PHOENIX — To the public, Kari Lake appeared to change almost overnight from a popular local news anchor to an unapologetic, election-denying candidate for Arizona governor and an acolyte of Donald Trump.
As Lake heads into an Aug. 2 primary, her main Republican opponent is trying to make the race about authenticity, questioning whether Lake, who once donated to former President Barack Obama’s campaign, could have genuinely shifted so far on the political spectrum toward Trump and the far right.
Many of those who were closest to Lake before she went MAGA tell NBC News that her evolution was gradual. They contend that, for the most part, Lake is a true believer, fueled by the allure of a growing social media following, a kinship with Trump’s brashness and her frustration with the “political correctness” she had to abide by for years as a local news anchor.
For more on this story, watch MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” Thursday at 6:00 a.m. ET
NBC News spoke to 11 former colleagues and close friends of Lake who requested anonymity to speak openly about their now nonexistent relationships with her, citing their continued work in the news industry or reluctance because of the potential of being targeted by Lake or her supporters, including more than 300,000 Twitter followers. Another three associates who knew her over the last two decades spoke on the record for this article.
Several of her former colleagues at KSAZ, the Phoenix Fox affiliate where Lake worked as an anchor for more than 20 years, pointed to her growing social media presence over the last decade as an early indicator of her changing political posture. Her station’s social media team would create daily updates on which reporters in Phoenix were attracting the most online engagement and post them in the office. Colleagues dubbed the ensuing competition the “Hunger Games.”
“Kari became obsessed with ‘Hunger Games.’ Every day, Kari would walk up to the ‘Hunger Games’ to see how she was doing,” one of her former colleagues said. “The more controversy stirred up, the more engagement.”
The colleague noted: “She was No. 1 a majority of the time. She was actively competing with others.”
When Donald Trump emerged as a candidate in 2015, Lake began privately sharing sympathies for his candidacy and his rejection of “political correctness,” according to several friends. She posted that December after Trump’s Muslim ban proposal: “All those railing against Trump are calling him a ‘bigot,’ ‘racists,’ ‘dillusional,’ ‘a nazi,’ etc., but none are making suggestions on how to stop the very real threat of further attacks on American soil, that are likely in the works right now.”
Lake is described by her one-time friends as having always been stubborn and eager to debate even inconsequential subjects. “No one wanted to go up against her because she could never admit she was wrong,” one former colleague said. “It was when her Twitter following exploded — when she started getting fed, when she started getting love. She wielded power with those followers.”
Another source formerly close to Lake isn’t surprised to see her where she is now. “[Lake] had the personality that was kind of prime for this. We just hadn’t had Trump before.”
Those close to Lake say that there were several key events that laid the groundwork for her drastic shift. As she sought to win the “Hunger Games” and amass a bigger following, her social media became more provocative.
In early 2016, she defended high school students who spelled out the N-word with T-shirts intended for a senior class photo, calling the students’ decision a “mistake” that didn’t warrant public outcry.
Then in 2018, Lake falsely asserted that a grassroots movement calling on the state government to invest more in public education was actually a front to legalize marijuana. That time, she faced public backlash, deleted her post and apologized for making “an incorrect conclusion.” But several close friends recall that she was privately defensive about promoting the unfounded claim.
One year later, she came under scrutiny for joining Parler, a social media app favored by the pro-Trump right, and she faced internal pressure to remove her account.
When a co-anchor explained to Lake that management wanted her off Parler, in a video that livestreamed on the station’s website unbeknownst to them at the time, a clearly displeased Lake responded, “I’m reaching people.”
Rod Haberer, a former executive producer for the station who first started working with Lake in 1999, said that he noticed her starting to change in 2017, inspired by social media and propelled further after a reporting trip to the Trump White House that year.
“It wasn’t anything overtly that she said on the air. It was newsroom conversations,” he said. “I’d hear her say, ‘Why are we not covering this or that?’ and, most of the time, it was gossip — stuff that she’d pick up on the internet.”
Diana Pike worked as KSAZ’s human resources director for more than two decades and said that Lake increasingly pushed back against management over the years.
“She couldn’t have a one-on-one where she didn’t eventually get irritated that you didn’t support or you didn’t see her side of it,” Pike said, adding: “If she’s not going to get it, she’s going to stomp her feet and pout.”
Former Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, once a national conservative star in her own right, endorsed Lake’s primary opponent, Karrin Taylor Robson. Brewer watched closely as Lake’s notoriety in the Arizona press corps rose alongside her own political career and said she’s been surprised by how Lake has changed.
“It’s kind of difficult to understand that it’s her — the same person that was the person that I knew,” Brewer said. “[Lake] never seemed extremist like what we’re seeing now as she’s running for office of the governor. She has kind of mystified a lot of people — the change that she has gone through.”
Lake denied interview requests for this article, only telling NBC News, “I worked in the media for 30 years, and I’m sorry if they can’t handle somebody being a conservative.”
Lisa Dale, a paid campaign adviser, declined to speak about her longtime friend’s political evolution.
The changes Lake’s former friends and colleagues point to are stark. Most of her friends who spoke independently recalled that she often noted prior to 2015 that she was a Buddhist. None recalled her mentioning the Christian faith that she ascribes to now. While she donated to Obama’s campaign in 2008, by 2017, her colleagues say she was watching national Fox News daily from her newsroom cubicle and defending then-President Trump.
During the first months of the pandemic, Lake began linking online to videos and stories plugging supposed treatments for Covid that were not approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
In November, when Fox News called Arizona’s results in favor of Joe Biden, Lake pushed back on air. She refused over the following weeks to refer to Biden as the president-elect while also promoting the conspiracy theories of Sidney Powell, who was working as a lawyer for Trump at the time.
Around Christmas 2020, Lake said she was taking medical leave and disappeared from the airwaves, posting online that she had “not been fired, demoted, reprimanded.” But during this period, she joined Gab, another social media platform popular among the far right, and showed up in Florida at the Conservative Political Action Conference, using her KSAZ credentials despite being on leave.
Days later, in March 2021, she formally separated from KSAZ and stopped reaching out to former colleagues who were once closest to her. On June 1, 2021, she announced her candidacy for governor.
Now, on the campaign trail, Lake calls the media she once worked for the “right hand of the devil.”
One friend noted: “I’d like to think the person I knew was the real person and the person now is not the same person. I’d like to remember the old one.”