One longtime former co-worker in the television news business recalled that Kari Lake detested guns and practiced Buddhism. Another former local news anchor, Stephanie Angelo, who did not work with Ms. Lake but later became close friends with her, described Ms. Lake back then as “a free spirit” and “liberal to the core.”
“Her saying that abortion should be illegal — absolutely not,” Ms. Angelo said. “The Kari I knew would never have said that, and she wouldn’t have believed it either.”
But in her run for governor of Arizona, Ms. Lake — a former local Fox News anchor — has refashioned herself as a protégé of Donald Trump and a die-hard Christian conservative who wields her media expertise as a weapon and has turned her former industry into a foil. In her closing pitch to voters ahead of the election on Tuesday, Ms. Lake, 53, has been campaigning against the press as much as she has against Katie Hobbs, her Democratic rival, riling up audiences against reporters in attendance, whom she calls the “fake news,” and pledging to become the media’s “worst nightmare” if elected.
It’s a far cry from the person many journalists she worked with remember.
Seven of Ms. Lake’s former colleagues at the local Fox station in Phoenix, where she read the news for more than two decades, and two others who consider themselves her former friends said Ms. Lake had once expressed more liberal views on subjects including guns, drag queens and undocumented immigrants. They said she used to admire Barack and Michelle Obama, and pointed out that she had donated to Mr. Obama’s presidential campaign. Some requested anonymity because they did not have permission to speak to the press or feared retaliation from Ms. Lake or her supporters.
During a campaign stop with veterans in Scottsdale, Ariz., on Wednesday, she called reporters “monsters” and said, “Let’s defund the press.” In another rally on Thursday night in Phoenix, she lashed out at “the media” more times than she mentioned Ms. Hobbs.
The attacks on her former industry exploit trends that, in recent years, have shown stark declines in Americans’ trust in television and newspapers — and that, most recently, amid bitter partisan fights over local school boards and pandemic restrictions, have even captured increasing charges of bias against local news, long seen as one of the most trusted sources of information.
They are also part of an old playbook: Mr. Trump, a former reality television star, criticized networks over their ratings and media coverage he disliked throughout his time in the White House and his presidential campaigns. At his recent rallies, he still takes time to denounce news stories and the reporters in attendance. Republicans’ trust in traditional media continues to drop, with many preferring to rely on a thriving ecosystem of fringe right-wing outlets and partisan fare.
At Ms. Lake’s events, some of her loudest applause lines and showers of boos come when she mentions the news industry, even though many of the reporters at her events now increasingly include those from right-wing media who amplify her message. In Scottsdale, many people raised their hands when she asked how many of them consumed little to no “fake news media.” In Phoenix, people cheered and whistled when she expressed indifference toward negative coverage of her campaign. She asked them to look at the reporters set up on risers in the back. “How many of you really don’t care what the big news media says?” she said to applause.
Her supporters tend not to care or believe that she once leaned liberal. Those who watched her newscast often cannot cite specific stories she worked on, but they do recall her charisma and sharp presentation. They now appreciate her TV-polished and combative style.
That includes Jeanine Eyman and her daughter, Joanna, who were waiting in line outside a sports park in Mesa, Ariz., in October to watch Ms. Lake speak at a Trump rally. They said they admired that she was a news insider turned outsider. “To step down when you don’t agree with the politics going on, I think that made a huge statement for what she believes and the person that she is,” Jeanine Eyman said.
Reece Peck, a media scholar and the author of “Fox Populism: Branding Conservatism as Working Class,” placed Ms. Lake in an influential class of conservatives that includes former President Ronald Reagan: telegenic Republicans who had no political experience or public ideological core but quickly rose in politics because they came from the media world.
Ms. Lake was particularly effective as a candidate, he said, because she emerged from “square and trusty local news.” He added: “She was a student of mass tastes” and could now “speak to audiences on that mass register.”
Ms. Lake has declined to respond to multiple requests for interviews or to criticism from her former news colleagues.
Before Ms. Lake started her professional journalism career, she interned at the same radio station where Mr. Reagan once worked. She often cites this fact on the trail, along with her admiration for Mr. Reagan, a conservative hero who she said spurred her to register as a Republican as soon as she turned 18.
