In final weeks of Arizona governor’s race, Lake’s outreach to Jewish voters yields mixed results

The results have been varied for Kari Lake, an outspoken election denier who has struggled to distance herself from antisemitic figures

Until recently, it had seemed as if Kari Lake, the telegenic Republican nominee for Arizona governor, was building a meaningful support base among prominent Jewish leaders in the Copper State, even as she has frequently struggled to distance herself from a growing number of white nationalists and antisemites connected to her campaign.

The Trump-endorsed former news anchor and far-right election denier has drawn scrutiny for posing with a Nazi sympathizer and — more recently — receiving an endorsement from the controversial founder of a social media platform for extremists, whose support she rejected. In August, however, Lake came under additional fire for backing an Oklahoma state Senate candidate who — despite a well-documented history of antisemitic and homophobic remarks — she had praised as a “fighter” and “patriot” targeted by “the Soros media.”

Facing backlash, Lake, 53, quickly rebounded the following month, when her campaign announced the formation of a new group called the “Jewish Voices for Kari Coalition.” Touting support from several active members of Scottsdale’s conservative Jewish community, the statement included an enthusiastic comment from Pinchas Allouche, the widely respected rabbi of an Orthodox Jewish congregation in Scottsdale, Congregation Beth Tefillah. He described a productive “roundtable” discussion, covering such issues as education, antisemitism and Israel, whose water technology advancements Lake has applauded as a model for Arizona.

But such goodwill had largely evaporated by early October, after her campaign ran a half-page print advertisement in a local paper, The Jewish News of Greater Phoenix, including a photo prominently featuring Allouche standing alongside Lake and in front of a “Jewish Voices for Kari” poster emblazoned with the Star of David. The ad, which apparently suggested that Lake had earned Allouche’s endorsement, caused an outcry within Arizona’s tight-knit Jewish community, not least because congregational rabbis do not typically back political candidates. 

That Allouche had been publicly linked to a candidate who, by varying degrees, has aligned her campaign with a range of extremists was even more distressing, said Denyse Lieber, a resident of North Scottsdale who — in a recent letter to Allouche shared with Jewish Insider — claimed he had blurred “the line that separates ‘church and state,’” while allowing himself “to become one of” Lake’s “props.”

In an urgent statement to the Jewish News published a couple of weeks after the ad had run, Allouche emphasized that he had never endorsed Lake’s campaign, saying he was “deeply disappointed by” the effort to portray him as a supporter and insisting that he “will forever remain apolitical.” 

Adam Kwasman, a former Republican state lawmaker who chairs Lake’s Jewish coalition, said the photo “was a mistake” that the Lake campaign has “fully acknowledged.” But the campaign does not appear to have addressed the ad publicly, and a spokesperson for Lake did not respond to requests for clarification from JI.

The consequential, if convoluted, sequence of events has largely gone undetected by Arizona’s broader electorate as well as mainstream media outlets in Arizona and beyond — as many statewide Republican candidates have come under scrutiny for alleged instances of antisemitism. 

Meanwhile, Lake has consistently courted controversy for a range of outlandish statements on abortion, immigration and the 2020 presidential election, whose outcome she continues to reject. The charismatic former longtime TV anchor at Channel 10, the local Fox News affiliate in Phoenix, has frequently proven adept at exploiting even the perception of scandal, including last year, when her widely publicized resignation from the news industry quickly led to an unlikely bid for the governorship. 

Former U.S. President Donald Trump embraces Arizona Republican gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake at a campaign rally at Legacy Sports USA on October 09, 2022 in Mesa, Arizona. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

But with just a few weeks remaining until the November election, local political observers say the embarrassing mixup with Allouche — among other recent missteps — may provide Lake’s Democratic rival, Katie Hobbs, with some much-needed ammunition to fortify an offensive push while expanding support from Jewish voters in Arizona.

“I am sure Katie will capitalize on the opportunity by reaching out to the Jewish community and articulating her inclusive vision,” said Adam Goodman, a board member with the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Phoenix. “Arizona’s Jewish community rarely votes as a block, but Katie has an opportunity to unite us behind her message. That could be decisive; but the race is so tight even the beekeeper’s coalition could be decisive.”

There is little doubt that Hobbs could use a boost, however slight. While public polling suggests the high-profile race remains closely divided, Hobbs has faced mounting scrutiny for refusing to participate in a televised debate while shirking interviews with reporters. Such decisions, among others, have been used by Lake as well as her Republican allies to relentlessly cast Hobbs as missing in action, if not unqualified for Arizona’s top job. “Where is Katie?” Lake asked tauntingly in a recent tweet.

In a statement to JI, Hobbs, a former Arizona legislator who now serves as secretary of state, kept the focus on Lake’s extremism, casting her connections to the far right as a threat to Jewish community members amid an uptick in antisemitic hate crimes that she vowed to aggressively counter as governor.

