In Arizona, Kari Lake doesn’t need an introduction. She spent two decades on local TV news. She hopped into politics in 2022, running in the most expensive gubernatorial election in Arizona history. She lost, but refused to concede, citing “election fraud.” And now, less than two years later, she’s giving it another go: she’s the Republican front-runner for U.S. Senate.

But at a recent campaign event in Lake Havasu, Arizona, Lake was slow to pitch the race as a contest between her and her opponent, Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego. Instead, she started by speaking about the ongoing battle for the identity of the Republican Party. “I loved Ronald Reagan,” Lake said, eliciting cheers. “He’s exactly what we needed at that time.”

Then she started talking about another figure: an “outsider,” a lucrative businessman, an “incredible family.” “For the first time, we said, ‘somebody in politics makes sense,’” she said. The crowd cheered. “I think you know who I’m talking about: Donald J. Trump.”

If the modern Republican Party can be divided by Reagan’s old disciples and Trump’s new ones, Lake sits squarely in the latter camp. Amid a massive national shift where Trump and his acolytes are transforming the party’s platform and infrastructure in their own image, Lake is one of the biggest cheerleaders, pushing to purge the party of “RINOs.” In Arizona, Lake is the latest figure to lead an overhaul of the state party as it continues its shift to the new right.

The Arizona GOP has devolved into internal disarray in recent years, as the old guard — traditional Republicans like the late Sen. John McCain — have lost ground to Lake and other MAGA-aligned candidates. But in one of the most critical swing-states in the country, that could be hurting the party’s chances with the general electorate, with losses for U.S. Senate, governor, and the presidency racking up. And this year, the path to the White House once again runs through Arizona.

All the while, Lake’s candidacy for U.S. Senate — barreling toward a likely election against Gallego — is one of the Cook Report’s four “toss-up” races, with the potential of deciding which party controls the Senate. She needs to convince Arizonans to trust her first.

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“Kari Lake is, as a political animal, closest to the chameleon,” said Kevin DeMenna, a longtime Arizona lobbyist and consultant. “That’s a challenge, because authenticity wins.”

The battle over the Arizona Republican Party has gone on for years, as vestiges of the Republican old guard fade. McCain was a vocal critic of Trump and opposed his 2016 election. Former Sen. Jeff Flake was, too. McCain passed in 2018; Flake resigned in 2019 and later accepted an ambassadorship to Turkey.

In the 2020 presidential election, Arizona was a critical battleground. Over 3 million votes were cast; Biden eventually won by some 10,000, a 0.3% margin. Arizona Rep. Andy Biggs, alongside Trump, pressured Arizona election officials to overturn the election in Trump’s favor; Rusty Bowers, then the Arizona House speaker, refused to do so. The decision infuriated the MAGA wing of the state party and led to Bowers’ electoral defeat in the following cycle.

Bowers’ defeat was aided by two of Arizona’s most influential conservative groups: the Center for Arizona Policy (CAP), and Turning Point USA (TPUSA). CAP has long influenced policy in the statehouse, and focuses on social conservative policy. TPUSA is a national organization, but it is headquartered in the Phoenix area and is influential across the state.

Bowers’ reelection effort was a microcosm of both groups’ power in Arizona. TPUSA’s leaders were incensed by Bowers’ refusal to swing the election for Trump, so they funneled support to his challenger. CAP leaders were upset by something else: Bowers called a hearing in the Arizona House about a prospective bill banning LGBTQ discrimination.

The groups are pushing the Arizona Republican Party to the right in tandem, as they have been doing for years. “CAP has been around for two decades,” said one Arizona GOP strategist who requested anonymity. “Kari Lake has only been around a few years.”

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But in Lake’s relatively brief time in the limelight, she’s managed to wreak havoc within the GOP — even among her fellow MAGA acolytes. Her refusal to concede the 2022 gubernatorial race, and a string of failed lawsuits that followed, irked even some Trump loyalists in Arizona. And in January, an audio recording was leaked of a private conversation between Lake and Arizona Republican Party Chair Jeff DeWit, who employed Lake at his private company at the time.

DeWit was heard informing Lake that some people were willing to pay to keep her from running for office again, and he asked her to name a monetary figure that would get her out of politics.

When the audio leaked, DeWit resigned from his position, claiming the recording was “a betrayal of trust” and that he was intending to “offer perspective, not coercion.” In a letter announcing his resignation, he said he intended to keep his job, until Lake’s team threatened to release a “new, more damaging” recording. “I have decided not to take the risk,” DeWit wrote.

DeWit was widely viewed as a fellow MAGA Republican and a Trump loyalist. He was one of the first statewide officeholders to endorse Trump in 2016 and was Trump’s former Arizona campaign manager.

The stunt damaged Lake’s reputation among some Arizona Republicans. When Lake took the stage at the Arizona GOP’s annual meeting in January, days after DeWit resigned, she was met by boos. “A lot of people were turned off by (her leaking the audio),” said Tyler Montague, a Phoenix-area Republican strategist. “They either view her as someone that can’t win because she lost last time … or they view her as untrustworthy.”

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DeWit’s successor, Gina Swoboda, was endorsed by Trump. She runs the political nonprofit group Voter Reference Foundation.

Polls show Trump with a 5 percentage-point lead in Arizona, bolstered by Arizonans’ concerns over Biden’s record on immigration and the economy. But should Lake win the Republican primary (as she is expected to do), she is playing catch-up against Gallego, a sitting Democratic member of the U.S. House. They face off for a seat vacated by independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, who is not running for reelection.

Lake currently trails in polls by 4 percentage points. She is already running ads in the state, hitting Gallego on crime and immigration, while challenging him to debate.

“The thing that gives her a chance is that Gallego is perceived to be quite far-left, and Arizona is not a far-left state,” said Montague.

But whether the Arizona GOP can pull it together enough to provide the statewide support both Lake and Trump will need to win remains to be seen.