Democrat Hobbs leads Republican Lake for Arizona governor

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Katie Hobbs speaks on the set of "Arizona Horizon" prior to a televised interview with host Ted Simons in Phoenix, Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2022. Hobbs will face Republican Kari Lake for Arizona governor in the November general elections. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

PHOENIX (AP) — Democrat Katie Hobbs led Republican Kari Lake in the race for Arizona governor, but the battle for control of the crucial battleground state was too early to call.

Lake, a former television news anchor, says she would not have certified the state's 2020 election results. Her television-ready demeanor, confrontations with journalists and combative message for Democrats made the first-time candidate a rising star on the right whose future in national politics is already being debated.

Hobbs, Arizona's secretary of state, rose to prominence defending the integrity of President Joe Biden's victory in Arizona, where he eked out the smallest margin of any state he won two years ago.

The results will be a window into the pulse of the electorate in Arizona, a longtime Republican stronghold that turned toward Democrats during the Trump era. They'll provide insight into whether Biden's success here in 2020 was a onetime event or the onset of a long-term shift away from the GOP.

Republicans nominated for statewide offices a slate of Trump-endorsed candidates who have promoted falsehoods about the 2020 election as a centerpiece of their campaigns. All trailed their Democratic rivals in initial election returns, which reflected mail ballots received ahead of the election. Those margins were expected to diminish as more ballots were counted.

Hobbs and other Democrats told supporters they were encouraged by the early returns but warned a long slog of counting was ahead.

"I have every confidence that the counties administering this election conducted a free and fair election, and their results will be accurate," Hobbs told supporters gathered in Phoenix. "But they will take time, so prepare for a long evening and a few more days of counting."

Mail ballots returned Tuesday or shortly before were not yet reported and will be counted in the coming days.

With razor-thin margins between the parties, it often takes days to know the results of key races in Arizona, and it's not uncommon for the candidate leading on election night to end up losing when all votes are counted.

Trouble with vote-tabulation machines at about 25% of polling places in Maricopa County, Arizona's most populous, generated criticism on social media, but officials said every vote would be counted.

The election comes as Biden struggles from lagging approval and Trump strongly hints that he will run again in 2024.

With such high stakes, Arizona has been central to efforts by Trump and his allies to cast doubt on Biden's victory with false claims of fraud. Trump-endorsed candidates who deny the legitimacy of Biden's victory won GOP primaries up and down the ballot and could take control of offices with a central role in elections.

Nine in 10 voters say the future of democracy in the U.S. is a factor in their voting decisions, according to AP VoteCast, an expansive survey of more than 3,200 voters in Arizona. They were evenly split between the two candidates for governor. Roughly 4 in 10 say it is the single most important factor.

A majority — roughly 7 in 10 voters — say they are confident that votes will be counted accurately in this year's election. Among these voters, about 6 in 10 backed Hobbs. Among the roughly one-quarter who said they were not confident that votes would be counted accurately, about 8 in 10 backed Lake.

Lake predicted she will make up the gap and overtake Hobbs, reminding her supporters that she was down in early returns from the GOP primary before overtaking her establishment-backed rival as more ballots were counted.

"God did not put us in this fight because it was going to be easy," Lake told supporters at a GOP celebration in Scottsdale. "Not one thing that we've had to go through has been easy."

She condemned the printer mishap in Maricopa County, calling it "another stark reminder that we have incompetent people running the show in Arizona" and pledging that her "first line of action is to restore honesty to Arizona elections."

Hobbs has cast the race for governor as a contest between sanity and chaos, branding Lake as "seriously dangerous" and drawing attention to the Republican's opposition to abortion rights.

Hobbs, a social worker before turning to politics, was weighed down by her decision not to debate Lake. She ran a cautious campaign, sticking largely to scripted and choreographed public appearances.

Lake brought people dressed as chickens — and sometimes live hens — to campaign events to make the case that Hobbs was scared to confront her. She also highlighted a successful discrimination lawsuit brought by a Black woman who was fired as a policy adviser to state Senate Democrats while Hobbs was the top Senate Democrat.

Lake is well known in much of the state after anchoring the evening news in Phoenix for more than two decades. She ran as a fierce critic of the mainstream media, which she said is unfair to Republicans.

Polished in front of the camera and comfortable in front of a crowd, Lake built an enthusiastic following and drew international media attention.

She was endorsed by Trump, who admired her ability — only slightly exaggerated — to respond to any question with a message about fixing elections. Lake has repeatedly refused to say that she would accept the results of the election if she loses.

Nearly half of Arizona voters say the economy is the most important issue facing the country, according to AP VoteCast. And nearly all voters said inflation was a factor in their votes, with about half saying it was the single most important factor.

For about two-thirds of Arizona voters, the U.S. Supreme Court's overturning of Roe v. Wade, the ruling that recognized a constitutional right to abortion, was an important factor. Those voters overwhelmingly favored Hobbs over Lake.

Federal and state election officials and Trump's own attorney general have said there is no credible evidence the election was tainted. The former president's allegations of fraud were also roundly rejected by courts.

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Associated Press writer Terry Tang contributed to this report.

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