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'Baseless stories': Hobbs campaign tries to tamp down Democrats' concerns as debate fiasco cools off

Campaign manager's email to allies with 'suggested messaging' rips 'chattering class.' Fiasco ends with Hobbs interview, nothing for Lake, questions for AZPBS

PHOENIX — The curtains could be coming down on this past week's debate drama engulfing Arizona's race for governor.

The drama has ended not with a debate, but with:

  • Democratic candidate Katie Hobbs getting an interview this coming Tuesday that she wasn't supposed to get.
  • Republican candidate and former TV news anchor getting Kari Lake got nothing on TV after her ultimatum was ignored.
  • Arizona State University and its public TV station facing questions about their conduct as the official debate broadcaster.

Meantime, Hobbs' campaign is trying to tamp down concerns among Democrats in Arizona and nationally about how she's run the race. 

Polling averages indicate the election is a toss-up, as Arizona voters receive their early ballots in the mail this weekend.

The national focus on Hobbs' campaign against a Trump-endorsed election denier has produced recent media reports on supporters' concerns about Hobbs's refusal to debate Lake and the Democratic secretary of state's below-the-radar campaigning.

An Axios report Saturday quoted prominent Democrats raising the stakes for the Arizona governor's race.

Former Obama  campaign guru David Plouffe suggested Lake could be a "plausible presidential candidate."

'Push Back on Baseless Stories'

In an email obtained Friday by 12News, Hobbs campaign manager Nicole DeMont provides allies with "suggested messaging to help push back on these baseless stories that want to imply we're not doing everything possible to win this race."

Among the several messages DeMont provided:

"Katie Hobbs Is The Only Candidate Who Has Won Statewide, And She Has Never Lost A Race; Neither Kari Lake Nor Armchair Quarterbacks Dictate Our Campaign Strategy. The Hobbs campaign couldn't care less what the chattering class in New York and Washington DC thinks about their message and strategy. They don't know Arizona and they don't know how to run a campaign against someone as dangerous as Kari Lake.  

"Katie is one of just a handful of Democrats who has won statewide. In fact, she's never lost a race. People have underestimated her in every single campaign she's run, but she has never lost. Katie and Arizonans know how much is on the line and how dangerous Kari would be for our state. Katie Hobbs is going to win."

How debate fiasco unfolded

If you missed the debate fiasco as it unfolded this week, here's a recap:

There still won't be a debate, affirming the decision made six weeks ago by the longtime organizer of candidate debates, the Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Commission.

The commission rejected Hobbs' attempt to change the debate format into separate, 30-minute interviews with the candidates. The commission follows a process mandated by state law in reviewing candidate requests. 

Hobbs' failure to change the debate format meant that Lake would get a 30-minute interview, and Hobbs would get no TV time. 

Something similar happened during the Democratic primary when Hobbs refused to debate opponent Marco Lopez. Lopez got a 30-minute, one-on-one interview on Arizona PBS.

The three other Democrats on the statewide ticket - Sen. Mark Kelly, Adrian Fontes for secretary of state, and Kris Mayes, for attorney general - who face Trump-backed, election-denying candidates have all taken part in Clean Elections-sponsored debates against their opponent.

Unannounced PBS interview for Hobbs

Lake was scheduled to have her 30-minute interview on Arizona PBS this past Wednesday. 

But a few hours before the start time, media reports confirmed that Hobbs would get a 30-minute interview after all on Arizona PBS. 

The station never announced the interview. No one at PBS or Arizona State University told their debate partner, the Clean Elections Commission, about the offer to Hobbs, according to Clean Elections officials.

The dean of ASU's Cronkite School of Journalism, Battinto Batts Jr., released a statement on behalf of PBS after media reports on the Hobbs interview:

"It is our responsibility as a news agency to provide the public with access to the candidates who are running for office so they can learn more and make informed decisions." 

ASU President Michael Crow acknowledged he was informed about the interview decision.

But there has been no explanation of how or why ASU and PBS made the abrupt and unannounced decision to invite Hobbs.

"We'd hope for better communication from our partners," Gina Roberts, the commission staffer who works closely with PBS to prepare dozens of debates, told 12News.

While PBS and the Clean Elections Commission are debate partners, their agreement doesn't specifically preclude PBS from offering air time to candidates on its current events program, "Arizona Horizon." 

It's unclear whether PBS has ever gone around Clean Elections like this in the 20-year history of their partnership.

Lake interview 'suspended'

After learning of the Hobbs interview, the commission suspended the scheduled Lake interview:

"Given today's events, and the need to obtain additional information regarding the last-minute developments, the Commission will postpone tonight's Q & A on Arizona PBS and will identify a new venue, partner, and date when the interview will be broadcast."

'Picking a side in this race'

Lake went ballistic. 

She called a news conference Wednesday outside PBS' headquarters at the Cronkite School's downtown Phoenix campus. She later issued an ultimatum to ASU and PBS: Schedule a debate with Hobbs on Tuesday or she wouldn't appear again on PBS during this election cycle. 

Lake also made veiled threats to review state funding for PBS if she wins the governor's race. PBS is operated by the Cronkite School. 

Lake tweeted Friday that ASU never responded to her ultimatum, so she wouldn't appear in any future election-related broadcasts. 

"ASU, Mike Crow and PBS have made it clear they're picking a side in this race," Lake tweeted.

Arizona PBS said it had no comment.

Given her hostility toward Arizona news outlets, it appears unlikely that Lake will accept her 30-minute Clean Elections interview at another broadcast station.

Month's worth of material for Lake

Hobbs' rejection of a debate has provided a month's worth of fodder for Lake and her supporters.

In the Trump style, Lake has taunted Hobbs throughout the campaign and attempted to intimidate her at forums. 

She has relentlessly promoted the lie that Trump won the 2020 election, and blistered the media that she claims to have been a part of for refusing to report on the lie or fairly cover her campaign.

When asked at a news conference where she gets her news from, Lake didn't name a single Arizona source. 

But she did express her admiration for the coverage of a Phoenix free-lancer for the Gateway Pundit, a far-right online outlet that has repeatedly posted falsehoods about Arizona's elections.

Lake worked as a news anchor at the Fox station in Phoenix for more than 20 years, before she resigned in 2021.

Both Lake and Hobbs are scheduled for separate interviews Sunday morning on CNN's "State of the Union." 

Decision 2022

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