Arizona gubernatorial candidate Katie Hobbs (D) was a no-show at a town hall event hosted by Spanish-language media Wednesday, while her Republican opponent Kari Lake not only came to the event but was a hit with the crowd.
Lake spoke for more than an hour addressing questions on K-12 education, public safety, immigration. She received loud applause for her answers, all the while standing next to an empty podium that was reserved for Hobbs. One of the event organizers said that Hobbs, who currently serves as secretary of state for Arizona, declined an invitation to participate. Members of the audience booed upon learning that Hobbs would not appear alongside Lake.
The Democratic candidate has refused to participate in debates, calling her GOP opponent a 2020 election "conspiracy theorist." Hobbs campaign manager Nicole DeMont said in September any debate would give Lake the opportunity to "just create another spectacle" and that "you can't debate a conspiracy theorist." Those comments were made after the Hobbs campaign negotiated with the Citizens Clean Elections Commission to change a potential debate format into separate half-hour interviews with a moderator. The commission turned the campaign down, and since then there has been no agreement to have a debate.
Democratic strategists have begun to worry that Hobbs' refusal to debate and her comparative reluctance to do in-person campaign events will backfire with voters in what's considered a toss-up race. Whereas Lake organizes large rallies and speaks to reporters frequently, often to challenge their questions, Hobbs has run a quieter campaign with smaller gatherings and fewer press conferences.
"There's a lack of charisma," one anonymous Democratic strategist told ABC News on Wednesday. "And I think it's a challenge on their end because they're not confident when they go out, so their response to that is to try and do as little publicly as possible and try to sail to the finish line. And the ramifications of that are not everybody seeing you be visible."
The strategist, who requested anonymity to discuss the race frankly, said declining to debate Lake was a missed opportunity.
"Missing that was an error. I think a lot of the reasoning around that was 'oh, well, she's just gonna say crazy stuff anyway, let's not give her the platform,'" the strategist said. "But what happened with that was … voters missed out on seeing them next to each other, they missed out on seeing Hobbs be the adult in the room and Kari be bombastic."
Meanwhile, Lake has taken the opportunities Hobbs has given her to accuse her Democratic opponent of "hiding" from voters. After Wednesday's town hall, the Lake campaign shared a photo of Hobbs' empty podium with the caption, "They say a picture is worth a thousand words."
"She does not have the courage to be on this stage," Lake said of Hobbs during the event. "She says, 'I don't want to be there' and she says 'Kari's a conspiracy theorist.' Well, then, show up and call me out. I'm happy to have a dialogue."
"I'll be honest. I don't like the idea of being on the stage with a twice-convicted racist, but this job is so important that we need to stand up here and debate these issues and tell the good people of this state what we plan to do for our citizens," Lake said, referring to a controversy involving the firing of an African-American policy adviser by the Arizona state Senate in 2015. Hobbs was the Democratic minority leader in the Senate at the time.
Talonya Adams was fired by the state Senate after complaining that she was paid less than her white colleagues. She filed and won two civil lawsuits against the Senate alleging sex and racial discrimination. Hobbs was not named as a defendant, but she and her chief of staff were called to testify in the cases. Adams was paid $300,000 in damages on Sept. 21, 2022.
It was inaccurate for Lake to say Hobbs was "convicted" in those civil cases, but Hobbs was not present at the event to defend herself.
"I wish, by the way, that my opponent were here," Lake said. "The people here in the media, some are from national media, they never pin her down on where she stands."
"The media chases after me," Lake continued. "I always speak to the media, but she won't answer the questions. She won't answer the questions and she didn't have the courage to be here."
The Hobbs campaign insists that its strategy will prevail in November.
"Arizonans are rejecting Kari Lake's extreme and dangerous positions that are so far outside the mainstream," campaign manager Nicole Demont said in a statement to ABC News on Wednesday. "We're confident that sanity will beat chaos and Sec. Hobbs will be elected in November."