In Tight Arizona Governor’s Race, a Democrat Looks to Abortion to Win

PHOENIX — Here was a debate that Katie Hobbs wanted to have.

For weeks, critics heckled Ms. Hobbs as a “coward” and “chicken” for refusing to share a debate stage with her combative, election-denying Republican rival in the race to become Arizona’s next governor. Some fellow Democrats fretted it was a dodge that risked alienating undecided voters who could tip the razor-thin race.

Then last Friday, a judge upended the campaign by resurrecting an 1864 law that bans nearly all abortions across Arizona, a ruling made possible by the overturning of Roe v. Wade. And Ms. Hobbs, Arizona’s Democratic secretary of state, seized what Democrats in this battleground state hoped would become a galvanizing moment.

She scrapped a campaign event and scrambled to arrange a news conference outside the office of the Republican state attorney general who had argued to reimpose the Old West-era abortion law. She vowed to repeal the ban and taunted Republicans for their muted responses to the abrupt halt of all abortions across Arizona.

She also spoke in starkly personal terms about how she had once had a miscarriage, and had needed a surgical procedure now being denied to women in states that have outlawed abortion. Ms. Hobbs says any abortion decisions should “rest solely between a woman and her doctor, not the government.”

“It’s difficult,” Ms. Hobbs said later about sharing her own story. “But there’s too much at stake in this election not to talk about that.”

The race for an open governor’s seat in Arizona has swelled into a bruising struggle over the evolving political identity of a traditionally conservative state that sends Democrats to Washington, while keeping Republicans in power at home.

Abortion rights supporters protest in Phoenix, after the U.S. Supreme Court decision to overturn the constitutional right to abortion.Credit…Joel Angel Juarez/USA Today Network/Via Reuters

The question now is whether Arizona will move left with Ms. Hobbs, a soft-spoken social worker and state politician, or veer deeper into MAGA territory by electing Kari Lake, a former local news anchor running on militarizing the nation’s southwestern border and amplifying falsehoods about the 2020 election.

“I really think this is a battle between two competing narratives,” said Kirk Adams, a Republican former speaker of the Arizona House and former chief of staff for the outgoing Republican governor, Doug Ducey. “Abortion rights and saving democracy on one hand and inflation and border security and a stolen election on the other.”

As secretary of state during the 2020 presidential election, Ms. Hobbs became a hero to Democrats for defending Arizona’s voting system from an onslaught of false accusations of fraud. She vaulted to the front of the Democratic primary for governor while also becoming a target of death threats and protests.

The State of the 2022 Midterm Elections

With the primaries over, both parties are shifting their focus to the general election on Nov. 8.

  • A Focus on Crime: In the final phase of the midterm campaign, Republicans are stepping up their attacks about crime rates, but Democrats are pushing back.
  • Pennsylvania Governor’s Race: Doug Mastriano, the Trump-backed G.O.P. nominee, is being heavily outspent and trails badly in polling. National Republicans are showing little desire to help him.
  • Megastate G.O.P. Rivalry: Against the backdrop of their re-election bids, Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas and Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida are locked in an increasingly high-stakes contest of one-upmanship.
  • Rushing to Raise Money: Senate Republican nominees are taking precious time from the campaign trail to gather cash from lobbyists in Washington — and close their fund-raising gap with Democratic rivals.

Her supporters cast the race against Ms. Lake as “sanity versus chaos,” and said Ms. Hobbs would take a bipartisan approach to tackling Arizona’s water shortages, meager school funding and spiraling housing costs. But even some supporters doubt whether her mild manner can stand up to Lake’s bolder one.

“I don’t think she has done as well as she should have,” said Claudia Underwood, a retired lawyer and Democrat in a corner of Phoenix with enviable views of Camelback Mountain, the city’s most famous peak. “She is not coming across as strong as I think she should.”

Ms. Lake has spent the race lobbing verbal grenades at Ms. Hobbs with a delivery honed during years anchoring local Fox newscasts. She has called for Ms. Hobbs to be jailed and needles her as “Katie.” Ms. Hobbs uses Ms. Lake’s full name or formally calls her “my opponent.”

While Ms. Lake has given speeches in front of roaring crowds at Trump rallies, Ms. Hobbs has run a campaign centered on smaller events with local and tribal leaders and student organizers, and house parties with supporters.

Supporters say she is genuine and caring, but even on the most comfortable terrain, she sometimes sticks to the script. At a recent roundtable with abortion-rights supporters, she hewed largely to prepared statements.

“She’s not going to get up at a rally like Ms. Lake does and get the crowd all stirred up,” said State Senator Lela Alston, a Democrat who once ran with Ms. Hobbs and U.S. Senator Kyrsten Sinema for their state legislative seats. “She’s much more thoughtful and available to people all over the state. I’m hoping the message gets out.”

