Why MAGA worshiper Blake Masters has Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly on the run

PHOENIX — When Arizona Republicans nominated Blake Masters to run against Sen. Mark Kelly (D-AZ), there were signs it marked the beginning of the end of the GOP’s chances of unseating one of their most coveted Senate seats.

The 36-year-old protege of far-right tech billionaire Peter Thiel, Masters pulled off a contested primary with the backing of Donald Trump. He had run a campaign so sharp and stridently Trumpian that it borders on “dystopia,” in the words of Chuck Coughlin, a GOP pollster in Arizona.

For months, Masters had struggled to gain ground, and polls showed him losing to Kelly resoundingly, some by as much as 10 points. In September, the first GOP super PAC reduced its ad bookings in Arizona in an apparent Masters triage, and tipsters like the Cook Political Report moved the race into a less competitive category with states like Colorado.

As the election nears, however, it’s safe to say that Democrats’ hopes of a safe, sweat-free victory in Arizona have vanished like a mirage from the Sonoran Desert.

With less than two years to go from her narrow 2020 victory, Kelly is fighting for her political life — and the Democrats’ hopes of holding a majority in the Senate — yet again. Masters has closed the gap in the polls and Republicans are increasingly optimistic about the race.

Despite Masters’ drawbacks as a candidate — and Kelly’s advantages — most Arizona politicians still expected an incredibly close Senate race in a state that has become one of the toughest battlegrounds. disputed and most divided in the country. It also happens to be a state where, in recent elections, polls have not indicated the strength of Republican candidates.

“I think we were all caught up in Kelly’s story…fighter pilot, astronaut, Gabby [Giffords’] husband, personally attractive guy, and oh, yeah, he’s gonna win,” Coughlin told The Daily Beast. “But what he’s up against is the cycle.”

This “cycle” is one in which Democrats not only face the historic headwinds of being the ruling party, but must overcome President Joe Biden’s lackluster approval ratings and a difficult economic environment dominated by high inflation.

Kelly, of course, would be the last Democrat to expect an easy victory in Arizona. On Wednesday, the senator stopped at a South Phoenix campaign office to greet volunteers who were each making hundreds of calls to voters. “It’s the 1-3% that really makes an impact,” he told them.

When later asked why he thinks the race has gotten so close, Kelly told The Daily Beast he doesn’t spend a lot of time watching the polls.

“What I knew was it was going to be really competitive, so I built a campaign to win and get the message out,” he said. “I expected it to be a competitive election. And I expect us to succeed.

The Masters Campaign did not make their campaign calendar available or provide commentary for this article. But the Republican National Senate Committee — which has spent nearly $10 million on attacks on Kelly, more than any other Democrat it targets — thinks its efforts are having an impact.

“Blake is running a big race and Arizona voters are realizing more and more that Mark Kelly is not the moderate, independent voice for Arizona that he describes himself as,” the gatekeeper said. word of the NRSC, Chris Hartline.

As strategists from both parties increasingly see control of the chamber equally divided around three states — Pennsylvania, Nevada and Georgia — the outcome in Arizona will have significant implications.

Republicans don’t strictly need to beat Kelly to win a majority, but if they do, a GOP majority of 52 or more seats could not only thwart Biden’s agenda, but possibly stall it altogether. If elected, Masters is poised to inject a new style of right-wing politics into the Senate, replacing a compromise-oriented Democratic senator.

After winning a primary in which he repeatedly denied the 2020 election result and trashed GOP leaders like Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Masters moderated, but at times awkwardly. For example, after calling abortion a “religious sacrifice” in the primaries, he offered several shifting positions on the exceptions he would allow to a nationwide abortion ban.

Kelly, meanwhile, was a reliable vote for Democrats, but sought leadership on important local issues such as water management, infrastructure and manufacturing, and he tried to appeal to Republicans with a more moderate message.

Some observers think Kelly remains the slight favorite in the tightening race. Coughlin, the GOP pollster, said his instinct was that the senator would “hang on” and win over independent voters who tend to decide late in the campaign cycle.

“Looking at historical midterm election trends for the ruling party, it’s no surprise that Arizona is extremely close this fall,” said Ryan O’Donnell, director of election polling at Data For Progress. , which released a poll on Wednesday showing Kelly and Masters tied with 47% of the vote each.

“Ultimately, this race will come down to who voters think can best deal with high prices and inflation, which our polls show is the most important issue for Arizonans in November.” , O’Donnell said. “This race is currently within the margin of error, and Senator Kelly approaches this election with higher favor than his opponent.”

Indeed, in these hyper-polarized times, Kelly has an unusual advantage: even the people who eliminate him don’t seem to hate him. But the reasons they give for their decisions underscore the deeper issues that make his re-election more difficult.

At an early polling location in suburban Scottsdale – Brian, a middle-aged man who works in science sales and declined to give his last name – stopped by Tuesday afternoon to vote for Masters. He told The Daily Beast that he doesn’t hate Kelly. He even showed respect for the senator’s background as an astronaut.

But that resume has made Brian even more disappointed with Kelly’s two years in office so far, during which he has largely supported the agenda of President Biden and the Democratic Party.

“I’m a scientist,” he said. “Kelly being an astronaut and a scientist, I thought he would be more independent. I am really disappointed.”

Paul Erickson, a Scottsdale resident who works in industrial heating and cooling, had nothing negative to say about Kelly personally, and only mentioned to The Daily Beast that he had read some discouraging information about the Democrat’s stance on immigration.

But Erickson said his decision was rooted in concerns about the balance of power in Washington. “It’s very obvious that we need a major change,” he said.

The masters, on the other hand, inspire a mixture of fear, disdain and exasperation in those who do not support him. Several Democratic voters at the Scottsdale polling place winced at even the mere mention of Masters’ name.

“He’s absolutely crazy,” said Brian Curry, a Phoenix man who came to the polling place to give out cookies to election volunteers.

Coughlin, the GOP pollster, said there was an “antipathy toward Masters” that doesn’t exist with Kelly. But, he said, Kelly “carries Joe Biden’s desert backpack, and that’s where Republicans aren’t going to forgive him.”

For some Democrats who support Biden, it’s a baffling situation. When Kelly was speaking to volunteers in Phoenix on Wednesday, he answered a question from a woman who asked his opinion on what to say to voters when knocking on doors. Specifically, “how can we convey the message that President Biden is doing a fantastic job? »

With several reporters in the room, Kelly pulled off a quick pivot. “The president is not on the ballot,” he said. “I’m on the ballot…I would tell people about the work I’ve done in the US Senate, delivering for Arizonans.”

Kelly supporters, like Phoenix small-business owner Carly Rebuck, hope that particular message will resonate with voters in the face of Masters’ hardline calls to the right and questions about the senator’s independence.

Despite Arizona’s loudly partisan political climate, Rebuck said she believed there was a calmer majority of voters who would appreciate Kelly’s record and try to build bridges with Republicans.

“With Blake Masters, if people think, OK, who’s actually going to get things done, as opposed to the Marjorie Taylor Greenes of the world?” Rebuck said, as she took a break from making calls to Kelly’s campaign office on Wednesday.

“If anybody wants to vote for somebody who believes in Arizona, who has done a lot for Arizonans, and who can actually work with their party as well as other parties to get legislation and can actually do things for this country,” she said, “I think people will vote for Mark Kelly because of that.