Inside Kari Lake’s war room, where Republicans prepare for likely loss

Washington Post photo by Joshua Lott
Kari Lake, the Republican gubernatorial nominee in Arizona, speaks at an election-night event in Scottsdale, Ariz., on Nov. 8, 2022.

PHOENIX – Kari Lake, staring down a likely loss in the Arizona governor’s race, is being advised by GOP operatives and some of her closest aides to take a measured approach should she come up short in the vote tally and not “storm the castle,” as one person present for the discussions described the sentiments.

Lawyers, political operatives and other people around the Republican nominee worked over the weekend from a “war room” inside a Scottsdale resort to prepare her for what they expect to be a stinging loss to Democrat Katie Hobbs, according to people familiar with the discussions, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share private details.

Lake has been among the nation’s most outspoken promoters of former president Donald Trump’s disproved claims that he was cheated out of victory in the 2020 election. Voters rejected election-denying candidates in key battleground states nationwide this year, and many of those candidates have responded by doing what Trump wouldn’t: concede defeat.

With about 160,000 votes left to be counted, Lake trailed Hobbs on Monday by 26,000 votes. Recent tallies have not been as favorable to the Republican as Lake would need to close the gap. She may even be slipping out of the range that would trigger a recount, which occurs when no more than 0.5 percent of the vote separates the candidates.

Some campaign aides and Republican operatives, looking at internal data, have grown increasingly doubtful over the last three days that Lake has a path to victory. To remain viable, they said, she may need to claim as much as 65 percent of the next batch of votes in Maricopa County, home to Phoenix and more than half of the state’s voters, while also over-performing in Pima County, home to Tucson.

Trump urged his supporters to march on the U.S. Capitol after his loss, and the question of how Lake would respond to defeat has lingered as one of the biggest unanswered questions of the 2022 election. The candidate has been coy in her public statements since Election Day. She has sharply criticized Maricopa County for voting machine malfunctions and hinted at a devious, partisan motive, while also urging patience as the votes are counted.

Within Lake’s war room, where the mood has shifted in the past week from giddy anticipation to grim resignation, discussions have centered on how Lake should speak about a loss. Among those who have made appearances are some of the biggest names in Trump’s orbit, including Stephen K. Bannon and Christina Bobb, a former One America News anchor who aided a review of 2.1 million ballots in Maricopa County after the 2020 election. Trump himself called in on Sunday.

Discussions have ranged from how Lake could acknowledge a loss to whether she should adopt Trump’s playbook and claim the election was stolen from her. Some want her message to center on problems with printers on Election Day that affected 30 percent of polling sites.

“Nobody is advocating to go storm the castle,” one person familiar with the discussions said, while multiple people said the conversations were fluid and that anger about the process on Election Day was pronounced.

People around Lake have told her it would not be in her best interest to claim the election was stolen. They have also warned of possible harm to Arizona, and the country more broadly, if the state became home to a resurgent “Stop the Steal” movement. Others have cautioned against disrupting the ongoing count and decided that there is little the campaign can meaningfully do to change the outcome.

At the same time, Lake relies largely on her own instincts, according to current and former aides, and may go in a different direction than the one suggested by her team and those in the war room. GOP activists, including some in touch with Lake during her campaign, are threatening litigation and seeking to gather testimonials from voters who claim to have been turned away at the polls.

Hobbs began the count with a substantial lead. Lake advisers had hoped that later batches of votes – drawn from Election Day ballots they thought would be favorable to Lake – would catch her up. But the results are not breaking as heavily in her favor as anticipated. Lake criticized the state’s early-voting system throughout her campaign and urged people to vote in person on Election Day or to drop off their early ballots at the polls.

Additional results from Maricopa County were expected to post late Monday. People in the GOP war room expect those results to cut into Hobbs’s lead, but probably not by enough to change the trajectory of the contest.

The subdued mood in the war room, where those gathered in recent days downed coffee and ate pizza and sandwiches, marks a reversal from days earlier. The day after voting ended, Lake was holed up in meetings about a potential transition into the governor’s office – examining resumes and talking with business leaders and GOP hands about spots on her team.

Now, the mood inside a large conference room filled with televisions and strewn coffee cups has shifted from elation to a mix of anger and resignation that Hobbs may be on her way to flipping the governorship blue after more than a decade of Republican control.

