PHOENIX — When Kari Lake speaks to the Republican Party faithful, she’s accustomed to cheers and adulation.
But as the Arizona Senate candidate addressed hundreds of the state GOP’s most loyal activists late last month, she was booed so loudly the sound carried through a cavernous megachurch’s auditorium into the lobby.
It was an unfamiliar greeting for Lake, an outspoken election denier and former local television anchor who just a year ago was welcomed rapturously by the same Donald Trump-supporting crowd.
Yet it was an indication of the mistrust that’s developed within the Arizona GOP after Lake and her allies appeared to have turned a favorite hardball tactic — taping conversations and then leaking them publicly — against one of the party’s own.
The booing followed by days the release of a secret recording made of her conversation last year with Jeff DeWit, then the state party chair. During their discussion, DeWit said that important people did not want Lake to run for Senate and wondered if she would think about instead going on a corporate payroll. Lake told him that she would not “be bought” and publicly cast the offer as evidence of bribery.
Lake has acknowledged that she made the recording. She has said she did not leak it but that “somebody who had access to it, who I know, did.”
In interviews, a dozen Arizona Republicans — including elected officials, candidates and party donors — said they had long assumed they were being recorded when they were around Lake or speaking to her by phone. One well-known Republican, who like others interviewed for this report spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive subject, said the release of the DeWit recording has “totally killed” any desire to talk or text with her.
Whether the controversy ultimately affects Lake’s prospects of becoming Arizona’s next U.S. senator remains to be seen. Lake is running for one of the nation’s most closely contested Senate races in what could be a three-way contest with the incumbent, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.). Lake, who narrowly lost the 2022 gubernatorial race, is viewed as the front-runner in the Aug. 6 GOP primary.
A campaign representative said that Lake is “unifying Republican voters” across the state for her Senate bid and that her standing improved after the DeWit recording was made public.
But interviews with Republican activists suggest the leaked tape has opened a new line of attack against her and has already diminished trust in her among some of her biggest supporters.
Lake’s backers previously celebrated her approach of taping her critics and releasing recordings, especially when it meant trying to embarrass reporters or Democrats.
This time, however, the target was a fellow Republican with deep ties to grass-roots conservatives. As Arizona state treasurer, DeWit was among the earliest statewide elected officials to endorse Trump’s 2016 bid for president and he went on to hold top positions in Trump’s previous campaigns. Last year, the former president and Lake helped install DeWit as head of the state GOP for the 2024 elections.
DeWit resigned after the recording became public, but it was Lake who felt much of the blowback.
“I don’t trust her — I am done,” said Barbara Wyllie, 81, a lifelong Republican who shifted her support after release of the recording to Lake’s GOP primary opponent, Mark Lamb, a county sheriff.
“When she did that to Jeff DeWit, it’s like, ‘Okay, she’s wired for everybody,” said Wyllie, who was in the audience when Lake took the stage and said she was surprised by the sustained booing that came from “all over the room.”
Lake seemed taken aback by the crowd’s response, attendees said.
“We don’t agree on everything,” she said to loud jeering, according to videos obtained by The Washington Post of the appearance, which was not open to the press. She pressed ahead, repeating a false claim: “But one thing we do agree on: The elections in Arizona are a corrupt mess.”
The line typically pleases Republican crowds all around this desert state, which Trump won in 2016 before narrowly losing it in 2020. It did not quell the crowd.
Following the 2020 election, Lake transformed nearly overnight from a local news anchor to a national conservative superstar by aggressively embracing Trump’s false claims that the election was stolen from him.
Republican leaders and political consultants in the state say they still view Lake, who is endorsed by Trump, as their eventual Senate nominee. But some are skeptical that she can retake the seat, especially if Sinema decides to run.
“To the extent that people in the party have character questions and authenticity questions about Kari Lake, this story plays into those questions,” said Kirk Adams, a political and business consultant, former Arizona House speaker, and onetime chief of staff to former governor Doug Ducey (R).
The incident has not appeared to damage her standing with the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
“The NRSC is not at all concerned about Kari Lake having trouble with the base,” said a person familiar with the group’s strategy. “She has some of the strongest base Teflon in the country.”
