Katie Hobbs was sworn in as Arizona’s governor on Monday — against the early expectations of observers who tuned in to her race against a local-news anchor turned right-wing-fever-swamp star, Kari Lake. The night before the election, betting markets gave Hobbs, the Democrat, just a 20 percent chance of winning. Skepticism about her odds hinged on the fact that she had declined to debate Lake. It was interpreted as a decision motivated by fear: Hobbs, pundits suggested, was afraid to stand on the debate stage next to a former TV host who knew her angles and how to deliver a cutting one-liner.
In fact, Hobbs had spent the past two years becoming acquainted with the real-life consequences of the kind of baseless conspiracy theories Lake advanced through their race. A bespectacled former state senator who rose to become Arizona’s secretary of state, Hobbs’ office administered the 2020 election. When Donald Trump lost, she instantly became a target of vitriol and violent threats. Refusing to give Lake a platform was a principled decision — and a high-stakes gamble that could have blown up in her face. But it didn’t. Instead, Hobbs’ campaign may be considered by future operatives as a case study in how to run against a conspiracy-spewing fabulist.
A few days after her election was officially certified in December, Hobbs spoke with Rolling Stone about that pivotal decision, about the “Twitter Files” drama she was unwittingly drawn into, about another Arizonan in news of late — Sen. Kyrsten Sinema — and about what it is like at the red-hot center of a right-wing conspiracy theory.
You were accused of running too “subdued” a campaign, criticized for choosing not to debate your opponent, Kari Lake. Can you tell me about how you and your advisers decided to handle running against Lake?
We were privy to a lot of information that the general public and folks that were critical weren’t. We knew that Kari Lake was not running a solid, strategic campaign — that she ran a kind of campaign that worked for Trump. But she wasn’t making strategic decisions and spending money wisely. I don’t think a lot of people really understood that until a post-mortem analysis had been done. But we knew that. We knew that we needed to stay focused on the things that win races, win elections. With all the noise and criticism, it was hard. But we did it.
It sounds like you’re saying Kari Lake’s big mistake was that she didn’t run a traditional campaign with a good ground game, rather than saying that voters rejected the extremism she represented. Is that right?
I think voters rejected that extremism. But if you look at how close the margin was in our race — and other races here in Arizona — the quality of the campaign mattered. Had Kari Lake listened to people that were trying to advise her on running a smarter campaign, the outcome might have been different.
Did you ever second-guess the decision not to debate?
Never — publicly. Certainly we had a lot of heated conversations internally about it. At the end of the day, I trusted the people advising me and knew that it was the right call. And I just had to tough it out on the phone every day with donors who were critical of that decision. Everyone was worried about it. There was so much riding on this outcome, and so I absolutely understood people’s concerns.
Emails from the secretary of state’s office that called attention to tweets spreading misinformation about voting in Arizona were released as part of the “Twitter Files.” The revelation was treated as proof that Twitter was putting its thumb on the scale for you — even though the emails were sent before your campaign. But Marjorie Taylor Greene, Tucker Carlson, and Kelli Ward have all called for investigations. What is it like when conspiracies like that are spread by such prominent figures about you?
This whole thing is so ridiculous. Every single time a new conspiracy theory catches on, it’s just evidence of people grasping at straws. But I think the whole Twitter Files thing is a bunch of nothingness. They continue to talk about evidence of the fraud, and this is not evidence of any fraud. It’s evidence of calling people out for destructive actions. And, personally, I don’t think a lot about it, except for the fact that it’s caused people that I work with to face threats and harassment — myself included — but I have security. Other than that, it’s just ridiculous.
Do you think it was irresponsible, the way those emails were released?
I don’t know — I haven’t spent a lot of time dwelling on the whole Twitter Files situation. I think that the decision of Twitter to sort of take a side and this misinformation battle is disappointing. I guess people who have been promoting misinformation might say, “Well, they took a side when they ‘censored’ this speech.” But that’s not what was happening. We all know that you don’t have an unfettered right to free speech — you can’t yell “Fire” in a crowded theater.
This just happened, but it wasn’t the first time you’ve had a target on your back. In June, a Massachusetts man was charged in federal court and accused of threatening to bomb your office. Earlier this week, an Ohio man was in court for making threats. It’s part of a pattern of increasing threats against election workers around the country. I’m sure you’ve spent some time thinking about this. What needs to be done to better support officials in positions like yours?
I think it’s important to consider legislation — I know it’s being pushed for the federal level, and there are things we could do to augment that at the state level. But legislation alone isn’t going to change behavior. I think it’s important people are being held accountable for something that they might just think is inconsequential: sitting behind a keyboard and lobbing a threat. Maybe you don’t even ever intend to carry it out, but it’s so problematic. And I think elected leaders of every party need to speak out more against it. So many Republicans are hesitant to do so because of what would cost them politically, but they wouldn’t be silent if these threats were coming from the left, and they shouldn’t be silent when it’s coming from their side of the aisle. I just think that leadership is so lacking in all of this and [speaking out] alone can’t change behavior, but it’s like it’s being silently kindled.
What was your reaction to Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s announcement that she has left the Democratic Party to become an independent? Do you think she’s better able to advocate for the people of Arizona as an independent — she was able, for instance, to secure $4 billion in drought relief for Western states like Arizona after withholding her support for a recent bill — or does this change just mean she, as she is often accused, is only going to be better able to advocate for special interests?
Senator Sinema has done a tremendous job — the $4 billion for water infrastructure is a huge example of that. I don’t think her party is relevant to her ability to continue to do that work on behalf of Arizonans. I think it’s more about what her political survival will look like in the next election. And I really don’t think anyone who’s been watching her should be surprised by this change. I expect her to still continue to do what she’s been doing and getting the results for Arizonans that elected her to the Senate.