Arizona Republican candidate for governor Kari Lake greets supporters at a rally in Tucson.Credit…Rebecca Noble for The New York Times

A handful of Democrats running for state legislative races said they had yet to get an invitation to campaign with her or appear together at an event. By contrast, Ms. Lake had two Republican state legislative candidates introduce themselves before she appeared at a friendly question-and-answer session with supporters.

“We have a candidate who isn’t out campaigning, so it’s hard to break through and keep those issues relevant if there’s nobody out there talking about them,” said Marco Lopez, Ms. Hobbs’s Democratic primary opponent.

Billy Grant, a consultant for Ms. Lake, has said that her campaign has focused on showing the clear contrasts between the two candidates and that she considered the border to be the top issue for voters in Arizona.

“Katie Hobbs was convinced she could win with the Joe Biden strategy of just running TV ads and hiding out from the public,” he said. “That is just not going to happen.”

Other Democrats argued Ms. Hobbs was right in running her own campaign and declining to debate an opponent who wrongly insists the 2020 election was stolen. The Republican nominees for Arizona’s most powerful statewide office this November have all made repeated false claims that the 2020 vote was fraudulent and rightfully won by Mr. Trump.

Racism and discrimination have also come up in uncomfortable ways for Ms. Hobbs. In November, a jury awarded $2.75 million to a Black staff member who worked under Ms. Hobbs in the State Senate, and who was fired in 2015 after complaining about her unequal pay.

The former staffer, Talonya Adams, has become a vocal critic of Ms. Hobbs, and Ms. Lake has used the lawsuit to call Ms. Hobbs a “convicted racist.” Ms. Hobbs released a statement apologizing to Ms. Adams.

Now, about two weeks before ballots are mailed out, interviews with voters across Arizona suggest that people’s priorities are splintered. While many Democrats cite abortion and democracy as top concerns, others who are just now tuning into the race say they are most worried about soaring food and rent costs and an increase in migrants attempting to cross Arizona’s southern border.

Jon Hernandez, 22, who says he is undecided but leaning toward voting for Ms. Lake, has spent the summer living at home with his parents and doing the “soul draining” work of a failed job hunt. He said he supported the Clinton-era pitch that abortion should be legal, safe and rare. But he said abortion was a lesser concern.

“It’s nowhere near as important,” he said. “If we don’t get control of rampant inflation and gas prices, that spells disaster for much more of the population. It’s like tiers of priorities.”

In an interview, Ms. Hobbs made a point of criticizing Ms. Lake’s anti-abortion stance as “extreme and out of touch.” Ms. Lake has called the 1864 ban “a great law” and has said she would support further anti-abortion measures as governor.

Kari Lake supporters gather in Tucson.Credit…Rebecca Noble for The New York Times

New polls of the governor’s race — a virtual dead heat — suggest that those laws are out of step with an electorate that is getting younger, increasingly Latino and pulling a traditionally conservative state closer to the political center.

On her website, Ms. Lake pledges to support all forms of birth control, as well as state government programs to help pregnant mothers seek alternatives to abortion, such as adoption, and provide resources for parental support and guidance. She also says fathers must be “held accountable.”

Some 90 percent of Arizona voters said abortion should always be legal, or should be legal in some circumstances, according to a survey conducted in early September by the Phoenix-based firm OH Predictive Insights. And 45 percent said that a candidate’s stance on abortion had a strong impact on their vote.

“It’s just scary,” said Andrea Luna Cervantes, a reproductive-rights activist in Phoenix. “Because you’re a woman, because you’re a person who can give birth, your rights can be just stripped.”

Ms. Cervantes said she got involved in abortion-rights activism after seeing people she knew face pregnancies with few resources or options other than carrying them to term. She said she planned to vote for Ms. Hobbs, but some family members back in Yuma were unconvinced.

The ban struck a chord with some Indigenous voters, who make up 5 percent of the state’s population. Anjeanette Laban, a member of the Hopi Tribe, said reproductive health care was already dangerously scarce and distant. She saw the end of abortion access in Arizona as another colonial oppression. She said that she knew little about the candidates running, but that the abortion issue would determine her vote.

“They’re still trying to dictate what we can do, how they can limit us,” she said.

In recent weeks, Ms. Hobbs has been leaning into the issue of abortion in email blasts to supporters, and the Arizona Democratic Party has released a new television ad slamming Ms. Lake for saying she did not believe abortion should be legal.

“Since Roe v. Wade was overturned, Arizona has reverted back to a 100-year-old law that criminalizes abortion, and Kari Lake — she supports that,” Chris Nanos, the Pima County sheriff, says in the ad.

After the abortion ban ruling, Ms. Lake called Ms. Hobbs “radical” on the issue during an interview on Fox News. On Monday, she emailed supporters keeping up her critique of Ms. Hobbs on immigration. The subject line was “Open Borders Katie.”

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