Katie Hobbs makes it official: No debate with Kari Lake in Arizona governor race

Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Katie Hobbs will not participate in a televised debate this year.
Stacey Barchenger
Arizona Republic

It's official: Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Katie Hobbs will not participate in a televised debate this year. 

The announcement, made Sunday by Hobbs' campaign manager Nicole DeMont, brings an end to weeks of drama about whether Hobbs would participate in the event co-organized by the Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Commission and Arizona PBS.

The decision, however, likely will not end Republican opponent Kari Lake's efforts to turn Hobbs' absence into a political sticking point. The two are squaring off in a competitive race to replace term-limited Republican Gov. Doug Ducey. 

"Unfortunately, debating a conspiracy theorist like Kari Lake – whose entire campaign platform is to cause enormous chaos and make Arizona the subject of national ridicule – would only lead to constant interruptions, pointless distractions, and childish name-calling," DeMont said in a statement. "Arizonans deserve so much better than Kari Lake, and that’s why we’re confident Katie Hobbs will be elected our next governor."

Last week, the commission urged staff to find a way for both candidates to agree to a head-to-head debate. 

Hobbs "respectfully" declined, DeMont's statement said.

The debate format had been used for two decades, but Hobbs' campaign asked to change it to a townhall style, with each candidate on stage separately fielding questions, couching it as a way to let voters hear about policy, not political attacks. Hobbs' campaign pointed to a debate in the GOP primary for governor, which was light on policy but high on election misinformation and viral moments that swept across the internet, garnering nearly 10 million views by Clean Elections' count.

Lake's campaign did not respond to a request for comment for this story, but she has called Hobbs a "coward" for not joining her onstage to discuss their visions for Arizona.

For subscribers:Hobbs, Lake talk taxes, pandemic policies and how they would govern Arizona

In each election year, Clean Elections and Arizona PBS host candidates in races from U.S. Senate to legislative districts to debate their policy priorities. Only publicly funded candidates are required by state law to participate in the debates, and neither Hobbs nor Lake have accepted that funding.

Hobbs, Arizona's secretary of state, is the highest-profile political hopeful to decline participation this year. She skipped a similar event with Democratic challenger Marco López in June before winning her party's nomination in August, although she participated in a debate while running for secretary of state in 2018.

Per Clean Election rules, Lake will get 30 minutes of questions and answers with moderator Ted Simons, host of Arizona Horizon on Arizona PBS, in lieu of facing Hobbs in a debate. The broadcast is scheduled Oct. 12.

Democratic candidate for governor Katie Hobbs speaks during a forum hosted by the Arizona Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday at Republic National Distributing Company in Phoenix, Ariz.

High-profile races across the country this year have been dogged by debate drama as candidates weigh the value of such events in an increasingly polarized political environment.

While traditionally seen as a key way candidates can speak directly to many voters while fielding tough questions from moderators and showing chops at handling criticism from their opponent, others have said their value is limited when attacks take precedence over policy.  

A handful of registered independents in Arizona, who as a voting bloc play a decisive role in elections in the swing state, shared mixed reactions to Hobbs’ reticence to debate.

The voters were contacted through Independent Voters for Arizona, a volunteer-driven group seeking to build a communication network among the state’s 1.4 million independents and voters unaffiliated with any party. 

Al Bell, an 88-year-old retired planner living in Peoria, said debates generally don’t allow candidates enough time to address serious and complex issues facing the state, such as affordable housing and immigration.  

“It’s not going to happen in a 2- or 3- minute soundbite," he said. “To think that is solid evidence of someone’s ability to lead, to me, is kidding ourselves. I’m no fan of those things in the first place. I would much rather have someone with a sound moderator, a knowledgeable moderator, explain themselves.” 

Bell, who previously voted as a Republican, is planning to vote for Hobbs, favoring among other qualifications her leadership experience – a dozen years total in the state Legislature and as secretary of state. He said Lake, who has not served in elected office, offered a “dominant” approach while he viewed Hobbs as putting public service first, making her more willing to listen to opposing viewpoints. 

Karilyn Van Oosten,  48, a higher education professional from Phoenix, is planning to vote for Hobbs and said Hobbs’ refusal to debate won’t change her vote. She said she was unsure if debates were useful tools for voters, or if they boiled down to “he who is loudest wins.” 

“You definitely want to see how they respond, and what the challenges are, and how they’re thinking about working through them,” she said. “That's the missed opportunity.” 

She said she felt Hobbs was at an unfair disadvantage going against Lake, who was trained to be on camera during her career in television news, most recently at Phoenix's Fox 10. 

Tucson retiree Jim Morrison, 86, said Hobbs’ unwillingness to debate was “one of the worst political decisions I’ve seen in a long time."

“She sought the nomination, and does she want to represent all the people of Arizona or not?” he asked. 

Morrison, who said he has voted for Republican and Democratic candidates, hasn’t yet decided who he will support to be Arizona’s next governor.

He’s considered leaving his ballot blank and not voting for either Hobbs or Lake because he has concerns about each candidate. He believes Hobbs’ skipping the debate could cost her votes. 

“That is not a smart move on Hobbs’ part, and I would hope she would reconsider,” he said. 

Reach reporter Stacey Barchenger at stacey.barchenger@arizonarepublic.com or 480-416-5669. Follow her on Twitter @sbarchenger.

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