Lake, members of her campaign team and her allies have huddled at various times at the hotel in recent days, culminating in a phone call with the former president on Sunday in a side room near the conference space. Trump, who made Arizona a centerpiece of his false claims of voter fraud in 2020, expressed disbelief that the Republican candidates were losing, according to three people with knowledge of the call.

But Lake has mostly fallen silent in recent days, even as Hobbs on Sunday issued a statement from her campaign manager saying the Democrat was the “unequivocal favorite to become the next governor of Arizona.”

Lake’s team did not respond to a request for comment about that claim, and the Republican nominee – usually busy on social media – did not tweet for more than 24 hours, breaking her silence midday Monday with a clipped communication. “Arizona, I am fighting for you,” she posted on Twitter.

An adviser said Lake would probably appear on a Fox News show on Monday evening. “Everybody expects us to be screaming, and we’re doing the opposite,” the adviser said.

In addition to Lake’s closest advisers and some attorneys, other allies have filtered in and out of the war room, according to people with knowledge of the activity there.

They include Ric Grenell, who served as Trump’s acting director of national intelligence, and Bobb, who serves as a lawyer for Trump’s political action committee and has been interviewed by the FBI regarding her involvement in the case arising from Trump’s handling of sensitive documents allegedly taken to Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s home and club in Florida.

Additional people present have included Bannon, a former White House chief strategist and host of a far-right radio show, and Tyler Bowyer, chief operating officer of the political arm of the pro-Trump youth group Turning Point USA.

Bowyer directed efforts through Turning Point’s PAC to help Lake and a slate of GOP candidates who appear on track to win seats in the state legislature. After problems at polling sites were discovered on Tuesday, Bowyer has threatened to launch recall campaigns against Bill Gates, the Republican chair of Maricopa’s board of supervisors, which oversees Election Day operations and vote counting, and Stephen Richer, the Republican recorder responsible for early voting.

“Go talk to your neighbor about how incompetent Lil’ Bill is and help recall the people responsible for this international embarrassment,” Bowyer wrote Saturday on Twitter.

In a statement to The Washington Post, Gates said he was focused on finishing running the 2022 election and governing Maricopa County. Richer, through an aide, declined to comment.

Gates, Richer and other county leaders have repeatedly said problems at polling sites on Election Day did not prevent voters from casting their ballots or cause any ballots to be misread. Voters were instructed to wait until problems were fixed, travel to different voting centers or to place their ballots in secure boxes that were transferred downtown and counted there. But those familiar with conversations inside the war room said the Election Day problems could be the subject of litigation.

Mark Finchem, the GOP candidate for secretary of state who on Friday was projected to lose, has also stopped in at the Scottsdale resort where Republicans are huddling. He has refused to concede, tweeting unsupported conspiracy theories about George Soros, the Jewish financier and donor to Democratic causes, and Sam Bankman-Fried, the cryptocurrency investor and Democratic donor whose business empire has crumbled in recent days.

Finchem on Monday sent out a fundraising appeal to his supporters saying, “This fight is not over. This race is not over. I need your help today to fight back against the Fake News Machine that is spewing Leftist Propaganda hoping we won’t notice!”

Grenell, Bobb and Finchem did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

People familiar with the discussions said Bannon and Caroline Wren, a senior adviser to Lake and a veteran GOP fundraiser, were clear-eyed about the unfavorable numbers.

Still, in a monologue Monday morning on his “War Room” radio show, Bannon railed against Maricopa County, describing the Election Day glitches as “an active disenfranchisement of voters in Arizona on the world stage.” Later Monday, he said, “We have to stop the certification.” Republicans had asked a judge to extend voting hours on Election Day as a result of the problems, but the judge denied their request, finding that they were unable to show that any voter had been denied the ability to cast a ballot.

Lake and her allies have argued that the problems only affected Republican areas. But an analysis by The Post found that the proportion of registered Republicans in affected precincts, about 37 percent, was virtually the same as the share of registered Republicans across the county, which stands at 35 percent.

Maricopa County officials have said that they are working as long as 18 hours a day to tabulate a record number of ballots dropped off on Election Day and that the process was always expected to take as long as 12 days.