5 takeaways from the Republican debate for Arizona governor

Ray Stern
Arizona Republic

The four Republicans running for Arizona governor offered voters their visions for the state's future and more than a few digs at their opponents in a PBS debate Wednesday.

Voters will choose among the four candidates — Kari Lake, Scott Neely, Karrin Taylor Robson and Paola Tulliani Zen — in the Aug. 2 primary election. Early voting begins July 6.

Between the bickering and interrupting, they laid out their ideas on water, education, election trustworthiness, abortion and other issues, seeking to portray themselves as ready to lead the state.

Those who already know something about Lake and Taylor Robson got a sense of the front-runners' leadership style and personality, while Neely and Zen had to make the most of what is likely the most exposure they'll get during the campaign.

More:GOP candidates for Arizona governor mostly take aim at one another in debate

Ultimately, the debate featured more style than substance, but wasn't completely devoid of substantive policy talk.

Here are five takeaways from Wednesday's Republican gubernatorial debate: 

1. Candidates came ready to fight

Observers will remember this debate as contentious, with candidates sniping at and talking over each other repeatedly throughout the 55-minute event.

Taylor Robson threw out the first insult in her opening statement, criticizing Lake's career as a TV anchor by telling viewers they don't want a "career talker with a teleprompter" as governor. Lake soon followed with her own offensive, calling a Taylor Robson a "coward" on COVID-19 policies.

(From left) Paola Tulliani Zen, Scott Neely and Karrin Taylor Robson pose for a group photo before a debate with Republican candidates ahead of the Aug. 2 primary election for the Arizona governor's office in Phoenix.

They kept up a steady stream of insults throughout the debate, accusing each other of lying about the other's record.

Neely and Zen focused their heat on the two front-runners; Neely threw in numerous barbs and kept talking over Lake and Taylor Robson, prompting rebukes from moderator Ted Simons.

All four candidates began talking at once as they argued whether the state's economy has come "roaring back," as Taylor Robson claimed. Simons whistled loudly to get their attention.

The veteran host of the "Arizona Horizon" current events show on PBS appeared exasperated at times but tried to keep order with a dash of joviality.

"No," he said during Zen's last words as candidates spoke over each other again, "you can't respond to a closing statement!"

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2. Frontrunners are actually similar

Lake and Taylor Robson, far ahead of the other two in polls, went after each other with what seemed like genuine dislike.

Yet in parsing their statements, their positions on many issues are quite similar. They both consider Arizona's southern border with Mexico a major problem, both are pro-business, both pro-life and both prepared to fight "critical race theory" in public schools. They even live near each other in the same Biltmore-area neighborhood.

Karrin Taylor Robson walks toward elevators as journalists ask her questions after a debate with Republican candidates ahead of the Aug. 2 primary election for the Arizona governor's office on Wednesday, June 29, 2022, in Phoenix.

Their opinions about the 2020 election and whether Biden won fairly show the widest difference. Lake, who's endorsed by Trump, made multiple false claims about massive election fraud in 2020, including the idea that the partisan audit ordered by the state Senate last year "proved" the election was rigged. The audit's final report made no such claim and actually confirmed Biden's win in Maricopa County.

Taylor Robson stuck to the same non-committal argument that she has during her campaign, claiming unfairness in the election without specifically stating that Biden isn't the legitimate president.

The leading candidates also showed a different side of themselves at the debate. Lake was more restrained than she is at rallies and other speaking engagements, saying that the governor needs to be a "grown up and somebody who calls names is not a grown-up," for instance. Off the debate stage, she habitually calls other Republicans she doesn't like "RINOs" (Republican in name only) or worse.

Taylor Robson, meanwhile, appeared far less scripted than the public may know her from TV ads. At least twice during the debate, she uttered, "Fake Lake," in an apparent attempt to rattle Lake.

Scott Neely (right) and Kari Lake (left) listen as Ted Simons, moderator and Arizona PBS host, explains the rules before a debate with Republican candidates ahead of the Aug. 2 primary election for the Arizona governor's office on Wednesday, June 29, 2022, in Phoenix.

3. About that current GOP governor ...

Taylor Robson praised Ducey's economic skill, and Lake offered a few kind words for the current governor. But if Ducey was watching, he likely felt run over a few times by the criticisms from Lake and Neely.

Lake, a strong critic of COVID-19 protocols, slammed Ducey for ordering the closure of businesses, schools and churches.

"You don't have to be a business CEO to understand you don't take someone's livelihood away," she said.

Lake, Neely and Zen took Ducey to task for not having the "backbone," as Zen put it, to keep Arizona fully open during the pandemic.

Neely, seeming to draw on a conspiracy theory, accused Ducey of helping "the oligarchs," growing businesses like Home Depot whose "stocks went through the roof" while his own business was forced to close.

4. Second-tier candidates get spotlight

Neely and Zen, both polling near the bottom of the race, enjoyed a significant platform to air their ideas and grievances before a statewide audience. Their comments made for some of the more entertaining moments of the night.

Zen mentioned her Italian roots several times and interjected a "Mama mia!" as she tried to finish talking over interruptions, and questioned whether state leaders were being honest about the state's water shortages.

She also showed a serious side, advocating for using public money to send children to private school, bolstering her point with her own family's experience. Her grandchildren are driven 20 miles currently to go to the school of their parents' choice, she said, and she related that her son did much better in his studies after transferring out of a public school.

Neely played up his "average guy" personality, knocking Taylor Robson for marrying a multimillionaire developer and saying she runs a small business. Taylor Robson actually does own a small business — she founded a land-use strategy firm after leaving DMB Associates, one of the most prominent developers in the Valley. Her family also is politically connected and successful in its own right.

He claimed Lake was "part of the corruption" because Republican Party of Arizona Chair Kelli Ward unfairly "endorsed" her. (Ward has promoted Lake but not formally endorsed her.)  When Lake snarkily responded that he's usually not invited to events because he's "polling at zero," Neely shot back enthusiastically, "1%!"

5. What the candidates didn't address

Amid the ruckus and rhetoric, the candidates never got around to several major issues that the next governor will face.

Candidates talked about being pro-Second Amendment, but didn't discuss Biden's gun-control plans and how Arizona might push back on them. They didn't discuss the state's affordable housing problems, immigration policy details or health care.

And they didn't talk about Matt Salmon. The former congressman dropped out of the race this week and endorsed Taylor Robson.

Reach the reporter at rstern@arizonarepublic.com or 480-276-3237. Follow him on Twitter @raystern.

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