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Arizona Senate debate gives Masters a chance to reset race

Arizona Republican Blake Masters speaks at a campaign party, Aug 2, 2022, in Chandler, Ariz.
Rick Scuteri
AP Photo
Arizona Republican Blake Masters speaks at a campaign party, Aug 2, 2022, in Chandler, Ariz.

Republican Blake Masters has a much-needed chance Thursday night to reset his Arizona Senate race against Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly in the campaign’s only televised debate.

Kelly is coming in from a position of strength, with a small lead in polling and a commanding advantage in fundraising that has allowed him and allied groups to bombard voters with ads portraying Masters as an extremist.

For Masters, the debate is a chance to counter that narrative and go on the offensive against Kelly, whose popularity with independents helped him win two years ago in a state long dominated by Republicans.

Masters, an ally and protégé of billionaire tech investor Peter Thiel, endeared himself to many GOP primary voters with his penchant for provocation and contrarian thinking. But since then, he has struggled to redefine his image for the more moderate swing voters he will need to win in November.

During the primary, Masters called for privatizing Social Security, took a hard-line stance against abortion and promoted a racist theory popular with white nationalists that Democrats are seeking to use immigration to replace white people in America. Donald Trump endorsed Masters two months before the primary, citing Masters’ strident support of the former president’s lies about a stolen 2020 election.

Masters later scrubbed some controversial positions from his website. He now says he wants to protect Social Security for older and middle-aged workers while creating a private investment option for younger workers. He also says federal law should ban abortion later in pregnancy and allow states to go further. He has not disavowed his comments on the 2020 election but now talks about ensuring the integrity of future elections.

The Arizona race is one of a handful of contests that Republicans targeted in their bid to take control of what is now a 50-50 Senate, though they have curtailed spending since Masters emerged from the bruising primary.

Thiel, who employed Masters for most of his adult life and bankrolled the candidate’s primary campaign, has not opened his wallet for the general election, though he has held fundraisers. A super political action committee controlled by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, r-Ky., has pared back its own spending commitments.

That has left Democrats an opening to define Masters on their terms.

Masters met Thiel when Masters took a class that the billionaire taught at Stanford University. They wrote a book together, Thiel hired him and Masters eventually rose to senior positions in Thiel’s foundation and his investment firm.

Kelly, a retired astronaut and Navy pilot, was elected in 2020 to finish the remainder of the late Sen. John McCain’s term and is now running for a full six-year term. Kelly has worked to build a reputation as a moderate willing to work with Republicans.

The debate comes less than a week before early and mail voting begins, the methods chosen by at least 80% of voters in recent elections.

Masters has tried to penetrate Kelly’s independent image, calling him a rubber stamp for President Joe Biden who has failed to secure the U.S.-Mexico border and allowed inflation to run rampant.

“Mark Kelly and Biden, they are one and the same,” Masters said at a rally Wednesday outside Phoenix. “They are joined at the hip because Mark Kelly supports Biden’s policies every single time when it counts.”

Before the debate, Kelly began airing a new ad in which he says he stands up to extremes in both parties.

“When Joe Biden gets it wrong, I call him out,” Kelly says in the ad.

Kelly’s campaign has largely focused on his support for abortion rights, protecting Social Security, lowering drug prices and ensuring a stable water supply in the midst of a drought, which has curtailed Arizona’s cut of Colorado River water.