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Big spending might make race for Arizona governor a nail-biter

From the 2022 election coverage from the Arizona Daily Star series
  • Updated
Election 2022 Governor Arizona

Karrin Taylor Robson, left, and Kari Lake are Republican candidates for Arizona governor. The primary is Tuesday.

PHOENIX — The more than $18 million Karrin Taylor Robson has spent running for Arizona governor — including $15 million from her own pocket — may be the only thing that has made the Republican primary a competitive race.

“It’s remarkable that she has spent $15 million and she’s just drawn even with her,” political consultant Chuck Coughlin said about Robson making it a close race with Kari Lake, the former Phoenix television newscaster endorsed by Trump.

By virtue of her years on TV reading the news in Phoenix, Lake started with a built-in name ID. And Coughlin said that, everything else being equal, Lake might have walked away with the nomination.

“Without that money, this would not be a race,” he said of Robson who, depending on whose survey is to be believed, is within striking distance in the final days of the campaign leading to Tuesday’s primary election.

How much of a race there is depends on who you ask.

Robson says her own internal polls show a virtual tie.

But a new survey released Friday by OH Predictive Insights shows Lake with an 18-point lead, and just 12% undecided with the primary just days away and a 4.4% margin of error. And the survey conducted earlier this week found nearly half of those questioned already have voted.

It’s not just what Robson is spending in her own campaign.

There’s another more than $2.5 million spent on her behalf, largely by Americans for Prosperity, a business-oriented group founded by the Koch brothers.

By contrast, Lake had spent just $3.8 million as of July 16, the date of the most recent campaign finance reports. And independent expenditures on her behalf totaled less than $1.3 million.

There’s no question but that money matters in politics — and made a difference in the GOP race for Arizona governor, said Constantin Querard, a consultant.

“You have to water the lawn to get green grass,” he said.

But how much is too much in a state like Arizona with 4.3 million registered voters — and fewer than 1.5 million of them Republicans?

“At some point in time you do reach a saturation point where more water won’t make the grass greener,” Querard said. And he said he believes that Robson and her backers have reached that saturation point in terms of the message she is trying to get out.

Consider: Just this past week some Republicans got two pieces of mail the same day from the business-oriented Americans for Prosperity, with duplicate points about how Robson will fight inflation, how she is a “principled conservative” and how she will create a “safe and secure border.”

But does it make any difference?

Pollster Mike Noble who is the managing partner of OH Predictive Insights, agrees with Coughlin that Robson had no choice but to spend like crazy when she got in the race.

“We know Lake, being on TV for 20-plus years in Maricopa County, where six in 10 likely voters derive from, especially being on Fox, kind of started in a great position,” he said. By contrast, he said, Robson, a former member of the Board of Regents, the owner of a land-use firm and the wife of developer Ed Robson, started with very low numbers.

That’s putting it mildly.

In November 2021, she polled at just 1% among Republicans while Lake already was at 28%.

Noble said, however, there comes a point of “diminishing return,” especially in a primary — and especially a primary in an off-year election when there is no presidential race.

What that means, he said, is a relatively low turnout, and more importantly who is likely to cast a ballot, Nobel said.

“These are your more hard-core, high-propensity, much older folks,” he said. “And they’re usually pretty engaged as compared to the general electorate.”

That means they pretty much already have made up their minds from what they’ve already learned.

“I think everybody knows who Kari Lake is,” said Coughlin. “I mean, they’ve beaten the hell out of each other on the airwaves.”

What that may leave, he said, is some last-minute positive messages about who they are, versus slamming each other, basically making their closing arguments to get those who already support them to the polls. Anything else, said Coughlin, is not only wasted but ends up suppressing the overall vote.

“Who, at this juncture of the game is undecided?”

Querard said there’s only so much that money can do, especially the closer it gets to the election.

“If I’m not convinced of your position, then you repeating it 10 more times is not going to convince me,” he said.

Still, Querard said, there are some folks out there who, even just days before the primary election, have not made up their minds.

And that’s something he always finds surprising.

“It’s a week before the election and you don’t know if you’re going to vote for Trump or Hillary,” Querard said.

“Well, how is that possible?” he asked, given how much each spent, given each had total name ID. “And you can’t decide which vision of America you prefer, you can’t decide which candidate your like?”

Who is left in that group, he said, are those who are voting not by issues but instead by “instinct.”

“If you’re an abortion voter or a Second Amendment voter or a ‘build the wall’ voter, then you decided three months ago,” Quearard said. And what that leaves, he said, is voters asking themselves “who do my guts like?”

“And, from that standpoint, a lot of money doesn’t necessarily move those people,” he said. “It’s going to be the sense they’ve developed of who you are as a person.”

That, said Coughlin, is where there would be an opportunity for candidates to spend money on positive ads about themselves, without referring to their foes.

“But I haven’t seen that,” he said.

Noble has his own ideas on how candidates should spend the money in the last days of the campaign. He said they should be trying to get out the vote “and focusing on their supporters that they’ve identified that maybe have not voted yet.”

Querard said there’s another side to the money question that could influence voters — but not necessarily in the way the bigger spender wants.

“It may feed distrust in the mind of the voter that you’re trying to buy it,” he said.

“If you’re being outspent, you’re not the establishment candidate,” Querard said. And that, he said, makes that person the “underdog’” and, in the mind of voters, that “you’re more likely to be one of them.”

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