But other national groups are still in wait-and-see mode about Arizona, where Republicans have performed dismally in recent cycles and where Lake has been a particularly divisive figure. The Senate Leadership Fund PAC, aligned with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), has already reserved millions in advertising for the Senate race in Montana but has not invested in Arizona.
Jason Miller, a senior Trump adviser who also advises Lake’s campaign, said in a statement that Trump, Lake and the new Arizona GOP chair, Gina Swoboda, are unified in their approach to winning Arizona.
Democrats view Lake as a vulnerable candidate who is prone to controversy. They have largely avoided getting involved in the latest flare-up.
“It’s just a lot of drama and, you know, Arizona needs none of that,” the leading Democratic Senate candidate, Rep. Ruben Gallego, said during an appearance on a local TV show, “Politics Unplugged.”
In the spring, before Lake entered the Senate race, prominent national and local Republicans expressed skepticism that she could win. She had just lost the 2022 gubernatorial election by about 17,000 votes, delivering a crucial pickup to the Democrats. Lake’s GOP critics worried that her style of politics was too extreme for moderate Republicans and independent voters, whose support is key to winning a state that is no longer reliably red.
DeWit searched for other potential candidates, even drawing up a list that included some of the biggest names in Arizona sports, said a person familiar with the efforts who spoke on the condition of anonymity. In early March, he drove to Lake’s home for a private conversation to see if he could talk her out of running.
They sat across from each other in her living room as her small dog roamed, according to a person familiar with the encounter. Lake recorded the conversation, which is legal in Arizona, as a way to protect herself, a campaign representative said. In doing so, this person said, Lake “exposed an unethical individual attempting to bribe her out of politics. It didn’t work, she can’t be bought.”
Ten months later, ahead of a key state GOP gathering and Trump’s first scheduled return to Arizona in more than a year, the London-based Daily Mail published audio of the conversation. Without naming names, DeWit told Lake that “very powerful people” who were “back east” did not want her to run. He said that they were “willing to put their money where their mouth is in a big way.” At one point, he asked, “Is there a number at which —” before she interjected: “I can be bought?”
When the audio went public, Lake presented the interaction as proof of a political system rife with corruption. DeWit resigned, saying that Lake’s team had given him an ultimatum to leave his post or more audio would be released. Lake advisers have said that no such warning was issued.
DeWit said he was shocked to learn of the recording, calling it a “betrayal of trust.”
“The release of our conversation by Lake confirms a disturbing tendency to exploit private interactions for personal gain,” he said.
Lake’s campaign did not address the question when asked whether there were other recordings of her dealings with Republicans.
After the 2022 midterm election, as it became clear that she would lose her bid for governor, a social media account associated with Lake’s campaign posted a video from inside the GOP war room that captured a portion of a call between attorneys in the room and a Maricopa County lawyer.
Some Republicans said they assumed they were taped by Lake because, as one described it, “she always had something on the back of her arm,” which the person thought was part of an audio device.
One Arizona Republican who spoke to Lake on the phone last year before she entered the Senate race later learned that the conversation had been recorded, according to three people who were briefed about the contents of the call and the existence of a recording. Extensive portions of a conversation between Lake and 2022 Republican senatorial candidate Blake Masters, who considered running again for the Senate this year, were published in a Sept. 12 story by the Daily Beast. The story did not say that a recording had been made.
A passage in Lake’s memoir that recounted a meeting she had with Ducey after she won the 2022 GOP gubernatorial primary described the then-governor speaking few words. Ducey had been advised by aides before the meeting to presume that he was being recorded, said a person familiar with the discussion.
The controversy over the recordings has soured some GOP activists — but perhaps not enough to turn them against her candidacy.
Gary Morris, chair of the Gila County Republican Committee, said trust in Lake had diminished as a result of the incident.
“Anybody that’s worked with her, and into the future, are going to wonder, ‘Is she recording me?’” said Morris, who joined in on the booing of Lake as a way to register his misgivings. “Those who were booing felt betrayed — that outside of politics or inside of politics, you just do not audiotape somebody for personal benefit.”
Nevertheless, Morris said, he still supports her.
Marianne LeVine and Liz Goodwin contributed to this report.