring. There’s the celebrity sheriff in a 10 gallon cowboy hat. There’s the twice-indicted and currently triple-shirted Steve Bannon milling about with his brother, who looks out of place in a blue sport coat and khakis. Out front a line of self-described deplorables queue down a long dirt road. The arriving throngs have all the MAGA regalia, decked out in t-shirts with Trump giving Kamala the bird and sweatshirts pimping Kash Patel’s legal “offense” fund, and of course their favorite, the red MAGA hats. As this hipster fake newsman walks by, setting the scene for a Showtime camera crew, they shout “Trump Won” and chant “Let’s Go Brandon,” with both menace and mischievousness. You can feel the intensity in the air. From the barn a playlist out of an ‘80s gay club blares.
I think I’m heading for a breakdown, but I’m careful not to show it.
At two campaign stops along I-10 in the Arizona desert, you could see the dangerous road our polity is traveling, the flaws and pathologies of our two parties laid bare.
Democrats are lifeless and insulated by a bubble that feels separate from many regular people’s concerns.
Republicans are crazed and ensconced in their own bubble of disreality, basking in the serotonin rush that comes from voicing their shared resentments and loathings.
This was not a universal experience, but the story was directionally similar at other events I went to across the country, most notably in Washington State, where spunky Republican Senate challenger Tiffany Smiley is taking on sleepy incumbent Patty Murray. We will find out to what extent this campaign energy chasm manifests itself at the ballot box this evening. It is not unheard of for the side with the more rabid crowd to fail to translate that energy into broad-based support; we saw such a campaign in 2020.
But even if the Democrats have a surprisingly good night, even if Katie Hobbs pulls it out and Republicans fumble winnable Senate races, that doesn't mean there isn’t anything to learn from the contrast.
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For starters, the GOP voters are turning out for Mr. Trump, Ms. Lake, vaccine denialism, transphobia, conspiracy mongering, mocking the media, and humiliating the libs. Generally late in a campaign you see politicians try to tack to the middle. In Arizona you might have expected the Republican closing argument to be an appeal to the McCain/Flake swing voter who abandoned the party in 2020. But that was not what Kari Lake was selling at her final rallies.
The woman who once told McCain voters to “get the hell out” offered no paeans to the old guard. Instead she shared the stage with the most extreme media personalities in her party and invited a man who shouted about being unvaccinated to receive adulation from the crowd, “Good for you. Stand up,” she commanded.
We also were reminded, once again, that the Republican activist class is not ready to move on from The Donald. The energized rally goers at the Lake event erupted in applause at calls to prosecute Anthony Fauci and bring back Trump in 2024. You think those people are going to wait in line for Glenn Youngkin or Mike Pompeo or—God forbid—Mike Pence? Preposterous. The only way any Trump challenger could win these people over would be to out-alpha him . . . and color me skeptical that the tubby, short-armed man in the white wellingtons is up for that task.1
The cultishness of the rally was more than a bit freaky, but it offered something instructive. The masses gathering at the barn were . . . having fun. Maybe not quite as much fun as my pals in Tiger Stadium on Saturday Night, but something in the ballpark of that. They put on their team jerseys and saw their favorite players and laughed and jeered and chanted. There were the kind of superfans who show up to all the rallies and these regulars delighted in their in-jokes and put downs of the other tribe.
I texted a Lake staffer to chide them about one such “joke” the candidate made about an (imaginary) “Clinton Kill List,” seeing as this particular conspiracy has led to real-life pain, particularly for the family of Seth Rich. Her reply was interesting, “Our whole theme is Make Politics Fun Again . . . even Obama said that a couple weeks ago,” she wrote.
Now, I’m not suggesting that Democrats take a page from the Kari Lake playbook and start spreading harmful and baseless lies for the lulz . . . but there’s something to be said for fun.
People like fun! Lake’s opponent’s campaign is not having much of it and, let me tell you, everyone I talked to in the state who was paying attention to the race could sense that.
Fun isn’t everything, obviously. Political power is consequential. It matters. The stakes are high, as I’m sure you’ve heard us democracy-lovers say over and over (and over). But actually appealing to people is a pretty important part of this whole democracy deal, too.
If you want people to vote for you, they kinda have to like you, at least on some level. Most people prefer the happy warrior to the “buzzkill.” And generally speaking candidates and campaigns get more out of their biggest supporters if their engagement is fulfilling and exciting rather than boring and dutiful.
Over the past few weeks former President Obama showed Democrats how a politician can balance substance and style. But the joie de vivre he brought to the trail was palpably absent from most of the other Democratic functions I attended down the stretch.
Maybe they’ll get an injection of gaiety from the results this evening.
If not, Democrats might want to start having fun again before they start to blow it.
One person who certainly seems to fit the MAGA bill is Lake herself, though she certainly wouldn’t challenge her #1 man. But one bit of scuttlebutt I picked up at her event was about a hurdle to making the party’s It Woman, Trump’s veep: Arizona does not have a Lieutenant Governor, so it’s the Secretary of State who is first in the line of succession. On the ballot this year is Proposition 131 which would give the governor the ability to change that and appoint an LG. This may turn out to be a consequential initiative, since polls show the Republican Mark Finchem running behind Lake, and it’s hard to imagine her leaving the governorship to Democrat Adrian Fontes, should Fontes win and become the sitting Secretary of State.