Verdict weakens Hobbs – opens door for challengers?

Verdict weakens Hobbs – opens door for challengers?

Marco Lopez

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Marco Lopez is trying to seize an opportunity opened up by Katie Hobbs’ missteps in responding to a multimillion-dollar discrimination verdict.  

The November 10 verdict found that Talonya Adams, a Black Democratic Senate aide, suffered discrimination and then retaliation when she complained about unequal pay at the Senate, where Hobbs was then the Democratic leader. The case dragged out over years and now it’s raising fresh questions about the race for the Democratic nomination for governor. 

“It’s only taken (Katie Hobbs) six years, two jury verdicts and four weeks of chaos to get to a point where she makes a scripted video, so that’s not acceptable,” Lopez said December 9.  

Lopez is a former mayor of Nogales and was a policy adviser to then-Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano. 

Ian Danley, a Democratic consultant and the manager of David Garcia’s gubernatorial campaign in 2018, said the case has made the situation look more uncertain in the primary.  

“If you had asked me before all that, I thought she was going to probably skate to (the Democratic nomination). I think it’s a little more up in the air now.” 

Nine months ago, Lopez was the first candidate to jump into the Arizona governor’s race, making a splash with a slick YouTube video and interviews with local journalists. But despite being first to enter, Lopez quickly found himself at a disadvantage in the Democratic primary. As the spring and summer wore on, Hobbs’ star rose as she made appearances on national TV in her role as secretary of state, challenging various claims about Arizona’s 2020 election and the subsequent Senate audit of votes in Maricopa County. 

Her high profile as secretary of state, along with years in public office, made Hobbs the primary frontrunner. Lopez and fellow Democrat Aaron Lieberman, a former state repreentative, seemed destined to be distant runners-up: a poll conducted early last month by OH Predictive Insight placed both well behind Hobbs. 

But the jury verdict in Adams’ case, which found she was paid less than white male peers, became a flashpoint for the campaign. Hobbs, by her own admission, bungled the response and made matters worse. 

A group of influential Black leaders put out a letter urging people to withdraw support for the Hobbs campaign. On December 8, nearly a month after the verdict, she was still in damage control mode, “unequivocally” apologizing to Adams in a three-minute Twitter video. 

“There are moments… that change the trajectory of how people view you,” Lopez said. “This is one of those moments of how people are now starting to pay more attention, and that’s good, and I welcome that.” 

For Lopez, the question is whether voters second-guessing their support for Hobbs will turn to him, and whether there are enough of them. 

Paul Bentz, a pollster at the GOP firm Highground, cautioned that it’s no guarantee.  

“When something like this happens, you can certainly see a reduction in support for a given candidate, but you can’t assume that that support will go elsewhere.” 

The Lopez campaign sought to capitalize on the news after the verdict came out. “This raises serious questions that Secretary of State Hobbs must answer,” his campaign said in an emailed statement on November 11. “As governor, I will not tolerate this type or any kind of discriminatory behavior in my administration.”  

Then, last week, he released the first part of his platform: a document outlining his approach to diversity, equity and inclusion. 

Lopez, who’s the only Latino in the race said his message to Hobbs voters abandoning ship is he has “the proper leadership experience, the proper vision for how we’re going to grow Arizona in an inclusive way.” 

But if the Adams case was a turning point that will drive support to Lopez, it hasn’t all happened overnight. 

Bill Scheel, a Democratic consultant, said he thinks Hobbs is still operating with a sizable lead, both in terms of voter support and campaign cash. And, he said, “If Lieberman or Lopez is going to make a serious challenge at this point, they’ve got to start separating themselves and making it clear that they are the alternative to Hobbs. I don’t think either one of them has done that so far.” 

Adams herself called on Hobbs to drop out of the race in a news conference on December 9 and praised Lopez and Lieberman, but she also suggested that other candidates might join the race. She mentioned Kris Mayes, a Democrat who’s currently running for Attorney General. 

Danley, the Democratic consultant, said it’s not too late for a fourth candidate to get into the primary race. “I think that there’s definitely an opportunity for somebody to jump in and do very, very well,” he said.  

Rumors have swirled lately about Greg Stanton, a U.S. congressman and former mayor of Phoenix, or Tempe Mayor Corey Woods jumping into the race. 

An objective indication of support won’t come until next month, when candidates disclose fundraising numbers. Lopez said he’s confident the numbers that come out in January will look good – he said he expects to need $5 million for a primary election campaign and $20 million for the general.  

For Bentz, the Highground pollster, the fundraising haul will be an indicator of where things stand in terms of campaign viability and voter sentiment. “I certainly think they (the fundraising numbers) will be important to understand how much gas is in the tank – and fundraising is an indicator of support.”