Sparks fly as Republican candidates for Arizona governor take part in debate

On June 29, four Arizona Republicans seeking the party’s nomination for governor met for their first and only televised debate.

The debate, which airs on KAET-TV (PBS), came just a week before early ballots are mailed out, and a day after former Congressman Matt Salmon announced his decision to drop out of the race

Earlier in the day, Salmon announced his endorsement of Karrin Taylor Robson, one of the four major candidates running in the primary.

Besides Taylor Robson, the other three candidates featured on the debate are former news anchor Kari Lake, who has the backing of former President Donald Trump and is ahead in the polls, Paola Tulliani-Zen, and Scott Neely.

The race is taking clearer shape with one week to go before early voting begins. Polling has shown Lake leading for the entirety of the campaign, but former U.S. Rep. Matt Salmon’s decision Tuesday to drop out could shake things up and give Robson a boost in a one-on-one race against Lake. 

Debate was heated at times

The candidates battled it out during the debate, as moderator Ted Simons guided them through a variety of topics, including border security, education, election integrity, the recent state budget, and the latest abortion decision, in which all said they are pro-life.

Much of the hour-long debate came down to Lake and Taylor Robson, both of whom hurled insults, with Robson calling Lake "Fake Lake," and Lake focusing on Robson's voting record.

"We do need someone who’s a grownup, and someone who calls names is not a grownup," Lake said later.

Development attorney Karrin Taylor Robson called for leaving behind the 2020 election and focusing on the future while former news anchor Kari Lake doubled down on the lie that former President Donald Trump lost because of fraud as the Republican candidates for governor squared off in a raucous debate Wednesday.

Some of what the candidates said

On education funding

"We just put a lot of money into education with this last budget. I think it’s a good thing that we are putting money into our education," said Lake.

"When I’m governor, we will have an education system designed for the kids, and we will pay our good teachers like we want to keep them," said Robson.

On election integrity

Robson gave a nod to the widespread belief among Republican primary voters that something was amiss in 2020 and refused to say whether she would have certified the results, but she stopped short of saying the election was fraudulent. She said Democrats are focused on the future, and Republicans should be too.

"I believe the elections weren’t fair," Robson said. She accused "liberal judges" of changing the rules late in the cycle and the media and big tech of suppressing conservative voices.

"But I am focused on 2022 because the left is 10 steps ahead of us," she said. "I will do everything I can to ensure Arizona is in Republican hands for the 2024 election when we can take back the White House."

Lake, who was endorsed by Trump and has focused much of her campaign on the lie that the 2020 election was marred by fraud, said she would not have certified what she called a "corrupt election."

President Joe Biden "lost the election and he shouldn’t be in the White House," Lake said.

Lesser-known candidates Scott Neely and Paola Tulliani Zen agreed with Lake that the election was "corrupt."

"If they agree that we had a corrupt, stolen election, raise your hand," said Lake. All candidates attending, except Robson, raised their hands afterwards.

"I'm not gonna play your stunt," Robson said shortly thereafter.

Later on, Robson was pressed on the issue by Simons.

"I am not going to be in the cul-de-sac that the left wants us to be," Robson replied. "They want us to be in the 2020 battle."

"Do Republican voters want to go over 2020 again?" Simons asked Neely.

""I think most people want to move forward," Neely replied.

On water conservation

"We need federal cooperation. We don’t want this to get into crisis mode," said Lake.

"We can pipe the water in from Mexico. There’s no problem with that. We can desalinate it here in Arizona, creating Arizona jobs, not Mexico jobs," said Neely.

"Money for desalination. I don’t know enough about it. What is the cost to the end user for desalination? How much water can we produce? Where is it coming from?" said Tulliani-Zen.

Related Story: What you should know about desalination, proposed by Gov. Doug Ducey as a solution to Arizona's water crisis

On Gov. Doug Ducey

Under repeated questioning from debate moderator Ted Simon of Arizona PBS, Robson agreed that she does not represent a radical change from outgoing Republican Gov. Doug Ducey. She said Arizona has posted a strong recovery from the economic downturn brought on by the pandemic and spoke supportively of his COVID-19 policies.

"In hindsight, when you see that he angered as many people on the left as the right, he probably got it about right," Robson said.

Lake, by contrast, said Ducey kept businesses closed for far too long and should not have allowed local governments to require masks.

"Eventually we realized that this is destroying our economy, hurting people and we didn’t need to have those masks," Lake said.

Democratic gubernatorial debate next

On June 30, a debate will take place between the Democratic Party candidates.

The 2022 Primary Election is set to take place on August 2, according to the Secretary of State's website. The general election is on Nov. 8. Term limits bar current Republican Gov. Doug Ducey from running again in 2022.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.