But she often says now that she left her job as a prominent television news anchor in Phoenix in early 2021, in the middle of the pandemic, when she came to believe the media was pushing a “biased” and “immoral” agenda by refusing to cover unproven Covid treatments and by repeating talking points from Dr. Anthony Fauci.
She started her campaign for governor with a debut ad that featured her smashing television sets playing newscasts with a sledgehammer. She has since called for the arrest of Mr. Fauci, publicized unproven Covid treatments and fueled Mr. Trump’s lies that the 2020 presidential election was “crooked.”
She has criticized drag queens and surgery for transgender people, and she echoes Mr. Trump’s rhetoric against immigrants, promising to finish his border wall and declare an “invasion” on the nation’s southwestern border. She has presented herself as a staunch opponent of abortion and “a lifetime member” of the National Rifle Association. And she has called reporters “the right hand of the Devil.”
It is a metamorphosis that has shocked former colleagues and others who knew her.
Richard Stevens, who performs as the popular drag queen Barbra Seville, said Ms. Lake used to invite him as a news contributor to comment on L.G.B.T.Q. issues. He recalled watching Ms. Lake argue in defense of undocumented immigrants on air. She often came to his drag shows, he said, and the two became close. He also performed as Ms. Seville at her house, including in front of her children, he said.
“Kari is not afraid of drag queens, Kari is not afraid of gay people,” Mr. Stevens said, calling Ms. Lake “an opportunist.” “I have had every reason to believe that she is as liberal as me.”
The contradictions have not stopped Ms. Lake’s momentum in what remains a neck-and-neck race. “People know her,” Ms. Angelo, the former local news anchor, said. “They are familiar with her face, with her voice, and they trust her even though her positions now are contrary to everything that she has stood for up until the last year.”
Brenda Roberts, 67, a retired legal secretary who was in the audience at the Phoenix rally, said she was initially skeptical of Ms. Lake but came around because the candidate seemed to believe in what she said. “She expresses what we’re all feeling — we’re really upset about the border,” Ms. Roberts said. “We’re upset about inflation. We’re really upset about the way that Biden has destroyed the economy.”
Part of Ms. Lake’s rise has had to do with how she has applied the Trump media playbook, sometimes with her own touches. Some of her campaign videos resemble movie trailers and are embellished with cinematic sound effects. Her husband, Jeff Halperin, an independent videographer, often films her events and interactions with the press. She has also been quick to call impromptu news conferences seemingly timed for the early-evening newscast.
Ms. Lake assembled one of those gaggles last month after a man was arrested in connection with a burglary at Ms. Hobbs’s campaign headquarters. Pointing to a large placard with a photo of someone in a chicken suit, Ms. Lake joked that a person had been caught rummaging through her campaign headquarters and that she had evidence to believe it was Ms. Hobbs herself — a jab at Ms. Hobbs, as well as reporters, whom she claimed were suggesting the Lake campaign bore responsibility for the Hobbs campaign burglary.
“You love to smear Republicans,” Ms. Lake told reporters.
In a statement responding to Ms. Lake’s news conference, Sarah Robinson, a spokeswoman for the Hobbs campaign, doubled down on Ms. Hobbs’s earlier remarks charging Ms. Lake with fanning “the flames of extremism and violence.” Ms. Lake released another video on Thursday again slamming Ms. Hobbs and reporters for the burglary coverage.
In the final stretch of the midterms, top Democrats, including Mr. Obama, have made stops in Phoenix urging people not to support Ms. Lake, as they have cast the election as a battle to preserve democracy. “If we hadn’t just elected someone whose main qualification was being on TV, you can see maybe giving it a shot,” Mr. Obama said to laugher from the audience.
At her event in Phoenix, Ms. Lake argued she was not in the race for the fortune or fame — “I’ve already had fame — it’s overrated” — but for Arizonans.
She lamented the loss of friends over her evolution and told supporters that she had not believed her former television news colleagues would unfairly attack her as they did Mr. Trump. “But I’ll tell you what: The patriotic America-loving friends I’ve gained will make up for any friend that I lost a million times over,” she said, as people broke into another round of cheers.
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