“Kari Lake has surrounded herself with antisemites and white supremacists during her entire campaign and when she’s been rightfully held accountable for it, she’s deflected and failed to distance herself from their horrific rhetoric and actions,” Hobbs, 52, said earlier this month. “At a time when we’re seeing a dangerous rise in antisemitism across the country, we need leaders who are willing to wholly reject this when they see it and be outspoken in protecting the Jewish community.”

Two weeks ago, Hobbs met with Allouche for a long-anticipated discussion, as the rabbi seeks to show he is a neutral arbiter following the botched campaign ad. In a Twitter post featuring her own photo with the rabbi, Hobbs said she was “grateful for the knowledge and reflections” he “shared with” her, adding: “I look forward to working together to stand up to antisemitism in every form.” 

The meeting took place at the rabbi’s behest, he explained in an email exchange with JI. He had reached out to the Hobbs campaign “multiple times,” he said, “and they finally responded, agreeing to a one-on-one meeting,” on Oct. 12. The rabbi said he did not “have any public comments to make about” his conversation with Hobbs, “except to say that she pledged her support for the Jewish community and for her fight against the BDS movement and antisemitism,” alluding to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement targeting Israel.

For Hobbs’ opponents, BDS represents a potential vulnerability, even if it has yet to break through as an issue of consequence, in contrast with Arizona’s state treasurer race, where the two candidates are bitterly divided on such matters. 

Still, Kwasman, the chairman of Lake’s Jewish coalition — which, amid the recent fallout, seems to have gone silent in the final weeks of the race — accused Hobbs of casting an irredeemably misguided vote nearly seven years ago, when she was among a small handful of state legislators who, in 2016, objected to anti-BDS legislation seeking to bar companies contracting with the Arizona state government from participating in boycotts of Israel. 

“Her record is extremely radical, especially when it comes to Israel,” Kwasman, who overlapped with Hobbs in the state legislature, told JI last month. “That was a vastly bipartisan bill that sailed through the House and Senate and was signed by Gov. Ducey,” he added, referring to Doug Ducey, the retiring Republican governor, who is term-limited. “She voted against the bill.”

A spokesperson for Hobbs defended the vote, noting that “the legislature’s own nonpartisan lawyers said the bill the Republicans were offering was unconstitutional.” While the bill did garner overwhelming support from both parties, it was later blocked in federal court on free speech grounds, “which is why Katie voted against it,” according to a campaign representative. The legislation was subsequently tweaked, signed into law in 2019 and ultimately upheld in federal court following a final appeal. 

By that time, Hobbs had already ascended to higher office, where she rose to prominence as an outspoken defender of Arizona’s presidential election results. But Hobbs’ campaign confirmed to JI that she “opposes the BDS movement and would veto any bills that seek to promote it.”

Alma Hernandez, a state representative from Tucson who is supporting Hobbs, said she was unconcerned by the BDS vote, echoing the sentiments of several Jewish leaders who recently spoke with JI. While acknowledging that she would have supported the bill herself, Hernandez, a Jewish Democrat who is among the most vocal supporters of Israel in Arizona’s legislature, speculated that Hobbs had probably voted “no” because of what she characterized as “a lack of education around” the issue. “I hope now that she knows the issue a little better, she would support this bill.”

More broadly, Hernandez suggested that such issues were a deflection from concerns associated with Lake’s campaign, which have even turned some Republican leaders in Arizona — united in a coalition called “Republicans for Katie Hobbs” — against her. “The record shows that she’s not anyone who has ever supported antisemites,” Hernandez said of Hobbs, in a veiled dig at Lake. “That’s what’s important to me.”

Thomas J. Volgy, a professor of political science at the University of Arizona in Tucson, said Lake’s brand of reactionary right-wing populism “is now baked in across the landscape” in Arizona, where GOP candidates at the state and federal levels have embraced a range of extreme positions. 

In an effort to counter a rightward turn, the Jewish Democratic Council’s political arm is running ads in Arizona to “emphasize the danger of Republican extremism,” Halie Soifer, the JDCA chief executive, told JI. Last month, the JDCA endorsed Hobbs, “who has spoken out against the Arizona Republican Party’s antisemitism and extremist attacks on our democracy and community,” as Soifer put it. “We encourage all Jewish voters in Arizona to support Democrats up and down the ballot in order to defend our democracy, rights and safety.”

Arizona Secretary of State and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Katie Hobbs is interviewed outside the State Capitol on October 8, 2022, in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Not everyone, of course, will heed that call, even among the sizable minority of Jewish voters in Arizona who largely identify as Democratic, as they do across the country. 

David Wanetick, president of the Republican Jewish Coalition’s state chapter in Arizona, said Lake’s recent indiscretions had left him unfazed and in no way diminished his enthusiasm for her campaign. “I’m still very supportive of Kari Lake, and I think a large part of the Jewish community is,” he claimed, while insisting that there is a “double standard” applied to GOP candidates when accusations of antisemitism arise.

