A sequel to last Thursday’s post about the Arizona gubernatorial race becoming one of the great GOP proxy wars of the Trump era. On one side, supporting populist Kari Lake: Trump, MAGA, and, uh, the Arizona Democratic Party. On the other side, supporting Karrin Taylor Robson: Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey and an array of establishment figures like Chris Christie and Newt Gingrich, with Mike Pence watching closely from the sidelines. Pence aides whispered to the media last week that an endorsement could be coming soon.

And how here it is. Trump vs. Pence in a battle for the soul of the yadda yadda yadda.

Pence will be in Arizona on Friday to campaign for Robson. Coincidentally, Trump will also be in Arizona on Friday to campaign Lake. Pence is deliberately — and shrewdly — counterprogramming his running mate, knowing that a news cycle that formerly would have been all about Trump’s support for Lake will now be about Trump versus Pence, giving Robson some free coverage as a subplot.

Have we had a “populist versus establishment” proxy war as pure as this one all year?

Only two come close, I think. One was the Brian Kemp vs. David Perdue death match in Georgia, with Trump backing Perdue and Pence, Ducey, and Christie backing Kemp. But that one wasn’t as pure as it might seem at first glance. For one thing, Kemp had a thumb on the scale in the form of incumbency; Republican voters who disliked his actions during the election but who support Kemp’s policies had good reason to lay their grievances aside. Perdue was also a highly imperfect populist champion, no more so in spirit than Brian Kemp himself was. His only claim to representing MAGA was Trump’s endorsement, and Trump only endorsed him because he needed a Georgia Republican with high name recognition who could plausibly win a primary against Kemp.

The other proxy war is Liz Cheney’s battle for reelection in Wyoming, as Cheney has the backing of many Bush-era Republican officials (and many Bush-era Democratic donors!) while Trump and MAGA stand united behind Harriet Hageman. But that’s also not a perfect “populist versus establishment” contest since Cheney is an extreme outlier even by establishment standards. Most mainstream GOP pols like Kemp refuse to criticize Trump to this day, let alone lead a committee aimed at investigating his actions on January 6. The Ducey/Christie/Pence crew that backed Kemp in Georgia and is now backing Robson in Arizona is steering clear of Cheney’s race in Wyoming. Inasmuch as being a good Republican anymore means, at a minimum, looking the other way at Trump’s sins, Cheney is no longer a Republican. She’s a conservative independent.

Lake versus Robson is a true “populist versus establishment” contest, by contrast. Lake isn’t just some milquetoast right-winger in the Perdue mold whom Trump plucked from obscurity to run for governor. She’s a hardcore “rigged election” crank. She walks the MAGA walk. And Robson isn’t an incumbent like Kemp or an avowed Trump enemy like Cheney. She’s a standard issue yet little-known Republican mainstreamer. That makes this a jump-ball primary, as a Twitter pal put it, with political risks for both sides. If Pence and Ducey can’t get Robson over the finish line despite all of Lake’s nuttiness, it’ll be proof of how far gone the GOP electorate is and how strong Trump’s endorsement remains even in a party that in some ways appears to be moving away from him. Kemp’s race was already in the bag by the time Pence showed up for him in Georgia, minimizing the risk to the former VP in spending political capital there. That’s not the case in Arizona’s election.

But there are risks for Trump too. He made excuses for Perdue’s defeat in Georgia by stressing in interviews how hard it is to defeat an incumbent governor, which is true enough. He won’t get to use that excuse if Robson wins, though. He’ll have to take his medicine and accept that major establishment figures like Pence and Ducey have more influence relative to his own than he’d like to think and/or that even a GOP base that’s been trending fringy like Arizona’s might not be as enthralled by him and MAGA as they used to be.

Last week a Robson advisor told NBC that they’d love to see DeSantis jump into the fray and endorse her, but I think Pence’s support makes that even less likely than it already was. The point of DeSantis’s 2024 campaign will be that he alone can unite Trumpers and Trump-skeptics on the right and march to victory. As such, the last thing he should want to do is pick a side between those two camps when he doesn’t have to, which means staying out of the Arizona race. And, especially, not aligning himself with a guy like Pence whom many MAGAs hate for refusing to block Biden’s victory on January 6.

I’ll leave you with 90 seconds from an interview Ducey did yesterday. Wisely, his main line of attack on Lake isn’t that she’s extreme — extremism is no vice in a GOP primary — but rather that she’s a phony, having allegedly mutated from an Obama voter known for being friends with drag queens into the Trumpy firebreather we know today today. It’s all an act, Ducey insists, calling her “Fake Lake.” That’s the sort of thing that could put some Trump voters off of her. Although if Trump is willing to vouch for her populist authenticity, who else would dare gainsay it?

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