PHOENIX – A year ago, Arizona’s Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs was all over cable news, building a national profile as a defender of democracy and raking in cash for her campaign for governor.
Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly, newly elected to finish the late John McCain’s last term and running for reelection, looked to be among the most vulnerable members of the Senate.
Fortunes appear to have flipped for the two Democrats as the midterm campaign enters the home stretch in a fast-growing, diverse state that is increasingly central to how the Democratic Party sees its future. Kelly maintains a position of strength in polling and fundraising while Hobbs is in a tighter spot.
The dynamics reflect how the campaigns have sometimes pursued different strategies and face different types of rivals. Kari Lake, Hobbs' opponent as the Republican nominee for governor, has gained a significant following as a savvy ally of former President Donald Trump. Blake Masters, Kelly's rival in the Senate race, has struggled to gain the same type of traction.
“People like shiny objects, and Kari Lake is that shiny object that’s putting herself out there,” said Bridget Bellavigna, a Democrat who was inspired by Trump’s election to get involved in local politics. She’s running for constable in the Phoenix suburbs.
A Fox News poll released Thursday found Kelly leading Republican Blake Masters 46% to 40%, while the race for governor was roughly tied. The survey of 1,008 Arizona voters was conducted Sept. 22-26. The margin of error was 3 percentage points.
Hobbs and Kelly are working largely independently of one another and have not campaigned together. Both portray their Republican opponents as extremists but otherwise are taking different approaches to their public persona.
Kelly, a former Navy pilot and astronaut, flies around the state in a rented four-seat plane, courting media attention along the way.
Hobbs, by contrast, had a sparse presence on the campaign trail through the Democratic primary in August and much of the period since. She's focused her attention on rural areas far from the voter-rich areas of Phoenix and Tucson, where Democrats have to drive up turnout if they're to be competitive here.
She’s been more visible over the past two weeks, though she prefers choreographed events in which she largely sticks to a script and limits her interactions with journalists.
In a brief interaction after an event last month, Hobbs said she’s not running from tough questions.
“I’m doing what my team is having me do,” she said. “I’m not looking to dodge anything.”
Hobbs is playing “prevent defense,” a cautious football strategy that concedes short gains to the opponent in an attempt to run out the clock, said Wes Gullett, a Republican consultant and former adviser to McCain.
Gullett attached his name to a public list of Republicans supporting Democrat Adrian Fontes for secretary of state, but he’s declined to do the same for Hobbs, though he says he’d prefer that she beats Lake.
“What I want to see from Katie Hobbs is a more aggressive candidate,” Gullett said. “Talking about the issues that she cares about, talking about what’s important.”
Late last month, Hobbs jumped on a chance to sharpen her message when a judge in Tucson ruled that prosecutors can enforce a near-total ban on abortion that was first enacted during the Civil War. She pledged to use the full power of the governor’s office to protect women’s rights, though she acknowledged there was little she could do without cooperation from the Legislature, which is likely to be controlled at least in part by Republicans who oppose abortion.
Hobbs announced over the weekend that she raised $1.2 million in the week following the abortion ruling, a major uptick in fundraising, though she hasn’t yet had to file campaign finance statements that would confirm the numbers.
Hobbs is a former social worker who worked with people experiencing homelessness and later was a lobbyist for a domestic violence shelter. She was elected to the Legislature in 2010, running on a slate with now-U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema to represent the same central Phoenix district, Hobbs in the House and Sinema in the Senate.
“At the end of the day, we’re confident that sanity will beat chaos and Sec. Hobbs will be elected in November,” Hobbs campaign manager Nicole DeMont said in a statement to The Associated Press.
The race for governor is closer than the race for Senate because Hobbs faces a tougher matchup, said Chad Campbell, a Democratic consultant and former Arizona legislator. Lake is a stronger candidate than Masters, he said.
“Kari Lake is a better version of Trump,” Campbell said. “She’s a more polished, better looking version of Donald Trump.”
It also helps Kelly that Senate races attract significantly more money than campaigns for governor, allowing Kelly and Democratic allies to relentlessly attack Masters, who is struggling to keep up financially. The Senate race also has a Libertarian candidate who could draw votes from right-leaning voters.
Independent voters make up a third of the electorate in Arizona and hold the keys to statewide victories. They often split their tickets, electing Sinema to the Senate and Republican Doug Ducey as governor in 2018. Two years later, they propelled Kelly to a 2.4 percentage point victory while Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden eked out a 0.3 point win, the closest margin of any state he won. Republicans ran the table on the rest of the ballot.
Hobbs became the undisputed Democratic frontrunner last year when she forcefully defended the 2020 election as Trump supporters oversaw a discredited recount of ballots in Maricopa County on behalf of state Senate Republicans.
But she's struggled to translate her defense of democracy into a firm position of strength. Her own missteps haven't helped.
Late last year, a jury for a second time sided with a Black former legislative aide, Talonya Adams, who said she was fired for discriminatory reasons in 2015, when Hobbs was the top Democrat in the Senate. Hobbs testified that she made a group decision with two others to fire Adams.
Hobbs at first defended the decision and deflected responsibility, blaming Republicans for underpaying Adams. After a firestorm from Democrats who felt she was dismissive of workplace discrimination against people of color, Hobbs apologized to Adams and said her initial response “fell short of taking real accountability.”
Two-thirds of the Hobbs campaign staff quit this summer, telling the Arizona Agenda newsletter that the atmosphere was emotionally abusive.
More recently, she's faced an onslaught of criticism, even from allies, and weeks of negative headlines for her decision not to debate Lake.
“It’s bad for her not to,” said Linda Martini, a Democratic volunteer from Phoenix who tried to share her opinion with Hobbs at a recent campaign event but was rebuffed by the candidate, who walked away. “Furthermore, she could destroy her opponents. There’s no doubt about it. And the people want to see her on TV.”