Speaking with JI on Monday, Wanetick, an original member of Lake’s Jewish coalition, dismissed her endorsement of Jarrin Jackson — the Oklahoma Republican with a history of bigoted comments against Jews and other minorities — as an “inadvertent mistake” because “there is no way you can vet someone’s past thoroughly in a short period of time.” When Lake was apprised of Jackson’s problematic background, “she renounced her support and moved on,” he recalled, “and that was it.”

It wasn’t exactly that simple, however. Initially, for instance, Lake had been noncommittal in rescinding her support for Jackson, who has claimed “the Jews” are evidence that “evil exists,” among other offensive statements. “If his reported comments are true, I obviously rescind my endorsement,” Lake said in August, drawing immediate blowback for her evasively worded statement, which had not acknowledged the veracity of Jackson’s past statements, even as she denounced “that kind of derogatory language.”

Through a spokesperson, Lake’s campaign later said, with no further clarification, that she had officially pulled the endorsement, though for some critics, the delayed response — and the lack of force with which it had been delivered — was unforgivable. The JCRC of Greater Phoenix, for its part, said Lake’s “tepid renunciation” was “wholly insufficient.”

That Lake would promote her newly launched Jewish coalition, just a couple of weeks later, was tantamount to “chutzpah,” the JCRC further alleged at the time. “We are still waiting for Kari Lake to denounce herself Jackson’s antisemitic words,” the nonprofit said. “She may not control what he does, but she can and should resolve any doubt as to where she stands on his hate-filled views.”

Ron Ober, a Jewish community leader and political consultant in Phoenix who has helped raise money for Hobbs’ campaign, agreed with that view. “Words matter,” he told JI recently. “It’s like saying there’s good people on both sides at Charlottesville. I mean, come on, give me a break.”

Lake’s campaign did not respond to an interview request from JI.

This past July, by contrast, Lake had been more direct in rejecting an endorsement from Andrew Torba, a self-identified Christian nationalist who runs Gab, a far-right social network where antisemites and other extremists are known to gather. “It goes without saying, the Kari Lake Campaign for Governor absolutely denounces bigotry in all its forms, especially antisemitism,” a spokesperson told the Arizona Mirror. “We have never sought this endorsement.”

But left unacknowledged at the time was that Lake continues to maintain a Gab account, even if she has not posted since Jan. 6, when she linked to a campaign website page outlining her border policy. Lake had drawn criticism when she first joined Gab at the beginning of 2021, inviting followers to “join” her on the site, which she praised as civil. “So much less vitriol than Twitter and easy to use,” she claimed. Lake also paid to verify her account, according to Phoenix New Times, an alternative weekly she previously derided — after facing media scrutiny for joining a separate far-right social network, Parler — as “a rag for selling marijuana ads” whose reporters are “20-year-old dopes.”

It is unclear if Lake was aware of Torba’s well-known reputation as an avowed antisemite when she first joined Gab, whose users have included the gunman who killed 11 people and wounded six at the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh. The Anti-Defamation League has described Gab as “rife with white supremacist” and “antisemitic bigotry.” Torba, for his part, has frequently expressed antisemitic views — recently arguing, for example, that Jews are not welcome in the conservative movement unless “they repent and accept Jesus Christ as their lord and savior.” 

Ross Trumble, a spokesperson for Lake’s campaign, said Lake was unfamiliar with such remarks upon joining Gab nearly two years ago. “Kari Lake was not aware of Torba’s comments when she signed up and, as noted, stopped using Gab when she learned of them,” he told JI, without specifying when Lake had in fact learned of Torba’s past statements.

Trumble did not respond to repeated requests for clarification on a range of questions, including why Lake’s Gab account — still verified with a blue checkmark — remains online. 

In July, Doug Mastriano, the Republican gubernatorial nominee in Pennsylvania who has faced charges of antisemitism, came under fire for his close connection to Torba and Gab, which he had paid $5,000 for campaign consulting services. Amid the resulting blowback, Mastriano appeared to delete his Gab account, where he had been an active user.

There is no evidence, meanwhile, to suggest that Lake shares a similar history with Torba, though she was clearly aware of his existence before he endorsed her campaign. Last year, she shared one of his Gab posts on her own page, promoting a series of failed Supreme Court cases challenging the presidential election results in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Georgia.

J. Edward Wright, director of the Arizona Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Arizona, said he could not safely intuit why Lake had opted to disavow Torba and, finally, Jackson in recent months. “Whether that decision was driven by real conviction or political expediency, only candidate Lake knows,” he told JI in a recent email exchange. “Her connection to bigots like Torba and Jackson shows, however, both her lack of effort to educate herself about these people before she supports them and her blindness to their deeply flawed character and disgusting bigotries.”

Perhaps more troublingly, “I personally think that a good number of the people who might consider voting for Lake will not be deterred by those affiliations,” Wright suggested. “Moreover, I think that many people will happily vote for her precisely because of her affiliations with such hate-mongering individuals and groups. That is a frightful statement about the state of our democracy and the lack of genuine civility that characterizes a significant portion of the Arizonan and American electorate.”

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